Mission Possible: Mission-based Decisions Can Offer Immediate and Dramatic Benefits

Many colleges and universities today are facing new external pressures, leading some to alter their mission and others to re-direct their resources.  For example, many institutions, among them liberal arts colleges, are instituting new pre-professional programs to meet what they perceive as market-place demands.  Others, faced with the escalating technology costs and the need for more financial aid, are becoming larger to gain new revenue.  A growing number are embracing distance learning to attract new students and in the hope of greater cost-effectiveness.

The University of Puget Sound has, in the last two decades, moved in a counter-cyclical direction.  Rather than adding new programs, we have phased out or redesigned our pre-professional undergraduate programs and most of our graduate programs in order to focus on what we do best: provide our students with a superior undergraduate education in the liberal arts and sciences.  We are committed to an education predicated on close student-faculty interaction in real rather than virtual time, on a real rather than a virtual campus. The result: Puget Sound 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.

Puget Sound’s story offers three important lessons.  First, it illustrates the importance for each institution clearly to articulate its mission and then vigilantly to use all of its resources—human and financial—to realize that mission.  Second, it offers a case study of change and its consequences, in particular dramatizing how all decisions, no matter how deliberately made, bring with them unintended consequences which require new decisions grounded in on-going planning.  Third, it provides strong evidence that many students and their families are seeking the sort of rigorous and residential liberal arts college experience Puget Sound offers.  They do value Puget Sound’s commitment to small classes that require a great deal of writing, critical analysis and class discussion.  They also value the ways in which our students gain the capabilities and the confidence that lead to intellectual autonomy and ultimately to life-long learning.

In 1979 the Puget Sound board of trustees formally made the mission decision that the institution’s goal was to become a national liberal arts college.  The decision was extremely far-sighted.  There are fewer than 150 such institutions nationally (if one uses the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Category of Baccalaureate Institutions-Liberal Arts as the measure) and fewer than twenty such colleges west of the Mississippi. 

In 1979, in addition to its “main campus” in Tacoma, Puget Sound had satellite campuses on military bases, at the nearby federal penitentiary, and in downtown Seattle.  In the 1980’s, the University phased out most of its masters programs and all its satellite campuses with the exception of its fledgling law school.  Each decision had financial implications because these programs were generating significant revenues.  At the same time, SAT scores, retention and graduation rates and the number of full-time students all began to rise.

In 1992, during the search process that brought me to Puget Sound as president, the trustees said that our biggest challenge would be to clarify our mission once and for all. Some board members were 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 15-minute drive from the main campus, had never, in their judgment, been well integrated into the institution.  Others worried that our undergraduate business program was not sufficiently grounded in the liberal arts.  One trustee asked me specifically to look at the role of athletics.

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

That same year, thanks to a $250,000 Mellon grant, faculty in both business and liberal arts departments, working with consultants, began to re-conceptualize the business major, replacing functional courses with interdisciplinary ones and reducing the number of required courses to enable majors to have a broad-based liberal arts education.

Several years later, we phased out all athletic scholarships and joined NCAA, Division III, whose philosophy of athletics was in keeping with our mission. 

To improve our student: faculty ratio  (today at 11.5:1) and to foster even greater student-faculty interaction, we added eleven new tenure-line positions and decreased our freshmen classes from 700 to 650 students. 

We expanded the opportunities for student independent research during the academic year and in the summer.  We do not use students as research assistants for faculty.  Rather, faculty serve as advisors and mentors.  We then raised  $1 million to endow our successful program of student summer research in the sciences, initially begun with support from the Murdock Trust.  We began awarding summer research stipends for students in the humanities, social sciences and arts.  A growing number of departments and programs began to require senior theses and projects.  We committed institutional funds to enable significantly greater numbers of our students to study overseas.

The benefits of these decisions have been immediate and dramatic.  Our more than 4,000 applications for 650 freshman spaces represent an increase of more than 1,000 in ten years. SAT scores for incoming freshmen have soared to today’s 1243 (as a point of reference, in 1974 average SAT scores were 996).  The numbers of students coming from outside Washington, from almost every state in the Union, has grown in ten years from 57 percent to 75 percent.  We are setting new records for early decision applications, retention and graduation.  Those students who have been involved in independent projects are now distinguishing themselves in graduate schools or in their careers.

