Imagine for a moment that a highly regarded and historic liberal arts college with a modestly good endowment was experiencing the catastrophic impact of a major economic depression. And in this life-threatening climate, all of the school’s enrollment and philanthropy lifelines had frayed to the point where radical steps were needed to avoid institutional collapse.
The school’s Board of Visitors and Governors, knowing that the institution was in a dire state, also understood that without comprehensive change in the school’s mission and business model, there would be no way to save the college, along with all it had accomplished in the hundreds of years it existed.
The College’s leadership, after consulting with higher education leaders — some of them professors at other institutions — took action. They decided to entirely restructure the school, including a bold and radical new curriculum, while also abandoning intercollegiate sports and discarding a long-term strategic plan that included new buildings and infrastructure improvements to their small campus.
On the curriculum front, rather than keep the basic tenets of the liberal arts tradition for which the college had been known for since the 18th century, the Board would make an audacious decision: it would rely on fewer than a thousand great books of western civilization to replace its curriculum; it would end student majors, build a faculty devoted to teaching rather than scholarship, and have the faith that a specific segment of high school graduates would, in fact, be drawn to this new approach.
One might think of any number of colleges that might be experiencing this kind of acute crisis in 2020. But the college in question was none other than St. John’s College in Annapolis in 1939. Staring in the face of the second wave of the Great Depression and going against the conventional wisdom of higher education orthodoxy, this tiny college moved forward with an extremely high-risk strategy to reinvent themselves and prepare for a new future.
Almost 82 years later, St. John’s is still very much alive (with two campuses, no less), and in many ways, is now far more prepared in 2020 to survive our pandemic-induced financial downturn than most colleges these days. In fact, there might be an excellent case to be made that St. John’s might even thrive in a post-pandemic world.
When I interviewed Peter Kanelos, its president, during the summer, I purposefully asked him how St. John’s could weather the COVID storm. His simple response was noting that the college did not have plans for new buildings, still doesn’t play intercollegiate sports, and had recently reduced its tuition by 35 percent. And, even in the midst of a national lockdown this spring, it had achieved record enrollment and is well ahead of its target to complete a $300 million comprehensive fundraising campaign by 2023, having raised more than $231 million at this writing.
The reason I bring up the example of St. John’s, when in fact, my real subject is Washington College, is that these two institutions have one of the most uncommon historical bonds in the country. Founded as “free schools” well before the United States was created, both found themselves growing in tandem in the 19th Century as Maryland’s only centers for higher education.
The common link rests with the founder of Washington College and St. John’s, The Reverend Dr. William Smith. Smith’s ingenious scheme in 1782 and 1783 was to merge these new colleges under the umbrella of what was to be known as the first University of Maryland, with a campus on the Eastern Shore and one on the Western Shore.
Under this model, the colleges would retain their exceptional character as independent institutions, but they would be equally funded by the State of Maryland through taxpayer revenue.
There were indeed some commonalities between the two, including the use of Smith’s radically new curriculum that valued the need for professionals, as opposed to ministers, as an entirely new nation was being formed. The other was that each school’s goal was to educate and foster a new generation of well-educated civilians, fully prepared to handle the challenges of democracy in their local communities.
Smith’s UM concept survived only a few years. Within five years, the state assembly grew tired of funding the initiative, and both schools were left to make their way on their own.
To survive for almost two hundred and fifty years from that point on is a testament to each institution’s extraordinary character and purpose. Independent of government funding, they both carried on with significant local backing to continue their mission.
For St. John’s, to depart from the tried and true in 1939 was an extraordinarily courageous act in hindsight. With no hard data, no high tech surveys, no alumni polling, no expensive consultants, the institution pivoted in the name of self-survival.
This shift was not an easy one. Anyone familiar with St. John’s challenges since that great change will tell you of its historical moments of conflict or self-doubt. But in 2020, it stands today as a fitting example of what schools need to do to be sustainable and relevant. More importantly, it exemplifies a college that knows its mission well. There is very little doubt among both students and faculty what St. John’s “true north” is these days.
Her sister, Washington College, is currently suffering from the same conditions as St. John’s did in the 1930s. And it must be said clearly that WC is not alone in that regard. Many outstanding colleges are now experiencing serious and potentially fatal financial conditions related to both the pandemic and the unforgiving changes in the country’s demographics. This black dog will not be going away anytime soon for any of them.
But Washington College, like its Annapolis twin, has the history and fortitude to also pivot to maintain the simple mission to “teach young people to think well,” as William Smith wrote.
This shift does not require the significant sea change that St. John’s brought unto itself. There is no reason to replicate a“Great Book” curriculum to keep WC alive. It would be a fool’s errand to do so.
But what the College does need to do is to use this difficult time to rethink its singular purpose to find its own true north. I suspect that many of the college’s leaders are doing that precise thing now as I write this, but will those changes in the prescription be meaningful enough to make a difference to Washington College’s fate?
It is reasonable for the College to look at the lower hanging fruit by reducing the college’s student body, scaling back the size of its full-time faculty, eliminating unpopular major disciplines, and minimizing future capital projects’ scale and scope. But is that enough?
I’d suggest it may need to go further.
Perhaps thirty years ago, the College started to make a significant strategic change that might have benefited the school in the short-term but, in the long run, had severe consequences for its reputation.
That change, instituted by the gifted and much-beloved college president, Dr. John Toll, who had come to Chestertown after successful leadership tenures at the current University of Maryland as well as the University of New York at Stony Brook, marked the beginning of far more rigorous standards of scholarship and academic publishing from its faculty. To accomplish this goal, the school was less interested in the teaching abilities of its professors than an impressive curriculum vitae demonstrating diligent scholarship in hiring decisions.
As a result of this new emphasis, the College did indeed see marked improvements in how it compared to peer institutions. These advancements were manifested by the much more significant accomplishments of its professors and the academic preparedness of its students.
But for many who watched this transition, the College had also marginalized to some extent its distinctive reputation as a “teaching” institution, the cornerstone of William Smith’s earliest aspirations. Rather than seeking out the rare qualities of one’s teaching skills, search committees applied a far different criteria to academic appointments.
The consequences are subtle but telling. Over time the school has lost perhaps one of its most singular differentials as it competes for undergraduates. Rather than reinforcing the benefits of a small rural school where the vast majority of its teachers live, and where students, many of whom are late bloomer learners, are its fundamental priority, the school could now be seen as lost in a sea of schools offering similar cultures.
Since I know many of the leaders of Washington College personally, it’s important to note that none of them marginalize the seriousness in which WC finds itself. They also share the awareness that the school needs to come out of this experience better and stronger for the century ahead of it.
But having said that, I can only encourage those same leaders to consider returning to what the school has always maintained is its greatest virtue, that of teaching young adults to “think well.”
Dave Wheelan is a graduate of Washington College and served as Vice President of College Relations and Development under President Douglass Cater in the 1980s. He is the publisher of the Chestertown Spy, the Talbot Spy, and, more recently, the Cambridge Spy.