Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2009
The history of Smith is a history of challenging convention. From Sophia Smith's historic rejection of inferior education for women, to President Neilson's embrace of refugee and dissident scholars between the wars, to the pioneering establishment of the first engineering program at a women's college, Smith has never shied from innovation, reinvention, or reanimation of its academic mission.
For all of higher education today, but particularly for small residential colleges, the financial crisis has brought into sharp focus the urgency of examining "what has always been." Institutions like Smith must not waste this moment, as many wise heads have reminded us, but use it to make bold changes that position us strongly and competitively, if reinvented, for the future. If a liberal arts education is fundamentally about flexibility of mind, then we must subject our own received models to rigorous and creative scrutiny. To avoid such conversations is to avoid our responsibility to students for decades to come.
Conventional wisdom: Every college is an island.
In fact, the future of higher education is collaboration. Institutions large and small, public and private, need to develop consortia, in which they can share academic programs, services, and staff, thus reducing costs and enhancing learning opportunities broadly. Five College, Incorporated, is one of the country's oldest and best-known higher education consortia. The next chapter of its history must be as a catalyst for dramatic, substantive resource-sharing among institutions that have much to gain from real, robust "coopetition." Across the differences of Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, and the University of Massachusetts, how can we share faculty, departments, libraries, technology, and administrative services even more meaningfully than we do now?
Conventional wisdom: You need four years to get an excellent liberal arts education.
There are quite valid reasons why a Smith education requires 128 credits. But summer is just as legitimate a time for education as fall, winter, and spring, and shortening a student's time to degree might prove a useful and defining experience. During World War II, Smith encouraged students to accelerate, to meet workforce demands. We need to use our facilities twelve months a year, not eight. Moreover, as colleges like Smith develop rigorous models of community-based learning, we must confront questions about granting credit for different modes of inquiry on different timetables, whether in the context of study abroad, internships, or other academic opportunities.
Conventional wisdom: Distance learning has no place in a liberal arts college.
Small-group, in-person interaction is the lifeblood of a liberal arts education, whether in the classroom or as part of a residential learning community. But you might be surprised how much students and faculty use technology to bridge distances at all times of day or night, whether through electronic classrooms within the five colleges, or through discussion groups on Moodle, our online course management system. Technology can shrink the globe, enabling students to have real-time interaction in coordinated courses with students and faculty across the country and around the world.
Conventional wisdom: There is a sharp divide between liberal arts and professional education.
The professions take their intellectual tools from the liberal arts, and the liberal arts test the strength and value of their paradigms by applying them to problems in our world. Well over half of Smith's students will go on to earn professional degrees. Can we shorten this path, and reduce its expense, by building collaborative double-degree programs?
These are but a few examples of the longstanding paradigms that Smith and its peers are confronting as we examine the future of liberal arts education in the context of the new economic realities—realities facing not only our own budgets but the economic circumstances of students and families. Smith educates women of promise for lives of distinction. That mission cannot be fulfilled if the rising cost of college eludes all but the very thinnest socioeconomic segment of the very group we seek to admit.
As we develop a plan and a vision, I have been inspired by how imaginatively and wisely faculty, staff, and students, as well as alumnae, have been reflecting on the paradigm-changing opportunities before us. The bold choices we make now, and the wisdom of the strategy they represent, will have an effect on the college far into the next chapter of its history.