Dr. Daniel H. Weiss discusses small-scale higher learning.
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GUEST: Dr. Daniel H. Weiss
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, where many times over the years our topic at this table – in one form or another – has been higher education in America.
Most of those times my guest has been President of a major private university…like James Conant and Derek Bok of Harvard…John Bradamas, Jay Oliva and John Sexton of NYU…and William McGill and Michael Sovern of Columbia, my own Alma Mater.
Most recently, of course, with me here discussing higher education was the President of a major public university, Richard McCormick of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey – where I first began to teach way back in 1948.
But smaller, private colleges play an enormously important role in American education as well, and today’s guest is President of one of our nation’s best … Lafayette College in Pennsylvania … which Daniel H. Weiss has presided over since July, 2005.
A distinguished scholar, Dr. Weiss received his graduate degrees in Art History at Johns Hopkins … where he also taught and served as an Administrator .. and an MBA from Yale, which, of course, prepared my guest for the years he then spent in the business community at Booz, Allen & Hamilton.
Well, now Dan Weiss deals with a variety of small-size college educational opportunities, but also with difficult issues that were hardly on the horizon when I first donned my Freshman beanie more than 65 years ago.
And so I would first ask my guest today about those issues relating to early admissions, to fund-raising, to diversity among students and instructors, to public listings of competitive college standings, and all those others that prove particularly challenging to small private colleges like Lafayette.
In other words, Dr. Weiss, what’s most on your mind these days?
WEISS: Well I think what makes higher education so challenging in these, in this environment … is the number of challenges we have. There are questions about the competitiveness of our institutions, the degree to which that serves the public interest and our educational interests.
There are issues about affordability and price. Indeed, just yesterday Harvard University announced a really significant, maybe the most significant financial aid decision that any institution has made in the last 10 or 20 years. There are issues about that.
There are issues about access to talent and public mission and government regulation. So I think the challenges we face are diverse. Every day is different in this job. I like that. But it’s also a much different job than when you donned your beanie 65 years ago. (Laugh)
HEFFNER: More than 65 years ago.
HEFFNER: But, but this matter of Harvard’s statement yesterday … we’re, we’re speaking here today in the middle of December, 2007 …
HEFFNER: … when the program is seen, maybe others will follow Harvard’s lead. Could they afford to?
WEISS: Well, I think they, they won’t be able to afford to. But it’s a very interesting gesture. What Harvard has decided to do is to look at the middle category of families, what are typically called “middle income” families and they, they define it rather liberally as families with income, family income between $120,000 and $180,000 a year. Which is a lot of money.
Indeed the median family income in America is closer to $50,000. But that category, that mid-range that they define … they are offering much more aggressive financial aid, so that no family will pay more than 10% of their family income. What that means is that the average family will pay … to send a student to Harvard … what they would pay to send him to a state university. And that’s a huge step. I think there are only a small number of schools in the country who have the resources, right now, to do that.
You take a school like Lafayette. We’re a very well endowed school, we have one of the top endowments of any liberal arts college in the country. For us to match what Harvard did would require about $150 million in endowment right now over and above what we have today.
And that’s a very significant investment in increasing financial aid above what we already do, which is significant.
HEFFNER: What were the pressures … the financial pressures on the students that lead Harvard to its action?
WEISS: It’s been a very interesting process of the, the market applying pressure, the government applying pressure, increasingly higher education in the last 20 years has focused very aggressively on, on the one hand, identifying and supporting students who are outstanding. In many places, that means merit scholarships … although not so at Harvard.
And at the other end of the income bracket making accessibility a high priority so that students with very limited resources could still go to a very expensive institution.
Most places, Lafayette, Harvard, Yale, Princeton … lots of places have made the low end of those income continuum to be not a problem so much anymore. We provide full aid to students who have that kind of need.
The pressure has been in the middle bracket. About three or four years ago Bill Bowen who was President of Princeton and then at the Mellon Foundation published a book about the pressure on the middle … the ways in which families that are middle income families, who 30 or 40 years ago could afford to send their children to college, are increasingly unable to do so.
