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Identifying and Overcoming the Three Central Challenges for Liberal Arts Colleges

The EvoLLLution | Identifying and Overcoming the Three Central Challenges for Liberal Arts Colleges
Though the challenges for smaller liberal arts colleges are clear, the solutions to these challenges are more contextual and harder to pin down for each institution.

Higher education institutions face various challenges that have the potential to reshape both the business and curricular models through which they do their business. My travels and conversations with administrators and faculty at liberal arts colleges across the country reveal three challenges as particularly salient for the liberal arts college sector. Two are substantive in nature; the third is operational. Specifically, like all colleges and universities, liberal arts colleges need to identify and implement strategies for diversifying their faculty and curriculum in order to better reflect the increasing diversity of the student population. Similarly, liberal arts colleges (perhaps even to a greater extent than larger privates and publics) need to identify the appropriate role for technology in the context of the close faculty-student relationships that define the liberal arts college experience and then create mechanisms that both invite and enable their faculty to readily adopt technology-enabled pedagogies in their classrooms. Each of these substantive goals requires institutional commitment and change, which presents the third significant challenge facing liberal arts colleges—i.e. how to be agile as institutions in responding to these opportunities in the context of operational and governance structures that some regard as impeding their ability to innovate. Indeed, operational agility may be the most important condition precedent to long-term relevance and sustainability in the face of these substantive challenges.

With respect to diversity, the next two decades will bring significant changes in the life experiences that traditional college-age students bring to their campuses. The number of white students is projected to decrease by 14.8 percent; the number of Blacks/African Americans will decrease by 8.9 percent. Conversely, the number of Hispanic students is projected to increase by 13.8 percent, and students who identify as “other” will increase by 14.6 percent.[1] Their professors, however, will continue to come from very different backgrounds. The overwhelming majority of faculty (79 percent) are white. Only 5 percent are Black/African American, 3 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and less than 1 percent two or more races.[2] This mismatch demands attention because learning outcomes and student persistence improve when students are mentored and taught by faculty from similar backgrounds.[3]

Various foundation-funded initiatives already exist that are targeted at building a pipeline to graduate school and academic careers among underrepresented undergraduates and then realizing the potential of those students after graduate school through faculty fellowship appointments.[4] Institutional investments in climate and student-support infrastructures necessary to nurture and sustain that pipeline, however, will need to grow to support that overall effort.

The emerging role of technology and the potential for its use, both in and beyond the classroom, present similar challenges for colleges and universities. On one hand, there is significant funding available for faculty-led projects that seek to enhance the use of technology-enabled pedagogies on liberal arts campuses. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Teagle Foundation, among others, currently fund a variety of collaborative projects intended to encourage innovation in this area. Faculty receptivity to and adoption of technology-enabled pedagogies, however, is not as robust, particularly on liberal arts campuses. While a variety of factors inhibit faculty adoption, one that seems significant and readily overcome is what some faculty—particularly those who have not yet received tenure—describe as a lack of incentives in most existing tenure and promotion structures. That is, if the time and effort involved in learning new pedagogies and incorporating new technologies in the classroom “will not count” for tenure, then faculty will devote their time and energy to those activities that do.

So, what approaches might enable success in navigating these emerging trends and the challenges and opportunities they present? At a substantive level, the answers to that question are too numerous to describe. Operationally, however, it seems clear that an important, if not determinative, predictor of success will be the agility that colleges and universities bring to the task of identifying and implementing the innovations that can help lead to long-term relevance and sustainability. Those who close the gap in each of these areas will lead in the years ahead. If, for example, faculty incentive structures effectively discourage faculty to explore and adopt technology-enabled pedagogies in their teaching, what can a college or university do to address that problem? The University of Minnesota–Rochester has taken an innovative approach in this regard, stipulating that demonstrated scholarship in the field of teaching and learning is a requirement for tenure and promotion.[5] This means that when the use of technology enhances pedagogy for a UMR faculty member and they leverage that experience as an opportunity to produce scholarship, then they will perceive their engagement with technology as having counted for purposes of tenure and promotion. Similarly, in the realm of diversity on our campuses, how will campuses across the country make the internal investments necessary to both encourage diversity (e.g., through training for faculty search committees on issues related to diversity, implicit bias, etc.) and then sustain it through faculty mentoring programs and adequate support for student service professionals who serve on the front-lines of most diversity-related issues that arise on our campuses each day? Stated differently, how will campuses go beyond the goal of being diverse to a more strategic goal of also being inclusive?

The challenges are readily identifiable. As is often the case, however, the solutions are more elusive and complex. But that elusiveness and complexity highlight perhaps the greatest challenge that colleges and universities face: the need to be agile in identifying and then implementing innovative solutions.

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References and Footnotes

[1] Myers, Justin, “Prospects: Who Will Reach College Age in the Next Fourteen Years?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 19, 2014.

[2] Myers, Ben, “Where Are the Minority Professors? An examination of the demographics of more than 400,000 professors at 1,500 colleges shows where those of each rank, gender, race/ethnicity, and tenure status can be found”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 14, 2016. See

[3] Carter, Deborah Faye, “Key Issues in the Persistence of Underrepresented Minority Students,” New Directions for Institutional Research, no. 130, Summer 2006, p. 33, Wiley Periodicals, Inc. See

[4] See, for example, the ACM-CIC Undergraduate and Faculty Fellows Program for a Diverse Professoriate (, the Creating Connections Consortium (, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program (, and the McNair Scholars Program (

[5] University of Minnesota. (2016, January 28). Promotion and tenure: Approved 7.12 statements. Retrieved February 18, 2016, from

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