Women Leading, Leading Women Series

Laura Skandera Trombley, President of Pitzer College
Speech delivered at Town Hall Los Angeles on June 30, 2005

“The Tipping Point: Measuring the Quality of a Liberal Arts College Education”

It’s an honor to be here today and I’m very glad to see all of our current and future friends of the College as well as several of our trustees. I’m also thrilled to see so many high school students here, and I look forward to our conversation after my remarks today. I’m here to talk about “The Tipping Point: Measuring the Quality of a Liberal Arts College Education,” and this is a place I know well. I’ve been involved now in higher education for 21 years. Mark Twain once said—I always have to refer to Mark Twain—he was born excited. I think that I was born to be excited about the liberal arts and in particular about Pitzer College. With that, I’ll begin.

I am a lover of bold statements and I came of age during a time that elicited some of the most memorable. “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And my favorite, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” These statements were not just catchy phrases. They encapsulated noble aspirations. This was a time of inspiration: The Peace Corps, the war on poverty, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, a generation believing it had the power to change the world. Each statement signals a tipping point, an entry into a new age.

During the period from 1950-2000, the number of colleges and universities in the United States swelled from 1,800 to nearly 4,000. This was the decade when Governor Pat Brown’s California master plan for higher education went into effect and the California State University system was founded. Over the course of the ’60s, campuses were constructed, faculty hired and a greater portion of state and federal funding was dedicated to increasing access for students. In 1960, approximately 400,000 students earned their bachelor degrees. Forty years later, that figure has tripled. Pitzer College, the institution I’m so very proud to represent, is a child of that era’s investment in higher education.

Pitzer was founded in 1963, the 5th undergraduate college to join the Claremont consortium. In April of that year, the College’s first president was installed, John Atherton. Over the next 17 months he recruited students, faculty, trustees, established a curriculum and constructed the campus just in time for the beginning of the fall 1964 semester. Our first academic year began with 153 students and 10 professors. Consistent with the bold visions of that era, President Atherton famously declared a new age had dawned for liberal arts colleges. “Pitzer College has a mandate to change the universe,” he said. He later reflected, “Pitzer was built of dreams; we were the wonder child who came to transform the world.” Now I should add that he was also a poet because only a poet could have a vision that large when you have 153 students and 10 professors. For those of you here today who are not yet part of the Pitzer family, you might be wondering just what makes our college so special. To extend that thought a bit, what is it about the landscape of higher education that makes educators like myself believe that liberal arts colleges are such indispensable places?

To answer this we need to entertain the thought that we’ve entered a new era where instead of focusing on our aspirations we tend to look only at our limitations. Some may call this a natural historical correction; a pragmatic need to scale back in order to live within the confines of what is possible—a reality check. But when we look at the world of ideas that has brought forth the society in which we live we learn that reality is a subjective vision. The eras of wealth, like the one in which we are now living, have produced golden ages of progressive thought and action that has benefited humankind. Comparing the present to the recent past, to the time of bold statements and visions, where do we stand? Let’s look at education for comparison.

First, I think the days of such extraordinary investment are over and this leads us to look at a different set, a set of broader issues. Today, in the United States, every 40 seconds a child is born without health insurance and every 50 seconds a child is born into poverty (1). As a nation, we must develop a plan to improve the immediate life concerns for these children and we need a comprehensive vision for their education. In order for the American dream to work, the institution that we tell ourselves is the great leveler—education, the pathway to that dream—has to be in working order. In the high stakes of the education market today community colleges are bursting, state institutions are enduring budget cuts and in the private sector fundraising expectations are increasing every year, projected stagnation or downturns in the stock market be damned. Just 40 percent of students will earn their degrees within four years at Berkeley and UCLA. Community college enrollment in the state actually dropped by 90,000 between 2002 and 2003 due to class cancellations caused by budget cuts (2). A report by the Campaign for College Opportunity estimates that given historic trends in higher education, nearly two million of the students graduating from high school and preparing to enter college in the next decade will be without access to public higher education due to lack of state funding.

As a nation we might grow tired of hearing these statistics. Perhaps we’ve just become numb with the sheer magnitude of the problem. Certainly in the season of political division those of us here today will have different ideas about what must be done to improve the situation. The data presents a troubling picture of the future. This is the picture: We’re losing ground between two opposing forces—a rapid increase in the number of potential students and reduced access to education. As responsible citizens it is our responsibility to develop a strategy to address it. Within the higher education sector there are winners and losers. University of Phoenix, a for-profit vocational organization consisting of a cyberspace campus and part-time faculty that now has 110,000 students has successfully increased its share of the non-traditional student market and is considering developing curriculum for traditional age students. On the other side of the coin, liberal arts colleges in the Midwest struggle to meet annual enrollment targets. Between the years 1967 and 1990, in the midst of all this expansion within higher education, 167 liberal arts colleges disappeared from the academic landscape (3). But this is the 21st century and perhaps the process of natural selection is telling us that the kind of education afforded by liberal arts colleges is unaffordable in the sense that Victorian homes are nice to look at but expensive to maintain.

