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At my current institution, there is a constant battle between faculty members who are interested in preserving the mission of the school and administrators who are interested in preserving the financial stability of the school. Unfortunately, the perspectives of these parties are often at odds. For example, although the creation of programs for non-traditional students several decades ago essentially saved the school financially, there are some faculty members who feel that this move took our institution down a path from which it cannot return. These tensions were present when I visited five years ago, but they have increased recently as continued financial struggles require faculty members to take on more responsibilities without the possibility of raises.

As a result of these tensions, during interviews (whether phone, Skype, or campus) one of the questions that I asked nearly everybody concerned the relationship between the faculty and administration and my questions for administrators always focused on their goals for the institution and how they saw their institution fitting into the changing landscape of higher education in the next few decades. Answers to these questions differed dramatically based on the institution’s financial stability. Those at wealthier schools focused on their vision for the college and ways that they were trying to improve student experiences while those at schools with fewer resources talked about how “every school” experiences financial difficulties that cause tensions between the faculty and administration.

Even at the most elite private schools, with endowments measured in the billions, financial resources affect academic decisions. I am interested in seeing, however, how these tensions will play out at my new, more financially stable institution in the fall. Although there are no special programs for nontraditional students, there is certainly a large number of underpaid adjuncts teaching important courses that allow the school to function. It will also be interesting to track my own perceptions of these differences, such as whether I will see things as less problematic than faculty members who have not worked at schools with fewer resources. In any event, raises will be nice. (Clearly, this is proof that I have already sold out!)

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed to read when you get tired of looking at posts from your racist uncle.

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Over on the Sociology Job Market Forum, people use SLAC to mean both small liberal arts college and selective liberal arts college. I have never heard somebody say the latter in person, probably because saying that makes you sound like an asshole (add it to the list of terms I don’t like…). Of course, using the word “selective” when explaining what I mean by SLAC has also never made much sense because my school is not particularly selective. If it were, I’m pretty sure that the admissions office would select students who could pay a higher percentage of the sticker price. Next year, this will change.

From my current outsider’s perspective, there are some clear advantages to working at a school where the “selective” label actually applies. According to the venerable US News rankings, my current institution is ranked roughly 100 positions below the institution that recently hired me. At the most basic level, this means that my new institution has a lot more financial resources. These resources translate into a higher salary and lower teaching load (3-2). I am told that my new institution also has something called “raises,” where one’s salary increases in some accordance with the cost of living. I have only experienced this phenomenon once at my current institution, so I’m not entirely sure how it works, but it sounds like something that is nice to have.

Financial stability is nice, but selectivity also affects other aspects of the institution. I anticipate that the average ability level of my students will be higher and that the range of abilities will be lower. These are good things, since one of my constant struggles has been figuring out how to challenge the students at the top of my classes without losing the students at the bottom. It also means, though, that my own workload will be higher because of the increased expectations for course readings and assignments.

The biggest downside to this selectivity, though, is less student diversity in terms of race and social class. If the diversity of my students’ abilities has been one of the worst aspects of my current job, the diversity of their backgrounds has been one of the best. I’ve found that sociological concepts are given added weight when students regularly interact with those from backgrounds other than their own. Class discussions also benefit from a diversity of experiences. Unfortunately, in addition to reduced racial diversity, my sense is that the social class diversity that does exist at my new institution is less visible as students try to “pass” as wealthier than they are in an attempt to meet the standards of their peers.

Despite the fact that as a white, middle-class male (actually, I’m probably upper-middle-class now…) I decrease diversity wherever I go, I hope to work with others on my new campus to increase diversity among students, faculty, and staff. I also hope that, as a sociologist, I can help others see that bringing in students (and faculty and staff) from different backgrounds also requires that you welcome and support those students once they arrive.

I once said that applying for a different job helped me focus on how I could make my current job more like the mythical “ideal” position. While taking a different job has helped me move closer in some areas, it is clear that I have some ground to make up in others.

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It is likely that you have read about the job candidate in philosophy whose offer was withdrawn by Nazareth College. The candidate was reportedly told that his or her requests “… indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered.” Beyond finding the college’s response inexcusable, this statement stood out to me because it sets up “research” and “teaching” institutions as a dichotomy, which I have heard a number of times when talking to those from small liberal arts colleges about things like teaching loads. This dichotomy is demonstrably false not only because it ignores a lot of schools but also because the situations in which it is used reveal as many differences as similarities.

I have heard variations of the statement, “We’re not an R1, so…” to justify teaching loads ranging from 4-4 to 3-2. I imagine that a difference of three courses per year is significant, but it is not the only significant difference. Although I teach three courses per semester, I regularly teach more students per semester than friends who teach four. Despite this, my school does not have the resources of those in the top 100 national liberal arts schools (whether sorted by US News ranking or endowment). There are also large differences between teaching at a school with no religious affiliation, one with a nominal affiliation, and one with a tight coupling between faith and academics.

