How to Revive Dying Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities in the United States

by Dr. Alex Parnia

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In this decade, governing a college is more than rocket science. It takes bravery, maverick leadership, and out-of-the-box thinking. From the near closure of Virginia's Sweet Briar College, which sent shockwaves throughout the higher education community, to the takeover of Wheelock College by Boston University and recent speculation of a merge of Mount Ida and Lasell College and ultimate takeover of Mount Ida by the University of Massachusetts, there have been numerous articles discussing the issues illuminated by these developments. I believe these closures, mergers, and takeovers should be a moment of awakening for liberal arts colleges.

Signs of trouble have been present for a long time. On November 19, 1999, The Board of Trustees of Bradford College in Haverhill, Massachusetts announced that the 197-year-old liberal arts institution would close. I visited the campus just a few years after it had closed and the downtrodden sight of these magnificent buildings and once well-kept facilities were utterly heartbreaking. The theater that once seated more than seven hundred audience members, with finely dressed walls, cushioned seats, and Italian detailing, had been destroyed by weather and wear. Bradford College closed due to falling short of achieving its enrollment goal by only 32 students. In turn, its memorable campus was eventually claimed by developers and today resembles nothing of its once colorful history and magnificent campus.

In these trying times, what does it take to keep a small or midsize academic institution open? It requires a visionary leader who is willing to take the necessary risks and press appropriate boundaries both with the Board of Trustees and the faculty, two dominating forces on any campus. It also requires the Board's willingness to acquire and support a maverick president.

Pacific Oaks College, a 70-year-old institution in Pasadena, California, faced a similar challenge in late 2009. It had fallen under duress due to a sudden and drastic enrollment drop and found itself financially challenged at the start of the 2009 fall season. The school's board took the initiative to affiliate the college with The Chicago School Education System (TCSES), a newly formed consortium. I was consequently hired as the school's ninth president in January of 2012 after three presidents had come and gone in the previous 18 months. Even TCSES's investment of almost $5 million had not been effective.

From the first day in office, my executive team and I were faced with the daunting task of shrinking a four-million-dollar budget deficit and eliminating a five-million-dollar inter-company debt.

In maverick fashion, my diverse executive team and I rolled up our sleeves and went to work. Pacific Oaks had a fair reputation in Pasadena, but beyond that, there was little to no market recognition. We put out a marketing strategy rooted in alumni outreach and ad placement in high traffic areas around Southern California, and we contracted with a reputable public relations firm. We boosted our admissions team and added bilingual staff in every student-facing office in order to provide staff diversity to reflect the community and students we served.

Within a mere eighteen months our enrollment went from 580 students to over 1100. The school's budget gap was closed, our debt was paid, and Pacific Oaks College became then, and is now, a thriving institution. The College even opened a branch campus in Northern California during my tenure. This rehabilitation process may seem simple. However, it takes an intuitive, evolutionary way of thinking to revive a dying college such as Pacific Oaks.

A president must know how to involve and engage the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, and students to keep a college vitalized and relevant. It requires the president to be in the middle of concentric circle walking the halls, spending time with faculty in their offices, talking to alumni across the country, visiting classes, and engaging with students, all while managing the board and keeping fundraising alive. Not an easy task. A week or two into my presidency, I was privileged enough to visit the class of a seasoned faculty member who pointed out that I was the only president who had ever visited her class in her 32 years at Pacific Oaks. She continued to mention my visit to her class at any opportunity she got.

The major turnaround at Pacific Oaks took long hours, dedication of the staff and faculty, and an "on the ground" engaged president. The days of presidents who spend their days locked away in their offices, disengaged from their constituents, and only engaging their board and high net-worth people are over.

Reviving a liberal arts college may also require seeking help from outside of the world of academia. Seeking fresh perspectives from the technology industry can be a fantastic starting point for academic institutions on the verge of collapse. I spent countless hours picking the brain of up-and-coming technology gurus for insight on how to revive institutions such as Pacific Oaks. I spent hours in faculty offices convincing them that change could only be beneficial and that it would strengthen their long-term employment. These new programs were implemented within a market-driven timeframe and additional resources were added incrementally as our financial picture improved. In 2010, Pacific Oaks was a few weeks away from closing its' doors. By the time I left, four years later, it stood as a strong, financially stable institution.

All in all, to revive our dying liberal arts colleges, it will take strong engagement, tough actions, and iron will from a leader with the vision and determination to get results.