And most of the financial aid is going to those extremes. So what Harvard is doing is identifying a trend in the market place that is an important one for them to see … the government is talking about regulating tuition, or penalizing institutions that increase tuition at rates above the national average.
And I think Harvard’s was a pre-emptive strike to show that we can take care of our own business. We can manage our, our issues of affordability.
HEFFNER: What’s the endowment?
WEISS: Harvard’s endowments? $35 billion dollars. One could argue, of course, that they could have done this a long time ago. Given the size and substance of their endowment. But it is an important gesture. And the question will be, “what will other institutions do?”
Should we really define middle income families as those with income above $120,000? That’s a question as well.
So I think it’s going to generate a very productive and lively discussion about issues of access that is over-due. It’s a good thing.
HEFFNER: Do you think that’s the most important problem facing education? Higher education in America today? The dollar sign?
WEISS: I would not say it’s the most important. I would say there are two to three issues that really confront higher education today as major issues. And one of them is affordability. Because in fact most institutions that are in the most expensive category already spend enormous amounts of money in financial aid.
We at Lafayette spend about $26 or 27 million dollars a year on financial aid. And we aid more than half of our students very significantly. And most of them we admit and fund to the full … to their full level of need, regardless of their ability to pay.
It is an important issue and … but it is as much a substantive issue as a political issue … that higher education needs to show it’s paying attention to sticker price and how to manage cost. That’s one major issue.
Another I would say is, is the issue facing the generation of curriculum. What should our institutions really be about? Balancing the need to get people educated so they can get jobs against the value of an education that allows them to have productive lives.
The pressure I feel as a President on that issue is really quite significant. And most …
HEFFNER: Even at a liberal arts … independent liberal arts college that is so highly well endowed?
WEISS: It is because increasingly young people today … they’re, they’re focused on professional opportunities and getting out there and making lots of money and being happy and successful. In the marketplace.
And they think that means majoring in economics. Or business. Or engineering. And for many students, that’s fine. But what we’re focused on, what we do exceptionally well is provide a liberal education that gives people the ability to have a well adjusted, thoughtful life. To read thoughtfully, to think critically and to be lifelong learners and that means studying the classics and literature and history and art. And increasingly young people are, are … and I don’t mean just at Lafayette … I’m talking about nationally. They’re not as interested in that as they were 25 years ago.
HEFFNER: Wait a minute … not as interested in the liberal arts?
WEISS: In the liberal education …
WEISS: … benefits. Although if you were to have before you 10 CEOs leading among the most important companies in the country, they would tell you that what they look for in talent and hiring people are those who have a liberal education; who know how to work with people, who are thoughtful and introspective and have the kind of experiences you get from a liberal education.
But young people don’t know that and our challenge is to make that clear to them and relevant to them as they go to college. I see that as an issue.
HEFFNER: And American culture? American society? Abetting you in your wishes? Or …
HEFFNER: To the contrary?
WEISS: To the contrary. It’s a wonderful question. I, I think as an educator and someone who’s followed young people for 20 years, I think we’re in a very difficult place nationally. Our society is increasingly focused on superficial matters. We don’t read the newspapers carefully. Many of our voters don’t know much about what’s really happening in terms of the national election or local elections.
Young people know everything there is to know about what’s happening with Britney Spears, but not so much about what’s happening in Iraq.
And I think our society’s trend to become increasingly superficial is something we all have to worry about and it plays out in all kinds of ways.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “all kinds of ways”?
WEISS: Well, people are less attentive to the political system so that I think the political system is in great trouble. That we don’t have … the number of people who actually vote is a small percentage of our eligible population. The number of people who are informed about voting there’s a much smaller percentage. And if you follow the news of the national debates among the Republicans or the Democrats, it’s the same old sound bytes again and again. And not a more substantive investigation of what these issues are really about.
So I think our society’s interest in consumerism and celebrity and entertainment is not a development that portends great things for us over the long term, unless we figure out a way to deal with it. And as an educator, I worry about that.
