Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Designing and Implementing Systemic Academic Change: Hiram College's Model for the New Liberal Arts

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Designing and Implementing Systemic Academic Change: Hiram College's Model for the New Liberal Arts

Article excerpt

The Hiram College president offers a constructive and realistic example of systemic change designed to help liberal arts institutions not only survive but thrive in the face of 21st-century challenges.

INTRODUCTION: THE CALLS FOR CHANGE AND THE RESOURCES TO RESPOND

Let's face it. There is a new normal for most institutions of higher learning, and tuition-driven liberal arts colleges are, or should be, at the forefront of the change. The new normal is marked by a host of calls from internal and external stakeholders and by industry challenges such as changing demographics, financial outlooks, and value propositions.

THE CALLS FOR CHANGE

Increasingly, these calls and challenges have a palpably firm grip on the programs, practices, and cultures of many small, non-elite, liberal arts colleges. Leaders of institutions like mine--Hiram College (OH)--must routinely respond to internal and external calls to demonstrate things like institutional accountability, expense management, student access, student debt containment, the ROI of the degree, and navigable career pathways. There are additional calls to increase new student enrollment, retention, and graduation rates; net tuition revenues; and extramural funding. As these calls ring in our ears, we must simultaneously face, head-on, challenges such as unfavorable high school demographics (Marcus 2017), Moody's grim financial outlook for the sector (Fain 2017), and public and political pessimism regarding the liberal arts (APM Reports 2018).

As the president of Hiram, I am leading an institution that, amid all the challenges above, needs to change quickly and materially. If we continue to do things in the same ways as in the past, or if we tinker with changes only at the margins, the grip of this reality will not just squeeze us in the short term; it will strangle the very life out of our beloved institution. Rather than be extinguished by these pressures, I have been leading the campus through a dramatic change process that includes growing in some areas, cutting in others, and modifying the entire academic structure (first-year experience, majors, core, graduation requirements, and student learning outcomes).

As part of the change process, Hiram has already spent one academic year (2016-17) crafting a strategic plan as described in detail below. We then used the 2017-18 academic year to flesh out and prioritize the action steps most needed to pave our path forward. As we enter the 2018-19 academic year, we are beginning to implement the comprehensive, rather than compartmentalized, changes summoned in the plan. We embark on an accelerated implementation process knowing full well that cultural and structural change does not occur easily or quickly at many liberal arts colleges.

RESOURCES THAT INFORM THE CHANGE PROCESS

To aid our efforts, we have scoured articles and webinars on liberal arts innovations. As most readers of this article know, there are informative websites, signature activities, and research projects from membership organizations such as the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). The plethora of resources from these two organizations alone is too weighty to mention. But a recent report from the CIC, Innovation and the Independent College: Examples from the Sector, deserves a callout for being a practical and constructive compilation of innovative examples of curricular changes, consortial agreements, cost containment approaches, and cocurricular activities (Hetrick, Katz, and Nugent 2018).

In addition to the aforementioned CIC report, I have relished reading informative industry articles about signature programs and niche development (Biemiller 2018). Adding a signature program is a viable strategy for certain institutions at certain times. Like Agnes Scott College, Connecticut College, and Dominican University, Hiram, too, has added innovative and relevant signature programs in the recent past. …

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