Change & Its Consequences

Most college administrators are being bombarded with reports urging change and describing how to effect it. At the same time, colleges and universities are faced with new external pressures that require them to consider whether or not they are functioning as effectively as they might.

In 1979, the University of Puget Sound board of trustees made the mission decision that the institution’s primary goal would be to become a national liberal arts college. This decision signaled to internal and external constituencies that change would occur. These trustees understood that a clear articulation of mission and goals always needs to be the starting point for significant institutional change. But those contemplating institutional change also need to understand that a complex of issues and choices will inevitably follow. Indeed, no matter how thoughtful institutions are about the implications of their choices, it is difficult--if not impossible--to anticipate the unforeseen consequences of change.

The University of Puget Sound presents a case study of change and its consequences. In the last two decades, it has successfully transformed itself from a comprehensive regional university of more than 5,000 students to a national residential liberal arts college nearly half that size. Along the way, the campus community has learned that dealing with unforeseen consequences is as daunting as effecting the original changes. Dealing with these unforeseen consequences has further reinforced for us the importance of grounding our choices in the institutional mission.

Context

What issues are residential campuses confronting?  First, they need to take into account the growing interest in distance learning.  State legislatures and for-profit organizations are attracted to promises of convenience and the hope of more economical ways to reach large numbers of students. However, on-line education runs counter to the premise at the heart of residential campuses: that face-to-face contact among students and faculty is essential to learning. Secondly, in recent decades increasing numbers of students select pre-professional rather than liberal arts majors. Finally, faced with the ever-greater cost of technology and with pressures to increase financial aid budgets, a number of campuses, liberal arts colleges among them, are increasing the size of their student bodies in order to gain new revenue.

In light of the appeal of pre-professional education and distance education, Puget Sound's success makes an important statement.  It reaffirms that the kind of handcrafted education in the liberal arts and sciences that Puget Sound offers students continues to be attractive to and has great value for many prospective students and their families and for many donors.

In the decade since the trustees’ decision of 1979, we closed all our satellite campuses, with the exception of the fledgling law school. Satellite campuses were located on military bases, at the federal penitentiary, and in downtown Seattle.  In the 1980s we also phased out most masters programs.  Each of these decisions had financial implications because of lost revenues. 

In 1992, during the search process that brought me to Puget Sound as president, the trustees and faculty on the search committee told me that our biggest challenge in the 1990s would be to clarify our mission once and for all.  A number of committee members were particularly concerned that having a law school was inconsistent with Puget Sound’s emphasis on undergraduate liberal arts education. The 800-student law school, located in downtown Tacoma and a fifteen-minute drive from the 100-acre main campus, had never, in their judgment, been well integrated into the institution.

In the fall of 1993, we made the mission decision to transfer the sponsorship of the law school to Seattle University.  In announcing the decision, we explained that the law school would, for five years, stay in its existing location in Tacoma; that all tenured faculty would retain their tenure; that no staff or faculty member would lose a job because of the transfer; and that compensation for faculty and staff would remain at comparable levels.

In the aftermath of that announcement, we spent a good deal of time explaining. We explained to our many constituencies and to the higher education community at large the importance of being clear about and acting on the mission. Noting that the law school was generating nearly $700,000 per year for the university’s operating budget, we stressed that we did not make the decision for financial reasons.  Rather, we argued that because we could not do and be all things, we had chosen to focus our resources--human and financial--on what we did best: providing a superior undergraduate liberal arts and sciences education.

Prophecy and reality

We were pretty sure that the law school decision would be controversial.  Certainly, we knew that it was unusual for a college to make such a dramatic decision. We also knew that the local legal community would experience the real loss of having a ready pool of talented students and law graduates and easy access to a good law library. What we had not anticipated was the local newspaper’s virulent attack on the university--and on me, specifically--an attack that lasted for years.

It was a difficult time.  Our critics claimed that the decision would harm our reputation, damage our admission efforts, and alienate prospective contributors.  Others worried that the two buildings in downtown Tacoma housing the law school would stand empty after the school moved to Seattle in the summer of 1999. That would, they predicted, damage efforts to bring a new vitality to downtown Tacoma.

In fact, the opposite has happened. The benefits of defining ourselves as a residential liberal arts college have been immediate and dramatic. For example, approximately 4,000 applications for 650 freshman spaces represents an increase of more than 1,000 in ten years. SAT scores for incoming freshmen have soared to today’s 1,243.  The numbers of students coming from outside Washington, from almost every state, has in the last decade grown from 57 percent to 75 percent.

Financially, the University of Puget Sound is far more secure, in part, it seems, because individuals, foundations and corporations—including many from the Tacoma community—applaud the courage of our acting on our convictions.  In the six years since the law school decision, the endowment has grown from $80 million to more than $213 million. New fundraising records were set, and we are on the way to completing a successful capital campaign. Major foundations such as Mellon, Luce, Kresge, Arthur Vining Davis, Starr, Gates, Rockefeller Brothers, and others, have supported academic programs and facilities projects. 

In the local Tacoma community, the university has fulfilled its pledge to find a positive use for the law school buildings.  In 1997 the buildings were sold to the state, which is now “co-locating” several hundred employees from previously scattered regional offices. The state has committed substantial sums to renovate the buildings. Since law students typically had little discretionary income, downtown Tacoma will benefit from the presence of state office workers who are likely to spend at least some of their paychecks near their workplace. The local newspaper has again begun to write favorably about the university.