HEFFNER: When I give my students Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, it comes as a shock that he was really serious about the damage …
HEFFNER: … that we are doing to ourselves.
HEFFNER: Which must make presiding over an independent liberal arts college that is well endowed a great pleasure.
WEISS: It is. It’s one of the great jobs, short of being, say, a relief pitcher for the Yankees …
WEISS: … it’s one of the great jobs. And, and it is … we have a chance to think about these issues on a regular basis, to engage our students in these discussions. For the most part, students who choose places like Lafayette do understand the value of a liberal education. And so it’s a … it’s an easier sell for them than it is for many other students, because they’ve already chosen to come and be with us to get educated. But it’s a great opportunity.
HEFFNER: Well, let me turn to, to some of those problems, some of the problem issues. The one … and maybe here I’m reflecting the same kind of involvement with the Britney Spear level of intellectual activity. But this matter of the … a magazine or magazines, the ratings, the comparative ratings …
HEFFNER: Where are we going with that? How is that working itself out? Or is it working itself out?
WEISS: You’re talking about the issue of rankings for higher education?
WEISS: I think it’s finding a resolution now that makes a good deal of sense. About 20 years ago US News saw an opportunity to develop a publication to rank colleges and universities because I think they quite rightly saw that we weren’t especially responsive to outside pressures for accountability.
So they put together a system for evaluating colleges and universities that was fairly thoughtful, they were looking at many measures that I think were the right ones. Student-faculty ratio, endowment per student … those things speak to our capacity to bring value to individuals. All host of measures.
And then they turned it into a consumer product by making adjustments each year to the calculations so that the list changed. And every year we’d buy a new magazine to see where was Harvard? Or where was Lafayette? Are we up or we down?
The good news in this was that it began to place pressure on institutions to focus on accountability. The bad news is it turned into a David Letterman “Top Ten” list. And where there was just increasingly focused on the wrong kinds of things.
How can I, as a college President, move Lafayette up in those rankings? And many, many Presidents over the last 20 years devoted their time and energy, at least in part, to figuring out how to do that. “How do we move the institution up in the rankings?” Even if it wasn’t in the long term best interests of the institution. Because it was a way of demonstrating what they see to be greater value in the market. Because we went from 22 to 18. And I think that was a misguided problem.
Meanwhile, no one else was really focusing so carefully on these ratings. In recent years … to bring your question to conclusion … in the last couple of years there has been serious public discussion about what’s wrong with that system for ratings.
It’s a magazine. They do a good job of selling magazines, they do a good job of writing about education, but that’s only one measure. By reducing it to a single ranking, so Harvard is one and Princeton is two … it superficializes, it trivializes what it is that institutions do to make them distinct and really worthy of individual study. So higher education has spoken, several institutions have gotten together and signed various letters saying that they’re no longer going to provide active support to US News, including doing all of the legwork for US News to fill out these surveys and do all of the back office work that they need. US News can do that on their own, if they want to get that data. And we’re focusing on developing new forms of information so families can make good decisions about the differences between institutions.
HEFFNER: How will you make that information available?
WEISS: Every college that has participated in this new exercise has it on their website. So if you turn to the Lafayette website, you’ll see an icon that says “You Can”, as you click that it will give you several pages of the kind of data that most families look at to decide about where they should send their children to school.
HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you this question. Never mind what most families do … what do you think they should be doing? What should they be looking for?
WEISS: Well, I think the college search is a very complicated and bewildering process for families. So I would start by understanding that actually what makes our system great is how diverse it is. There are many, many different kinds of institutions and then within those categories, there are many, many individual differences.
So there are large state universities. There are small state universities. There are private liberal arts colleges, there are research universities. And so forth.
The first step is really for families to decide what kind of institution feels right to them. And they can visit and the student can see what those kinds of choices are really about.
But beyond that, the real value of our system is that each institution is different. So to identify some basic subjects and categories that are of interest to a student … are you really interested in the sciences or engineering or research opportunities in medicine or the humanities, poetry. What is it that really animates the young person? Big time athletics? Whatever it is.
