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Katie van Schaijik

Personalism in education administration

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!


Teresa Manidis • Nov 18, 2009 - 10:04 am

I like this, Katie.  One of the best parts of going to (what was then, a very) small, liberal arts college was the close, personal contact one had with faculty and fellow students every day.  Having teachers one knew and admired as mentors, and peers one could confide in and laugh with as classmates totally ‘made’ the college experience and helped us grow as persons - and, looking back, many of these relationships are still intact (we’re godparents to each other’s children, etc).  It goes without saying that, with so much personal attention, our education was excellent; but, in the end, it is the relationships themselves that were and are more important than any purely academic subject we might have studied.

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 19, 2009 - 1:33 pm

That was our experience, too, Teresa.  It meant a lot to Jules and me when we were undergraduates to see the priests and professors all over campus: at morning prayer in the friary, at Mass, at adoration, on the tennis courts…And then sometimes to be invited to their homes.  Michael Healy and his wife used to host Newman reading nights.
In graduate school, which was much smaller, we enjoyed still closer personal contact with our professors, frequently dining with them (at the Linde Hotel) and spending time in their homes and with their families.  They treated us as friends and almost peers.  It was a great gift.

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