Remarks by Stephen R. Lewis Jr.

In 1957 I took my first course in Political Science from Professor Robert Gaudino, one of Williams College’s legendary master teachers. In his course on comparative politics, we used the concept of “political culture,” and as a budding economist I felt it was a squishy notion at best, and useless at worst. Forty-five years later I have a very different view: culture does not determine everything, but it is a very, very important aspect of why some institutions (colleges, corporations or countries) succeed, and why others fail. So, I will focus my remarks on issues related to the culture of the institution, including how the culture is transmitted and might be transformed, why I believe it is so important, and what presidents, deans, trustees and faculty leaders might do to promote cultures that serve the interests of our students.

While still in college I expressed some curiosity about college administration, and even ventured a question or two about college presidencies to my mentor and advisor. Mr. Gaudino affected shock and said, “But, Mr. Lewis, I thought you were interested in education!” In my fifteen years as Carleton’s president I often thought of Mr. Gaudino as I suffered through countless hours each week that, at best, seemed only remotely related to the educational process.

When Frank Oakley was inaugurated at Williams in 1985, he commented that he would talk about the “eternal verities,” since he felt that such remarks were expected at and appropriate to such events. Over the years I came to believe that those verities needed to be repeated more than once in a presidency. For one thing, all the major constituents of the college—students, faculty, staff, trustees, parents, alumni, donors, the higher education community, and even the local neighbors—need constant reminders about the purposes and the values of the institution. Such reminders also are needed to ensure that there is congruence in how all those constituents view the institution, its needs, its priorities, and the behavior of those responsible for its day-to-day life—especially faculty, staff and students. Everyone has to understand both the values of the college and how those values affect people’s behavior.

The American Liberal Arts College has a distinctive profile and, as we see from increasing evidence, a distinctive set of results on student learning and development. Within the universe of such colleges, of course, there are many variations in the particular niche each one serves. Part of the purpose in repeating the verities on a regular basis is to ensure that the special niche and purpose of the particular college is understood clearly, and that it forms the basis for action and for the behavior of its constituent parts.

The things we have in common as Liberal Arts Colleges are often thought of as small size, residential setting, close relationships between faculty and students, and opportunities for learning opportunities outside of class. But as Frank Oakley used to remind us frequently at Williams, if all we have is small class size, we face real competition from the larger universities, public and private, that might decide to focus more of their resources on honors colleges or some similar variant. One of the factors that is, or should be, unique to what we do as institutions should be the ability to create genuine and productive learning communities among students and faculty. Real exchange of ideas, challenge of viewpoints, thoughtful reflection on arguments that are contrary to ones own, must take place on a regular basis. As was mentioned several times in yesterday’s session on teaching, scholarship and professional life in a collegiate setting, there is a real hunger among faculty as well as students for such genuine intellectual exchange. We should ensure that such hunger is satisfied.

That we can do the job when larger places might not is illustrated by a story from graduate school. My colleague Gordon Winston was one of the first in our class to take a position for the following year: an appointment at Williams College. A senior economist of great international prominence said to me: “Winston going to Williams—I don’t understand it.” When I inquired why he was puzzled, he replied immediately: “No graduate students.” Since I had enjoyed the privilege of going to a small number of faculty seminars when I was a senior at Williams, I reported on the experience: faculty regularly circulated their work to colleagues, held seminars, gave their papers, defended their results and responded to critical comments. My distinguished mentor paused, mused for a bit, and then remarked: “Hmph. Talk to your colleagues; never occurred to me.” I assure you this is a true story. I think it speaks directly to what we can do that the larger institutions cannot, or will not, do.