And then to, to drill down and find out which institutions have those kinds of characteristics. Then visit the places. Look at the data. Find out about financial aid, find out about the full cost of attendance. Student-faculty ratio and all those questions associated with the quality of the experience. But after limiting that pool to a much smaller set, based on the general things students are interested in.
HEFFNER: One of the things you’ve indicated (SOME SORT OF THUMP) concern about which would, I suppose, appear in the, in the information that will now be made available, or can now be made available on websites, has to do with diversity.
HEFFNER: Why the emphasis on diversity at this time? Why have you made that one of your concerns?
WEISS: Well, I think we are, like many institutions … in recognizing that more diverse campus brings value in all kinds of ways.
HEFFNER: And what do you mean by “more diverse” campus?
WEISS: Okay, a more diverse campus means identifying and recruiting students of excellence regardless of their ability to pay and focusing on students who come from all kinds of, of different racial, socio-economic environments. So that they bring value to the learning environment.
Removing the obstacle of cost so that students who have a desire to get this kind of education can get it. We want to have more students of color. More international students. More students who come from geographically diverse places. More students interested in humanities and the arts. Because we are fundamentally a learning environment … a learning laboratory. And the more richness you have in the student body, the more lively and interesting the learning environment.
HEFFNER: You mean learning from each other?
WEISS: From each other, that’s right. And that’s where all the real learning takes place. In college.
HEFFNER: You smile when you say that, as though … that’s, that’s …
WEISS: Well …
HEFFNER: … the key to it all.
WEISS: It is. Well, we have great faculty. And we certainly, the real value … the most important part of the college experience is certainly what the faculty bring. But so much learning gets … happens between students. In classrooms, outside of classrooms, in dormitories, that having a rich and diverse learning environment that they experience all the time is crucial to a quality experience. Otherwise they can … we can all do learning on line … we can all stay home and get good websites. MIT has open course books, you can study what MIT students study right at home.
HEFFNER: Now I’m going to challenge you on that. You brought it up.
HEFFNER: What about when critics say in terms of the cost, in terms of all the other difficulties of …
HEFFNER: … college education. We have the facility. Now, lacking, as you say, the one thing .. the “mix” …
HEFFNER: … but if you set that aside, can we now look more and more at the computer, at the television screen?
WEISS: Well, we do it even on our campuses. I think technology is right at the center of what we do in every aspect of our lives, including in colleges and universities. Can it substitute for what a college or university environment can do? I don’t think that it can, for many different fields and certainly for a college education. Because college is really as much about social development and interaction and personal development as it is about imparting knowledge and giving people access to information. So I think it doesn’t really substitute effectively. There may be certain kinds of things you can learn online just as well, or better. Maybe you could learn to fly an airplane better. Because you can use simulators and have computers tell you when you’re not landing the plane properly. But to understand issues of sociology or economic development or art history, I think you really need to have that kind of interaction …
HEFFNER: Dr. …
WEISS: … that is also …
HEFFNER: … Dr. Weiss, if you looked into the future …
WEISS: MmmHmm …
HEFFNER: I’ve …the “this I believe” … what it is you believe so strongly you’ve just expressed … at sometime, some points in our lives, we can’t have what we want most. Do you see a different kind of impact upon teaching, upon education in America coming from the technological revolution.
There was a time when television first was coming into its own … when there was fear and hope, mixed, about substituting the technology or technologies for just what you’ve described as “the mix”.
WEISS: Yeah. Well, I, I … I think it will … it will continue to transform higher education. All of our classrooms at Lafayette and everywhere else are smart classrooms, which allow us to bring technology right to the center of what we do every day. But it is not a substitute for the kind of, of mentoring … the hand-tooled education that college is all about. The opportunity to sit with a professor and talk … and with students and talk. I don’t think there is a substitute for that, so I think what we do at colleges and universities is a niche that will continue to provide real value to our society. But it will be done, increasingly with the help of technology.
