Addressing Vision, Challenges, Pace of Change in Academe

As a college president who started the same month Teresa Sullivan began her work at the University of Virginia, news last week that the UVA board of visitors had dismissed her was more than mere surprise. It was a reminder, if I needed one, that the pressures we feel at Alma College are present at every level of academe.

According to its chair, the board felt "strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership." That, presumably, is why they unanimously voted to hire one of the nation's most prominent academic officers in Dr. Sullivan, former provost at the University of Michigan. Twenty-four months later, the board wants "a much faster pace of change."

The board gave hints that the university's performance in online education and the need to articulate a vision have been inadequate.

When the university board is pushing for a move into the University of Phoenix's market, can anyone be surprised that the UVA has challenges in developing a vision?

Such are the challenges for all of us in academe today. At Alma College, the pressures are many as well and considerably more existential in nature than for the elite institutions across the land. Our traditional market in Michigan is in decline, and so we must succeed in our long-held aim to bring students from beyond the state in significant numbers. We are a bargain compared to most select liberal arts colleges, but many students still struggle to pay our tuition, even when deeply discounted. We, as other colleges nationwide, have yet to fully engage new technologies in ways that will deepen learning (our primary aim) and ease costs (our hope).

But we have a board that understands the pace of change in academe. While calling for the next years to bring bold and substantive change to Alma, our board also understands that in academe, meaningful change takes place through dialogue with multiple constituencies. They understand as well that dialogue takes more time than it might in business settings precisely because of our mission to prepare students for rich lives beyond the world of work. Because we ask our students to think about questions of deeper meaning, of calling, even, these conversations take time.

We also acknowledge a core value of providing students a transformative education that integrates their experiences in and out of classroom -- something that is not possible through an online model. Providing opportunities for study abroad, internships tied to career aspirations, volunteer work with organizations that address community needs, and working side-by-side with faculty in their research labs -- these experiences are the hallmark of an Alma education and enable students to discover the connection of their deepest passions and the needs of the world.

Thus our board has approved a strategic plan that will have the college address current challenges and gain strength in the process. In doing so, we will have opportunity to prepare for our next plan, which, I am confident, will directly address the changing identity of academe, helping us to answer questions of the uses of technology and the role of collaboration with peer institutions.

In the meantime, we will study what is successful in our core work. We will offer pilots to test new models of learning, even as we will continue to work in the tradition of the liberal arts that has been our strength for well over a century.

Jeff Abernathy is president of Alma College (MI).