F&M’s Window of Opportunity as a Campus of Opportunity

"Our faculty can rethink how they teach and what they teach and why it matters in dialogue with students who collectively more closely resemble the future of our country and world. Working with this new student body has profound intellectual significance and promise, not just for individual courses … but, on a larger scale, for how we teach and how our disciplines are practiced."
Joel Martin, Ph.D.
Provost and Dean of the Faculty
A message from Provost Joel Martin to the faculty, delivered at the Dec. 9, 2014, Faculty Meeting.

Rip Van Winkle slept for twenty years and woke up to a hometown he could hardly recognize. In some ways, I can relate. I left Franklin and Marshall College in the year 2000 as a faculty member and returned 14 years later this last summer [July 2014] as the new Provost and Dean of the Faculty. The changes amaze me.

On the one hand, the physical campus itself has been radically transformed by the addition of glorious new buildings like Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy and the new College Houses, and, on the north side of Harrisburg Pike, a major project is transforming an old industrial/rail section of Lancaster into new fields of sport and zones of commerce. On the other hand, the social composition of the student body has expanded in equally dynamic ways; F&M now is among the leading institutions in the nation in finding, recruiting, and graduating talented kids, including young people who formerly could not have imagined attending a national liberal arts college, or would not have thought of coming to a college in Pennsylvania, or lacked the means to do so.

These two big expansions—physical and human--have removed historical obstacles, made the campus a brighter, bolder, and more lively place, brought it national renown, and much more. They also create important “first-mover” advantages and possibilities, when coupled with the greatest pre-existing strength of the College: students’ unparalleled access to dedicated faculty committed to their students’ full development. Franklin and Marshall continues to deliver the gold standard in undergraduate education. As in few other places, students here daily connect with faculty scholars, artists, and researchers and participate directly in the creation of new knowledge, art, and science.  Our faculty, YOU, do a wonderful job!

This is great for all of our students, as all of their performance indicators demonstrate. Also important, and I don’t think yet fully recognized, is how the transformation of the student body can benefit our faculty, our mission, and the liberal arts themselves. For it’s not just the faculty and College that transform the lives of their students, it’s students who stimulate, enrich, and challenge faculty (and our mission and the liberal arts) with their fresh questions, different life experiences, and perspectives.

I was recently very moved to hear how at the retreat of one of our large departments all faculty attending, including those with long tenures, reported how much they were enjoying teaching our current students, saying that they relished how students were bringing fresh perspectives to subjects and texts that the faculty know inside out, making the classroom exciting in unexpected and rewarding ways for the faculty themselves.

Because of our success in implementing a talent strategy for F&M, our faculty now has an original opportunity that other faculties at many leading liberal arts college do not have so palpably, personally, and persistently. Our faculty can rethink how they teach and what they teach and why it matters in dialogue with students who collectively more closely resemble the future of our country and world.

Working with this new student body has profound intellectual significance and promise, not just for individual courses (the presence of a bright female student from Beijing enriches the class’s discussion of the opera “Nixon in China”; a student from a low-income family shares insight about access to healthcare in a public health course), but, on a larger scale, for how we teach and how our disciplines are practiced. Here we are well positioned to answer questions like the following: What should science education look like for the twenty-first century in a liberal arts college? How can the humanities speak to first-generation college students? What happens when we bring arts instruction to new more international populations in the liberal arts setting? These are some of the intellectual questions that Franklin and Marshall is increasingly well situated to answer. We need to embrace intentionally and seriously these questions throughout the academic life of our campus.

Similar types of questions will enliven other domains of the campus and shape how we move forward, from which buildings we should build next, to what the college house system should become, to what the appropriate use of technology should be, to how we supply textbooks, to how to best train the police, to what shared governance looks like today, to much, much more. In essence, we are being invited to design the future here, ahead of other less open and opportunity-generating campuses.

Because we are in the lead, we must guard against two temptations. First, we need to avoid copying other places just because they are prominent or highly rated or successful; we can look at them and learn some things, but we need to remember, when we look at them, we will usually be looking backwards at institutions and modes of thinking and teaching where old assumptions are baked in and unquestioned. Because we are in the lead, we will have to do what we challenge our liberally educated students to do, to think for ourselves.

At the same time, even as we think of ourselves increasingly as the liberal arts college of the future, and rise in the rankings, we cannot become complacent; we cannot succumb to 
incumbent inertia and rest on our successes achieved thus far; we have a window of opportunity as the campus of opportunity, but as other fine schools seek to catch up with us, that window will close, and it will close all too quickly.  We need to press forward systematically now to redefine our campus in dynamic ways, and we need to think big, holistically, strategically. If we do so, 
I think funders and foundations will respond positively and help us show others how to bring the liberal arts to a new generation and a wider world. A unique, significant, and very rich dialogue now animates this great institution, this leading College of the future. After “sleeping” for 14 years, I’m glad to join this critical dialogue.