Years ago, and I’m sure you remember this, when technology first arose as a major opportunity in higher education, it was seen as a productivity enhancer. You can do word processing instead of typing. You can bring images, digitally. But it isn’t a productivity enhancer, it’s a … it’s a medium that’s right at the center of, of the core experience of going to college.
HEFFNER: Do you think there’s something antithetical between your view of college life … a small independent college …
HEFFNER: … and the future in which numbers and numbers and numbers come to loom larger and larger?
WEISS: Numbers? You mean more and more students?
HEFFNER: More and more students.
WEISS: Well, I think there is, to be sure … we’re a small part of the whole landscape of higher education. In the United States liberal arts colleges like Lafayette represent about 4% of the total college going population. It’s a very small number. But we have a disproportionate impact on our society in terms of governmental leaders and business leaders. And we provide something that is … seemed to be great value to our society … if measured by philanthropic support, or the number of applications of the grants that our faculty receive. I don’t worry so much about us being crowded out, as our society continues to grow in population … because I think the value is absolutely there and it’s enduring. But it is up to us to continue to make clear what that value is in a larger and larger landscape of choices.
HEFFNER: Four percent?
WEISS: Four percent.
HEFFNER: And growing? Which way?
WEISS: It’s … it’s holding … it’s actually diminishing slightly mostly because there is a great proliferation of community colleges and state universities in high population areas in the Southwest, where liberal arts colleges are not a great strong tradition. So those populations increasingly, as they grow, they go to community colleges and large state universities and our niche of liberal arts colleges is … continues to hold fast and we grow, in terms of the number of applicants, but we don’t … we’re not increasing our number of institutions. You don’t hear about new liberal arts colleges being created, as much as you hear about new state universities or community colleges in California or Arizona or Texas.
HEFFNER: Does this mean that the rich intellectually get richer and the poor intellectually get poorer?
WEISS: No. I wouldn’t say so. I think there’s great value in all of these different kinds of institutions for students to move forward and get the experiences they need to be successful. Liberal arts colleges of the sort that Lafayette is represent one kind of choice in the same way the Ivy League represents one kind of educational choice … or very large state universities represent a choice. The question is whether or not we can continue to contribute to that diversity, that heterogeneity in higher education at a level that keeps us in the forefront as an attractive choice.
HEFFNER: You’ve talked about diversity among students and what’s the situation among faculty members?
WEISS: It’s a … that’s a more difficult challenge. Because the pool of potential applicants for jobs is more limited. The number of faculty members that come from underrepresented groups tends to be more limited because the educational opportunities that have produced graduates in those fields.
So there’s a lot of … one follows a lot of stories about market share, so that some eminent professor who happens to be African American at Harvard is now at Princeton and then at Stanford. That’s not helping the general world of diversity in among faculty so much, as it is helping the individual institution that gets them.
Our challenge is to strengthen the pipeline. To recruit more students, to support them financially so that they can imagine a career in higher education, so that they’re not so burdened by debt from getting educated that they can go to graduate school and become physicists or art historians and then have careers in higher education. It’s a long term challenge. Right now the pool is more limited, more so than we’d like it to be
HEFFNER: “The pool”?
WEISS: Of perspective applicants for faculty positions.
HEFFNER: And part-time faculty? We have only 30 seconds … that’s a hell of a subject to deal with there. What do you do at Lafayette?
WEISS: We use part-time faculty to help us supplement our curriculum where necessary and to teach in certain areas where it’s not consistent to have a full time faculty member. Certain areas of language training. But we don’t rely on them heavily, that’s not what we’re about.
HEFFNER: Is that growing?
WEISS: No. Not demonstrably, and it won’t.
HEFFNER: Dr. Weiss, thank you so much for joining me on The Open Mind. Ahh …
WEISS: Thank you.
HEFFNER: I’ll send my application into Lafayette first thing in the morning.
WEISS: You have a very good chance of getting in. Thank you.
HEFFNER: (Laughter) I doubt it. Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.