Talking about SLACs vs. R1s makes for an easy shorthand, and I have certainly discussed the common qualities that many SLACs share. Statements that start with “We’re not an R1, so…”, however, suggest a sort of inferiority complex that might be brought on by working at a school that nobody has ever heard of but that could also be linked to the perceived status of teaching vs. research in academia. After all, I have never heard somebody who works at a research university respond to a question about teaching load by saying “We’re not a SLAC, so…”.

I know that those involved in the job market from both sides are doing their best to make a good impression, but I think that making a good impression can be bolstered by having a bit of self respect. If somebody asks you about the teaching load at your institution, tell them. Then tell them about your class sizes, your students, and what kind of research you’re working on. If that person is a job candidate, giving them a realistic picture of life at your institution can be done without denigrating it. It is okay to reflect the complexities of life in the ivory tower.

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Recently, administrators at my school circulated copies of the newest brochure – part of a revised marketing campaign – for faculty comments. The brochure looked great – we have some good people in charge of these things – but beyond its appearance, I couldn’t find much to get excited about. The takeaway from the brochure seemed to be that we are a liberal arts school with liberal artsy things like small classes and opportunities for students to study abroad and conduct research. What I did not notice was anything that sets us apart from other liberal arts schools in the region.

Over the past several years I have grown increasingly weary of administrators talking about our “educational brand,” our “marketing strategies,” and our “competitors.” Are there new programs, they ask, that we could create to attract students with higher academic abilities (and whose parents have deeper wallets)? Looking at the new brochure it struck me that the administration seems to be going about things backwards. Instead of focusing on who we want to be, more attention should be paid to playing up the strengths that we currently have. If our “brand” were consistent with our strengths, maybe we would be able to attract better students who are drawn to those strengths.

I’m obviously a faculty member and not an expert in marketing or branding, but looking at the current trends in higher education it seems that any small liberal arts college that wants to exist in its current state fifty years from now had better find a niche. Otherwise, schools like mine seem likely to devolve into little more than sources of online adult education, maybe with a token physical location as a loss leader. In carving out such a niche, a school’s marketing had better be closely aligned with its mission and both had better be closely aligned with its actual strengths and the students it serves. Whatever the case may have been in the past, generic statements about small classes and student research opportunities are not enough anymore.

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Following Obama’s comments about education during the State of the Union, David Shribman refutes the argument that the value of a college degree can be quantified on a scorecard (look up your own school here). He states:

Where the president has gone wrong — along with those college trustees contributing to the 39 percent decline in the number of liberal arts institutions — is in assuming that Americans need to be trained for a living rather than educated for life. This is more than a semantic distinction. It is the difference between reading Shakespeare in college and mastering accounting.

This is the sort of argument that many faculty members have been making, but it seems that the view of student-as-consumer, however flawed, is inescapable.

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One of the advantages of working at a small school is that things are not set in stone months in advance. Sometimes, though, this is a disadvantage. This comes into play every semester when it is time for advising. I typically get the schedule for the next semester via e-mail about two weeks before registration starts. Because I work a small school and students are required to meet with me personally before they can register this gives me two weeks to post a sign-up sheet outside my office, contact students telling them to sign up on said sheet, and meet with roughly 60 students to discuss their past, present, and future courses. I received the registration dates and course schedule for the spring semester yesterday.

There goes my hope for accomplishing anything next week!

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A recent article in the Chronicle by Nannerl O. Keohane tackles the age-old question of why a liberal arts education is valuable. Keohane mentions a number of good reasons, but I don’t know how many of them would resonate with my students or their parents. Although I work at a private liberal arts institution, most of my students don’t want an invitation “to a community of scholars, both professional and amateur, spanning the ages.” They want jobs.

Because students and their parents want reassurance that $120,000 of their money will not be wasted by spending four years in college, there is increasing pressure on institutions like mine to offer more applied majors with direct connections to jobs. I see this in my intro students when they tell me that they love sociology but that they don’t want to major in it because they don’t want to be social workers and even in my advisees when they come to ask me what kind of job their sociology degree will get them after graduation.

Maybe majors at schools like Duke and Wellesley, where Keohane has worked, have a direct pipeline from the liberal arts to careers and graduate degrees, but the experiences of my own students (and most of my friends) have been very different. Ask a few non-academic friends what they majored in in college and compare their responses to their current jobs. I’m guessing that most of them aren’t employed doing anything remotely close to what they thought they would do when signing their major.

While schools like mine are facing pressure to offer more applied majors, the reality of the job market for most people is that those who are best off are those who have a broad knowledge base and can use that knowledge to reason, solve problems, and clearly communicate with others. There seems to be a huge disconnect between what students think they will get out of college and where they actually end up. If we can get people to realize that linear paths from high school to college majors to careers are the exception, the importance of the liberal arts should be self evident.

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