The business major now attracts the strongest students in its history and the faculty, once worried that it was too separate from the liberal arts, is today well-integrated into the rest of the institution.

Our athletic teams, now without athletic scholarships, have also been unusually successful.  Last year, we were ranked in the top 30 among the more than 400 Division III teams in the Sears Cup competition.  This fall, all athletic teams had successful seasons with women's soccer, men's cross-country and volleyball winning the conference championship.  The volleyball team was ranked fourth in the nation among Division III teams and women’s soccer 11th.  The average grade point average for Puget Sound student-athletes is higher than the average for the student body as a whole.

Puget Sound is also far more secure financially, in part, it seems, because individuals, foundations and corporations applaud our courage in 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.  We are setting new fundraising records and recently completed a capital campaign, exceeding what we thought of as an ambitious $50 million goal by raising more than $68.5 million, all but $6 million of which is already in-hand.  In addition to Mellon, such major foundations as Luce, Kresge, Arthur Vining Davis, Starr, Gates, Rockefeller Brothers, and others, have supported our academic programs and facilities projects. Standard & Poors has given us an A+ rating and Moody’s an A1.

What may be the most interesting part of this story is the new choices—or unintended consequences—that each of these choices required, choices which alone were not dramatic but which in the aggregate have been quite significant.  

One of the most important was the need, once all our 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.  We first undertook a campus master planning process to determine the principles that would undergird the development of the campus to reflect our liberal arts mission.  We engaged 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.  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.  We also recognized the importance of continuing to increase the size of the tenure-line faculty over time, in great part because of our growing emphasis on and our students’ growing interest in independent student and research.

Thanks to successful fundraising, a careful use of resources, and a favorable stock market, we have in the last five years transformed the physical campus 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 state-of-the-art theater and new playing fields.  They also include the renovation of several central academic buildings, 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.

We removed many parking spaces and a road out of the center of campus, replacing them with a central green.  The campus community and our neighbors enjoy our extremely beautiful 100-acre pedestrian campus, characterized by ivy-covered, red-brick Tudor Gothic buildings.

This fall we opened a new 50,000 square foot academic building (above), primarily for humanities programs.  In keeping with our commitment to small classes, most classrooms are seminar size.  Many have state of the art technology.  The building features many places for conversation including a lounge and lots of window seats with data ports.

The central atrium’s three-story window is graced by an original glass (below) installation by alumnus and world-famous glass artist Dale Chihuly.

During this past summer, the university also completed a $7 million library renovation project.  This project restored two grand reading rooms.

The library renovation also created new and improved study spaces, an “electronic commons,” a technology resource center, a media production center for faculty and students, new space for books, new study carrels and spaces for group study.

Each of these projects has been successful. 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, we will break ground this spring for a new 184 bed residence hall for upper-class students which will feature only single-rooms in suite style configurations.   

Just as the institution as a whole has focused on how to realize our mission as a liberal arts college, so have faculty in the sciences. Stimulated in part by participation in Project Kaleidoscope and the Council on Undergraduate Research, they have restructured courses and laboratory work to promote student investigation and discovery.  For example, we have made introductory courses in chemistry smaller in order to allow focused attention on the development of writing skills and to implement a fully lab-linked pedagogy. A math and a physics professor have designed and are team-teaching a course in integrated physics and calculus (for which they’ve also written a highly regarded textbook).  Math and science faculty have collaborated with colleagues from the humanities and social sciences to create and team-teach a series of courses in Science in Context.  

These changes in the teaching of science and the new emphasis on student research also have consequences for facilities.  We are just beginning the conceptual planning for a new biology-chemistry building, to be followed by a renovation of the existing science building.  Given the high costs of science facilities, the timing of these projects will be dependent on fundraising.

Puget Sound’s decision to become smaller and to reaffirm the centrality of the liberal arts have made us stronger and more viable.  So has our commitment to the sort of student-faculty interaction and student independent work described above.  But perhaps our greatest strength is the way in which our faculty continually re-think and improve their teaching.  For many today, that means using technology to enhance what they do in the classroom but decidedly never to substitute for their many interactions with our students both in and outside of class. 

As we now develop our priorities for the current decade, we do so with confidence in our mission as a residential liberal arts college.  We also remain committed to making future decisions in light of our clearly articulated set of values and goals.

Susan Resneck Pierce is President of the University of Puget Sound, a 2,600-student, private liberal arts college in Tacoma, Wash.