Liberal arts colleges are sometimes viewed as precious, insular, quiet places where students are provided with an overabundance of attention. There exists a false dichotomy—applied skills versus liberal arts—that recent trends in education serve to highlight. In conversations I have with parents I’m often asked to explain to them (in other words reassure them) how an excellent liberal arts education is also a good, practical choice. What they are really asking is, will their children move back home? I speak about the experiences our students have and how they will more easily adapt to a society where new careers are constantly emerging as old tracts evaporate or migrate offshore. Through serious engagement with valuable modes of reflection that have endured through the ages, we learned that the span of a single human life has always involved adaptation to the new, the unexpected. The liberally educated mind understands that knowledge is never about waiting for someone else to supply the single right answer. Our students will be curious about their world and clever enough so that they can shape the course of their lives so that their lives don’t just happen to them, so that they have control. A liberally educated person possesses global orientation and is ready to confront a future where change will be constant and it will be continuously unfolding. As you can see, I’m fairly passionate about this, about the potential of a certain form of higher education, about how indispensable the liberal arts are for our society.

In keeping with President Atherton’s brave 1960s-inspired words, Pitzer College graduates young people who are convinced that they change the world, and that’s one of the things that I love the most about our college. Jessie Guterman, a 2004 alumna, commented on her experience in a moving letter to me: “The only thing I’ve ever known about myself, and the way I wish to contribute to the world, is that I want to improve quality of life. One of the most valuable things I’ve learned at Pitzer is that I can change the world from any angle.” Southern California now boasts the greatest concentration of liberal arts colleges in America (4). Out of 217 national liberal arts colleges, 10 are located in the Los Angeles area. For that matter, we also have the greatest representation of women presidents. Out of ten colleges, five are led by women. The national percentage for women presidents is just 20 percent. Perhaps in light of recent comments questioning women’s ability, the media might be interested in covering our extraordinary local success in gender equity.

Liberal arts colleges like Pitzer are one part of the varied fabric of higher education. Selective liberal arts colleges numbering only 45 are a subset within the total 217 and they’re defined by their admissions policies. Pitzer College is one of the most selective colleges in the United States and we accept only 38 percent of those who apply. Over the past six years we’ve seen applications increase by over 89 percent. This year, more than 3,200 young people applied for admission for just 220 available slots in our first year class. This is how small a class of institutions our market share represents: economists Michael McPherson and Morton Shapiro estimated that out of the total 14 million students enrolled in higher education each year, only a quarter of a million were enrolled in liberal arts colleges. Of that quarter million, fewer than 100,000 attend selective liberal arts colleges (5). We can’t even fill the L.A. Coliseum. Yet, I would argue that even though Pitzer is a tiny slice of the pie we make an enormous contribution to the public good. Locally, our successful alumni include such diverse individuals and careers as Speaker of the California Assembly, Fabian Nunez, class of ’97, the first Asian American woman to serve as U.S. Attorney, Deborah Yang, class of ’81, and Chief of Staff for Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Robin Kramer, class of ’75.

Pitzer is clearly one of the fortunate in the competitive world of higher education and I believe our success is directly related to our core values. At Pitzer, we believe that education begins between a student and a teacher, not a lecture given to hundreds and not a printout available 24-7 in cyberspace. These people learn from each other, creating a lifelong mentoring relationship. Each of our students creates, in partnership with her professor, a four year course of study. We define labor-intensive education within education. A relationship develops as intense and as joyous as a mother teaching her young son how to read. We could easily increase our total number of students on campus and we could reduce the number of faculty that we have. Certainly revenue would increase, but we’re not interested in amassing numbers. We are looking for quality and we’re looking to build relationships.

Another Pitzer core value is that we believe excellence can only be achieved through diversity, and taken as a whole our community of faculty, staff, students and trustees, is a national leader. Elaine Hanson, president of Bates College, commented about the commitment to diversity among selective liberal arts colleges. She says, “over the last two or three decades, we’ve seen enormous changes in campus demographics… they are purposely, even aggressively aiming to be diverse communities, open to students from all parts of the globe, of various racial and ethnic cultures and, insofar as financial aid budgets will allow, of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Faculty and students at larger universities may in fact experience less ‘diversity’—even though their campuses will look more expansive, less bounded, more multicultural—because individuals need not associate across identity groupings with people whose backgrounds and interests are unlike their own.” These students will not have the kind of interaction with people who are utterly different from themselves the way that they do at the liberal arts college level (6)

What once were internal decisions for colleges and universities, such as whether the college should grow or become increasingly selective, are now influenced by an external agency. The Darth Vader of wood pulp, the U.S. News & World Report fall rankings issue. U.S. News has a significant effect on how institutions shape and market themselves all at a cost to us and to families. I won’t spend time arguing whether or not we should be concerned about U.S. News—that’s really not the point—rankings are here to stay. Years ago colleges and universities decided to participate and every year, depending on the rankings, presidents will either transmit to their alumni and boards triumphant bugle blasts or muted violin solos. What I’d like to briefly discuss is how, by participating in the commodification of our greatest independent asset, America’s institutions of higher education, we’ve enfranchised a corporate entity that insists on making us look more and more alike.

