Friday, May 30, 2008

the institutional culture and "reputation" of liberal arts colleges

Lots of interesting organizational issues in this essay by Prof. Tim Burke (Swarthmore):

It’s really hard to accept change in an institution that you cherished as it was. (Yet more declension narratives!) If alumni have a useful role, in fact, it’s as guardians of the essential traditions and values of their own institution.

“Essential” is the tricky thing here. No college or university in the United States is anything like what it was seventy-five years ago. In the early 20th Century, most private universities and colleges were far more strongly tied to a religious denomination. They were shabbily genteel places that educated a small fraction of a social elite. They were nothing like the multimillion dollar institutions that inspire dread and frenzy among high school juniors and their parents every spring.

The stereotypical personalities that most individual colleges and universities are known for today came together fairly recently, partly invented or distilled by the first generation of consultants, guides and counselors who appeared as a byproduct of the growing selectivity and centrality of higher education after 1960.

I think most selective colleges and universities today feel some ambivalence about their reputational brand. Swarthmore is sometimes uneasy about its reputation for seriousness, over-intellectualism and masochism, for example. The stronger your perceived niche or character, the more it limits the pool of potential applicants and matriculants. Moreover, the institution’s personality can become more and more exaggerated as it attracts more and more of the same kind of prospective student.

When I was looking as a prospective college student in the early 1980s, I was sure of a few things. I wanted to be in a small college rather than a large university. I wanted to be on the East Coast, largely because of my Californian-derived romantic (and mostly inaccurate) conception of the East Coast. Other than that, I was fairly open to the possibilities. Like many teenagers on their college tour, I let my impressionistic reaction to each place guide my later decisions. I liked the look and feel of Wesleyan, and I liked my interviewer. (I hated my interviewer at Swarthmore: he was a supercilious jerk.) What I also liked at Wesleyan was a vague, funky sense of weirdness and eccentricity.

Of course, I went to a big anonymous state school, so I don't really have any experience with this. But I find it fascinating how certain schools develop a reputation bordering on a persona: U Chicago is for grinds, Swarthmore is for masochists. I was actually very happy at UCI, but perhaps my personality is built for that--I liked the anonymity and incredible size of the university, and I liked being able to carve niches for myself. I do that now, by latching onto other departments I don't even belong in, since I have no cohort of my own. It's nice to have that option. I did it by doing two honors programs and by choosing one slightly smaller major, or taking a series of courses (almost minoring) in weird concentrations and joining funny clubs (Latin Honors Club!). I also liked bucking the whole "UCI is apathetic" rep by doing lots of campus feminist activism. UC has no personality, per se, but it felt like I could have anyone I might want to create, and that was a nice feeling. I could be a weird liberal arts major (which I was) or a gigantic lecture hall anonymous social science major (which I was) and hang out with the science kids (which I did) or bum around with the drama geeks (which I totally did). But I must say, part of me wonders what it would have been like to go to a school with a more coherent identity, and a smaller student body. It certainly would have had a stronger institutional culture, and perhaps the subjective/public values would have been more coherent and better articulated. But as most org theorists know, a strong culture does not make for a cyborg like student body that marches lock step, and nor is such a culture immune to the pressure of change. Still, very interesting.

What was your college experience like? Did you go to a school where everyone very clearly identified with the school culture and the "type" of person who went there, or were you an institutional misfit? Did you big state schoolers have a different experience? Or are school experiences more dependent on institutional structure (size, resources, types of majors offered, curricular strengths) than institutional culture (subjective values, practices, identity). Of course, whether culture flows from structure or vice-versa is the debate for the ages. I always thought that experience variation depended on structure more, but I have a black and white conception as schools come in only "big" or "small" to me, since I've only known big schools. I never really knew there was so much variance among the liberal arts schools, and that each had their own character and reputation, be it for rigor, quirkiness, toolishness, or what have you.


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