Take another example. A recent ACLS Occasional Paper by Sheila Biddle, Internationalization: Rhetoric or Reality?, provides a vivid indication of the difference between the university and the liberal arts college. She reviewed programs at five major universities (Columbia, Duke and the Universities of Iowa, Washington and Michigan) that involved aspects of “internationalizing” the institutions and their activities. In addition to sounding a theme similar to the one I emphasize here (“Recognition of the particular culture of the institution is essential to the success of the internationalization effort.” p.12), she notes that the results of a study such as hers would be much different if she had looked at liberal arts colleges. At colleges, greater cohesiveness makes possible institutional commitments. Of equal or greater importance, “Since liberal arts colleges are concerned with undergraduate education, their chances of success in developing curriculum … are far greater than those of research universities.” (pp. 3-4) In her concluding chapter, Biddle notes (p.112) that “with very few exceptions, there was a common lack of attention to undergraduate curriculum…” in the efforts at these five fine universities. They are research universities, and they behave like them.

Given the emphasis placed on undergraduate education in the rhetoric of those five institutions, I read Biddle’s results as further evidence that it is not related to their reality. However, the real issue she raises for me is not the university versus college in terms of size, organization or stated purpose, but the notion that it is the culture of the institution that ultimately determines the direction it takes and the choices it makes. The issue of culture is one to which I think we all need to give attention.

My first economics teacher, Bill Gates, was also my first department chair when I returned to teach at Williams (having wandered in the Wilderness of Stanford, Pakistan, and Harvard for a few years). Bill was a marvelous mentor to hundreds of students and dozens of faculty and administrators over his career at Williams. He was a model of what a department chair (and good collegiate citizen) should be and do. He regularly took each new member of the faculty aside to coach us—not just, or even primarily, on our teaching and on our scholarly or research agendas. He emphasized how the organization, worked and why it worked the way it did. He emphasized our mutual commitments as faculty, and our responsibilities as citizens of the department and of the College, as well as of the larger profession. He insisted that, as a department, and as tenured colleagues within the department, we have regular discussions about our social contract with one another.

These discussions had to be held regularly because the department was complex. We ran a masters degree program, had a large research contract with USAID for many years, regularly provided faculty to the College for administrative jobs or major committee assignments that took considerable time, and had a leave program whereby each tenured member of the department was expected to go on leave for eighteen months after having taught three years—and one had to find one’s own funding.

Regular discussions and renegotiation of the social contract were also needed because Bill recognized early, and I realized much later, that faculty have very different stages in their lives. These stages, both personal and professional, affect how we wish to spend our time. Sometimes one is on a roll in scholarship; at times one is consumed by curricular ideas and experimentation; older faculty often find fulfillment in mentoring younger colleagues; the opportunity to spend several years in an administrative position may appeal to some; family circumstances change and can influence when one wants to take a leave; intellectual interests change and one may want time to re-tool to develop a new area of scholarship or of teaching. The list goes on. And, of course, in addition to the changes within each of us, we were hiring new people and losing some to resignation or retirement; the mix of talents and interests would change even if one’s own did not. Our regular conversations meant that we were attentive to one another’s professional (and personal) needs and desires. We knew we had to arrange our own lives so that, over time, we could deliver on our responsibilities to our students and to the College as a whole.

Eighteen years of Bill Gates’ mentorship as my teacher and colleague made an indelible impression on me and on my view of how department chairs, deans and presidents should try to lead their faculty (and administrative) colleagues. At Carleton I helped a number of younger department chairs work on the social contract among their (sometimes fractious) colleagues. The exercise was often productive, especially in bringing younger and older faculty into conversation about what each could meaningfully contribute. And, recent grants from the Mellon Foundation to Carleton and a number of other liberal arts colleges that focus directly on faculty life and career stages has been enormously helpful in this regard.

I mention the discussions on the social contract because I think the notion of mutual responsibilities, explicitly understood, and discussed, and renegotiated (when needed) on a regular basis is critically important to developing and sustaining a culture in the institution that supports its core activities. George Kuh’s results, reported earlier in the Conference, make it clear that there is enormous variation among institutions that are superficially of the same type and size in the educational results for students. Institutions that are successful, in my observations, are those that have strong, coherent cultures of expectations that are known and understood by all the constituents. They stick to the core: helping bright students learn and become independent in their learning; grow as individuals; and become responsible and thoughtful adults.