Domino effect

What may be the most interesting part of this story is the new choices the law school transfer presented, or, to put it another way, its unintended consequences.  Specifically, this decision required us to make a series of other choices, none as dramatic, but in the aggregate, significant.

Of these, the most important was the need, once all programs were located on one campus, to think about what it means to be a residential liberal arts college--and to act on our conclusions.  To accomplish that, the university undertook a campus master planning process that sought input from the entire campus community. The goal was to determine the principles that would undergird the development of our campus to reflect its liberal arts mission.  For that we needed to engage in a broad-ranging discussion of institutional goals for the coming decade.  At the board’s request, a paper I drafted became the catalyst for extended discussion with faculty and staff colleagues, students, alumni, parents, and trustees.

From these conversations two important decisions emerged.  First, we recognized the need to create new facilities and spaces that would foster the sorts of conversations—between and among students and faculty, in and outside of the classroom—that are at the heart of a liberal arts education.  Second, we concluded that increasing the size of the faculty in order to improve our already favorable student-to-faculty ratio of 11.5 to 1 should become an institutional priority.

Thanks to successful fundraising, a careful use of resources, and a favorable stock market, in the last five years the physical campus has been transformed with more than $50 million of capital projects.  These include a new concert hall, a 10,000 square foot fitness center (the nicest "health club" I know), a new state-of-the-art theater and new playing fields.  They also include the renovation of a central academic building, residence halls, the field house, and the student center.  The latter project has been especially popular with an expanded and improved dining area, its new espresso café, late night food service, an expanded bookstore, and lots of data ports.

Each of these projects has contributed to establishing the University of Puget Sound as a residential liberal arts college.  For example, the student center, previously abandoned by students by early evening, is now filled with students day and night.  Indeed, at the request of students, part of the building most conducive to late night studying is now open twenty-four hours per day. For the first time in our history, not enough on-campus residential space is available to meet demand. Thus, plans are underway to build a new 200-bed residence hall.

A new academic building, primarily for humanities programs, opened this year.  In keeping with a commitment to small classes, most classrooms are seminar size. The building has a lounge, lots of window seats with data ports, and technologically advanced classrooms. The central atrium three-story window features an original glass installation by outstanding alumnus Dale Chihuly. During this past summer, the University also completed a $7 million library renovation project.  This project restored two grand reading rooms lately used for other purposes. The library also created new and improved individual and group study spaces, an “electronic commons,” a technology resource center, a production center for faculty and students, and new space for books.

Each of these projects has contributed to establishing the University of Puget Sound as a residential liberal arts college.  Most significantly, many parking spaces and a road out of the center of campus have been replaced with a central green. The result: the campus community and our neighbors and their children enjoy what is now a pedestrian campus. Around the campus new benches and new café tables with umbrellas have contributed to a park-like environment.

The second unanticipated activity relates to community relations.  Simply stated, we worked hard on our relationship to and communication with the Tacoma community. We created a university district committee, spearheaded a college/community task force on underage drinking, and developed a “Neighbor-to-Neighbor” newsletter.  The student government has invited members of the community to take advantage of campus cultural and athletic events at discounted rates.  Three-quarters of the students are engaged in community service, as are many faculty and staff. For example, students worked with neighbors to transform an abandoned lot into a park.  Substantial resources support a partnership with the local school district to encourage economically disadvantaged students, many of them ethnic minorities, to attend college.

Crucial decisions

Had the university been less bold and decided to retain the law school, we would not have been able so fully to direct resources and attention to emphasizing our identity as a residential liberal arts college.  We also might not have had the courage of our convictions to make some other recent counter-cyclical choices.

When other institutions are becoming bigger to gain new tuition revenues, the university has decided, in the interest of academic quality, to become smaller.  Thus, shortly after the law school transfer, with the concurrence of the faculty, and with an understanding of the budgetary implications, the trustees approved the recommendation that we reduce the size of the freshman class from 700 to 650.

When other institutions are moving away from their liberal arts focus to embrace new professional programs, the university has recommitted to the liberal arts.  Most notably, thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation, we successfully redefined the undergraduate business major so that it is consistent with a liberal arts emphasis. 

When other institutions have allowed specialization to take precedence over the notion of breadth and have developed curricula to serve departmental interests, the university remains committed to notions of a core curriculum and to successful interdisciplinary programs such as Asian studies, international political economy, classics, and environmental studies.

In recent years, the university phased out athletic scholarships and joined NCAA Division III.  Here, too, benefits have followed on that decision, with our teams last year collectively ranked nationally among the more than 400 Division III teams in the Sears Directors Cup competition.

Significant new funds have been committed to enabling more students to study overseas.  Moreover, new endowment and gifts fund student summer research in the sciences and in the humanities, social sciences, and arts.

While we talk and read about the ways other colleges and universities are embracing distance learning as a means of cost-effectively reaching a greater number of students with few faculty, Puget Sound will be counter-cyclical. Even as members of our faculty successfully use technology to supplement what they do in their classrooms, often in exciting ways, the education we offer students will continue to be dependent on close student and faculty interactions, both in and outside of class.

It is painful for an institution--trustees, faculty, staff, students, and even alumni--to come under siege as we did. In the face of such criticism, we have learned that it takes time to come to terms with change. It also takes a good deal of on-going conversation and communication.  But today the University of Puget Sound is a stronger institution, because in making the law school decision, the university committed itself to making future principled decisions in light of a clearly articulated set of values and goals.