For example, this year Pitzer is in a three-way tie with the College of Wooster and Drew University. Last year, we tied with the Virginia Military Institute. I really can’t imagine two more disparate institutions than Pitzer College and the Virginia Military Institute. Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, recently bemoaned that this emphasis on competitive commercialism is reducing the importance of education and placing enormous emphasis on successful branding (7). Students and their parents are becoming increasingly brand focused and sophisticated to the difficulties of admission. A new kind of higher education professional has evolved to assist frustrated families, namely the admissions consultant. The admissions consultant is the next person affluent families hire after the SAT coach. Gaining admission to a selective college more and more resembles a high stakes poker game with all the attendant costs.

I ask where and how is the student amidst all this survivor-like competition?. U.S. News has various categories by which they determine an institution’s supposed merit, and just for fun I thought I’d suggest a few additional ones that might be more accurate indicators of a value in education:

1. A holistic ranking of college community diversity. Not just students, but faculty, staff administrators and trustees. At Pitzer, 40 percent of our faculty are female and 32 percent are faculty of color. I don’t think any liberal arts college in America has a more diverse population.

2. Community partnerships and internships. Four years ago, Pitzer established the Center for California Culture and Social Issues to oversee our partnerships in the communities of Ontario and Pomona, focusing on themes of immigration, juvenile justice, homelessness and health education for the young.

3. Social responsibility. This is one of Pitzer’s few general education requirements and the college is among the charter members of Project Pericles, an organization of colleges and universities created by philanthropist Gene Lang to promote civic engagement. We want our students to understand that a measure of your humanity consists in what you are able to give back to the world.

4. Student international study opportunities. Our students have their choice of 32 Pitzer programs and exchanges and the Institute for International Education ranked Pitzer in the top 15 among colleges for students who study abroad. By their calculations, 72 percent of our students do so. The College’s extraordinary success with Fulbright fellowships can be linked to our commitment to global issues. For the past three years, we’ve been the national record holder for Fulbright fellowships for colleges our size. This year we were awarded an unprecedented 10 Fulbrights, the highest number per capita compared to all colleges and universities in the country.

None of these measures are currently included as part of the U.S. News rankings. What an interesting statement it would be about our society, what bold vision they would express if they were.

History presents us with critical tipping points, challenging moments in which boldness is required to make the most of emerging conditions. Higher education is now at such a point. Knowledge is at a tipping point since technical preparation for the present is only one strategy for effective preparation for a future in which such expertise has such a short shelf life. The world is at a tipping point, representing us with a welter of challenges in technology, human understanding and cultural coexistence. Thinking that the liberal arts today is a quaint element of a bygone educational model is the same as thinking the sound bite or political slogan are the most efficient ways of delivering valuable education about complex issues. What qualities of mind are required to understand and articulate productive discussion? Here are just a few challenges that the young people in the audience today will be facing over the course of your lives: Global climate change, the wise management of vital resources and the effective exploration of alternatives, the revision of policy regarding social arrangements under which so
many remain disadvantaged in affluent society, the wise recognition and avoidance of ideologies that divide rather than unite and, yes, identifying life work that’s satisfying and rewarding and suitable to your individual qualities. Understanding the individual responsibility for coming to terms with these issues reflects the heart of the liberal arts endeavor.

The happiest day in every college president’s life is commencement. It’s a day when we celebrate our students’ successes and we rejoice with their thrilled families. This year, 200 Pitzer students, the largest number in the college’s history, walked across the stage to receive their diplomas to music, applause and tears. One young woman, flustered by the crowd and the flashing cameras, embraced me and asked, which way do I go? I turned and I whispered, “Any way you want.”

Thank you.

  1. Children’s Defense Fund
  2. “Getting In,” Edward Humes, Los Angeles Times Magazine, January 2005
  3. Hugh Hawkins, “The Making of the Liberal Arts College Identity,” Daedalus, winter 1999
  4. “Liberal Arts Los Angeles,” John Seery, Pomona College
  5. “The Future Economic Challenges for Liberal Arts Colleges,” Daedalus, 1999
  6. Paper delivered to MLA, 1999
  7. Lee Bollinger, College Board Forum keynote address, January 31, 2002
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