The centrifugal forces both in society at large and in our institutions are substantial: two career families, the increased busy-ness of American society, pulls and tugs of the disciplines for the attention of faculty, intellectual schisms within and between academic disciplines, increased complexity of our institutions, and many more. With such forces pulling away from the core, it is of critical importance that those who lead liberal arts colleges emphasize the values and practices that are important to the purposes and the success of each one of them. And, it is equally important that the constituents “buy in” to those purposes. A good deal of the ordinary interactions providing the social and intellectual “glue” that faculty of my generation took for granted is simply gone. If it’s important to have that glue, and I believe it is, then we have to find new ways of providing it.

Let me list a few of the things that might contribute to building and sustaining a culture conducive to success of a liberal arts college.

  • We need to provide clear and sensible orientation of new faculty as they are socialized into what it means to be a member of a liberal arts college faculty. (After interviewing exceptionally well-trained graduate students who were finishing their PhDs at the top universities, my former colleague Henry Bruton used to ask: “Do you think if we hire them we could teach them any economics?”) What one learns in graduate school is not necessarily what one needs to help undergraduates learn.
  • Faculty development programs (and resources) are needed in all three areas of activity in which most liberal arts colleges say they expect faculty to contribute: teaching, scholarship, and citizenship (or colleagueship). And, since students, fields, institutions, and society as a whole keep changing, faculty development is not just for the young.
  • Colleges should seize the “teachable moments” as part of their mission and purpose. The Iraq war, the September 11th attacks, the Rodney King beating, and other dramatic events that stir our students are opportunities for genuine conversation and learning. Faculty and staff need to be encouraged to come out of their disciplinary caves and participate, modeling good public discussion of important issues. And, the faculty and staff who do participate need some recognition, both public and private, from the institution’s leaders for being part of the effort. These activities help build learning communities.
  • Faculty (and students) have a hunger for broader intellectual exchange, but it is not encouraged by our busy schedules, fragmented lives, and disciplinary focus. When the Dean offers to buy copies of a controversial or important new book for those who’d like to discuss it over lunch or supper for a few weeks, my experience suggests that people jump at the chance, with collateral benefits to everyone.
  • Conversations among faculty, both within departments and across the institution, about faculty life stages and how they affect the distribution of tasks, responsibilities and opportunities among faculty over time can be powerful. These encourage continued discussion of the implicit or explicit social contract, and even of where the institution’s values lie. In my experience, such conversations can bring the “old grumps” and the ”young Turks” into genuinely useful dialogue.
  • All of the above can help provide greater congruence between what the on- and off-campus constituents believe about the college and its purposes, and about how well it delivers on its promises. Presidents have to be saying things to donors, and parents, and alumni that reflect what is actually happening on campus and in class.

In an interview near the end of my time at Carleton I was asked how I tried to judge whether or not I was being successful. I said the best indicator I had found was what I heard from parents, especially parents of graduating seniors. They had seen their children for the first 18 years, and then they had been able to observe the changes that took place while they were at College. In general we had a very happy group of campers among Carleton parents. It gave me a good deal of relief, as well as satisfaction, when I heard their stories in our back yard the afternoon before Commencement each year.

One story in particular reflects the perspective parents bring. One year a mother sought me out and said: “President Lewis, I want to thank you and Carleton for all that you’ve done for my daughter. She’s learned so much, she’s grown and matured, she has become an independent person and she’s developed such wide interests, and I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate it.” I looked at the mother, and asked her “Are you sure we’re talking about the same young woman? Your daughter was in my office frequently, exquisitely unhappy about her experience at Carleton, angry about racism, curriculum, student life, teaching and the general direction of the College.” “Oh, I know,” said her mother, “but she’ll get over it. She just doesn’t realize yet how much she has learned.”

Maybe we had created the right culture in which she could thrive. And that’s what we should be all about.