The Small Liberal Arts College in Crisis: Is there a Solution?

I teach at a small parochial liberal arts college in Oklahoma. Like other such colleges, parochial and secular, this college, Bacone College, is continually in crisis: financial crisis, enrollment crisis, staffing crisis, management crisis.

There are a host of reasons leading to said crises: the high costs of attending a small private college compared to a public university; the comparative dearth of resources of a small college; the heavy reliance upon enrollment and tuition to keep finances from going in the red; the sacrifice of academics to sports programs; the reliance upon fluctuating members of the board of trustees for leadership; the top-down style of management that small institutions tend toward.

The value of historical study is that it provides a sense of a long-term perspective of the past to the present, which often helps suggest guidance for the future.

Based on my research and writing for Marking the Jesus Road: Bacone College through the Years, as well as my (going on) 18 years as a professor at Bacone College, I believe I have gained some perspective on Bacone’s past, present, and possible future, which provides, perhaps, lessons for other small liberal arts colleges. The 138 years of Bacone College suggests:

Bacone College was founded 138 years ago by missionaries from the American Baptist Home Mission Society to bring Christian education to the Indians of Indian Territory, Oklahoma Territory, and elsewhere. The American Baptists controlled the college until about 60 years ago when they decided to move on from its oversight and sizable financial commitment, to allow Bacone to be governed independently by a Board of Trustees answerable to no outside source of governing authority and commensurate financial assistance. There were predictable leadership, management, and financial consequences. From the beginning in 1880, Almon Bacone, and since then all of his successors, wanted Bacone to be independent of all tribal control, which independence guaranteed a flexibility in decision making but a lack of financial resources. Whatever endowment Bacone once had was spent many years ago. Hence the dependence on enrollment and tuition.

Athletics has, for many years now, especially since 1999, kept the college open, but the problem has been that athletics has come before academics, which is an unworkable situation for a college. It is almost like increasing debt: as the debt and interest rates rise the debtor can scarcely get out of debt without taking on more. As the college grows ever more dependent on athletics it can scarcely rid itself of this non-academic encumbrance and indeed must continue to recruit and take on more. If college resources go toward athletic programs and staff, then academics by comparison suffer.

The mission of the college has been unclear for years. There are many private Christian schools connected to a denomination, and many private American Indian schools connected to a tribe. But how many private colleges that are Christian without a clear denominational presence (in terms of students, faculty, administration, oversight, and financial support) or American Indian without a clear tribal presence (providing leadership and money) can survive in today’s world? Back in the 1950s, Bacone began to move away from its exclusive concern with American Indians. Why? The college was struggling to make a go of it then, as well as now. It makes sense to continue to broaden the college outward to all racial and ethnic groups. Besides, in the past thirty years there are a multitude of tribal colleges that take away the potential pool of applicants for Bacone.

For many years now, stretching back more than half a century, Bacone has had no realistic, workable strategic plan. Such a plan must be based on set, established academic programs that are consistent and comparable in order to attract a pool of students. Bacone has long been uncomfortably caught between professional and academic programs—almost like a split personality. Professional programs (business, health, education, criminal justice) lead to a clear career path and jobs after graduation. Academic programs (Liberal Arts) can lead to a career path and jobs but not as clearly; academic programs can prepare students for graduate school. Bacone has never had academic programs clearly intended to prepare students for graduate school, hence top notch students who want to pursue academics beyond the bachelors degree have little incentive to attend. A college that has a shotgun approach to majors will find it hard pressed to attract serious students—hence the reliance upon athletics. There are many professional schools all over eastern Oklahoma competing with Bacone’s business, health, criminal justice, and education programs, and they cost a lot less; but there are not as many small private liberal arts colleges preparing students for career as well as graduate work.

The key to college success resides in the faculty. Faculty have to feel invested, central to planning and decision making, because they are the ones who ultimately can attract students and bring students forward to degree completion to ensure continuous successful enrollment, year after year. Bacone has since 1880 had a top down administration in which faculty are very little, and rarely, directly involved. The faculty must be equal to the administration in terms of planning and decision-making because the faculty, in their day-to-day interaction with students—and not the administration—are ultimately in charge of academics. This is why successful schools have faculty tenure (or the like), because tenure guarantees to the faculty that they can be invested and central to the college without having to fear for their jobs. Bacone has never had tenure. And, successful schools have active and forthright faculty governance that is engaged equally to the administration; Bacone has never really had this either.

Bacone—and by comparison, I believe, many other small private liberal arts colleges—will never be able to emerge from the quagmire it has been in for many years, until . . .

  1. it can focus its attention on academics rather than athletics (athletics as a consequence of academics is, of course, acceptable), which means to make a decision to focus on degree plans that fill a necessary liberal arts niche and will bring students to study;
  2. it embrace a clear and consistent academic purpose in terms of successful liberal arts programs preparing students for graduate studies as well as careers;
  3. it can develop a clear, realistic mission—based on Bacone’s past, this would be an ecumenical Christian approach as well as a multicultural approach filling the needs of students with particular racial, ethnic, class, and personal needs;
  4. it can embrace faculty as equal partners in recruitment, planning, governance, and delivery of academic programs.

There is an important role for the small liberal arts college in America. Foresight and strategic planning based on an understanding of the past and the needs of the present must replace knee-jerk reactions to immediate crises and unconsidered responses to the exigencies of the moment—such is the key to survival and success.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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1 Response to The Small Liberal Arts College in Crisis: Is there a Solution?

  1. letakotstaka says:

    Interesting perspective Dr. Lawson…I agree with some of your thoughts but, not all Boomer

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