Nov. 17, 2009, at 6:55pm
An inspiring article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education tells the story of a “turnaround artist” of a new president, Buck Smith, transforming a failing small college by focusing not on new technologies, distance courses or non-traditional students, but on personal relationships.
“The underlying thing for me is relationships—hardly anything important happens that doesn’t have to do with relationships,” he says quietly one afternoon in his office. He is not talking just about cozying up to a wealthy donor or board chairman. He is talking about building connections to needy students, the lowliest employees, the local community. “It’s getting to know people, being interested in them. … Life is built on genuine relationships, where trust and integrity are without question. When that is there, there are no limits.”
Nor is this just happy talk. Mr. Smith translates his conviction into concrete policy. For instance,
To improve communication, [he] instituted a policy allowing faculty and staff members to eat lunch free at the dining hall, in the hope that they would spend more time talking with each other and with students.
And his policies spring from a profound philosophical sense of the nature the person. Mr. Smith’s mentor and life-long friend, Howard Lowry, a tireless defender of small, liberal arts colleges, recognizes that their value comes from a basic truth about persons.
“The small college has a superb asset, one that is subtle and not easily measured or explained,” Mr. Lowry wrote. “It answers to one of the deepest human needs, the need for belonging. And the only way to do justice to the sense of community that a college can confer is to make an almost preposterous claim for it—namely, that this is something no larger institution, however excellent and richly blessed, can confer in the same measure.”
In any case, his approach seems to be working.
After years of stagnant enrollment at Davis & Elkins—which had developed a dismal local reputation, according to some local high-school counselors—the freshman class was up 50 percent this fall. As of November, the number of applications was more than seven times higher than at this time in 2007, and eight students had already put down deposits. Consider that those numbers came after the college had canceled its advertising campaign and done away with mass mailings in favor of a highly personal approach to recruiting students: getting to know their names, their parents’ names, their dogs’ names, and conveying the message that at this college of 700 students, you’re part of a family.
May it be the beginning of a long and broad trend!