Steering Committee Convenes for Second Meeting on Future of Independent Higher Education

Steering committee members seated around a boardroom table  

Members of the Steering Committee for CIC’s Project on the Future of Independent Higher Education convened in Washington, DC, October 27–28, 2015, for their second meeting. The goal of this multi-year initiative is to engage CIC member institutions in purposeful discussions about the future of their own institutions and of independent higher education broadly. The project is supported by the Lumina Foundation with additional funding provided by the TIAA-CREF Institute.
The Steering Committee includes 22 CIC member presidents with strong leadership experience and records of effective innovation (see list below). During the meeting, committee members reviewed a year’s worth of research that was conducted under their direction and designed to identify the comparative strengths of smaller private colleges and the key challenges facing independent higher education. They discussed the “essential” and “negotiable” characteristics of independent colleges and universities and developed an action plan for a second phase of the project.
CIC president Richard Ekman began the meeting by noting that “CIC has done a lot of work this year to develop a better knowledge base about the value of independent colleges and the innovations taking place on our campuses.” The ambitious research agenda included reports on mission-driven innovations in college business models, innovations in the curricular and co-curricular elements of the independent college experience, student and alumni outcomes, and changes in faculty roles and composition at smaller independent institutions. (All reports are accessible at These findings seemed particularly noteworthy to Steering Committee members:
  • Independent colleges are more efficient producers of bachelor’s degrees than their public counterparts, measured as average years of instruction per degree recipient or the overall cost to society per degree;
  • Students at independent institutions are more engaged and more challenged by their academic work than peers at other types of institutions; and
  • While many CIC member institutions have introduced innovations in operational and curricular arenas, such initiatives are often met with resistance by faculty members and institutional practices that slow implementation.
Mary Marcy, president of Dominican University of California, recapped the discussion of research findings by noting that “a lot of the data were new to me, and they proved what I hoped was true” about the value that independent colleges create for their students. Other committee members emphasized the need to communicate the positive findings to a wider circle of internal and external stakeholders. The committee also noted, however, that many of the greatest strengths of independent colleges, such as small class size and intense student support, tend to be costly. Any sustainable future for independent higher education will thus require cost containment without “economizing on the things that make our success,” concluded committee member John McCardell, president of Sewanee: The University of the South (TN).
Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation and author of the provocative book The End of College, provided an outsider’s perspective on the challenges independent colleges face today and may face in the future. Carey began his informal remarks over dinner by describing two “big picture issues” that affect higher education as a whole but with particular salience for independent institutions: a “chronic lack of attention to the project of undergraduate education” and public concerns about the cost of higher education. He argued that independent colleges and universities have “tremendous strength on the education side but vulnerability on the financial side.” Carey also warned about rating systems that “highlight the vulnerability of small institutions that serve underserved students but are financially overwhelmed” and policy debates about “free college” that do not reflect the current role of private institutions in providing significant access to college.
During the second day, Steering Committee members discussed the essential and negotiable characteristics of independent colleges and universities. Rather than focus on a small set of unique characteristics, the committee members proposed nearly two dozen characteristics that collectively distinguish independent higher education from other sectors. Perhaps the most important “essential” characteristic was articulated by Steven Bahls, president of Augustana College (IL): “Our independent nature is distinctive. We make decisions on the basis of shared governance, not on what the government wants.” Other essential characteristics identified include small size, a student-centered culture, and explicit attention to institutional missions, values, and philosophies of education. As “negotiable” characteristics the committee regarded the composition of the faculty, approaches to teaching and pedagogy, and the extent of the co-curriculum. The Steering Committee will continue to refine the lists of essential and negotiable characteristics, and member presidents are invited to provide feedback during an open forum at the 2016 Presidents Institute in Miami Beach on January 5.
The final session of the meeting focused on defining the mobilization phase of the project that will use the research findings and issues identified by the Steering Committee as a starting point for broader discussions about business models, institutional missions, and strategic planning. The goal, said John Wilson, president of Morehouse College (GA), is to focus the attention of CIC member institutions on mission, affordability, and “where they might be 20–30 years down the road”—and to encourage action. Committee members identified several components of the next phase of the project, including additional research reports, special sessions at CIC’s annual institutes for presidents and chief academic officers, online discussion forums, and regional meetings involving campus teams of presidents, administrators, and faculty leaders. CIC staff is seeking financial support for all of these options. Following the Presidents Institute session on the project, CIC will distribute a detailed project summary to all member presidents.

Project on the Future of Independent Higher Education Steering Committee Members

Chris Kimball (Chair)
California Lutheran University

Steven C. Bahls
Augustana College (IL)

Ronald L. Carter
Johnson C. Smith University (NC)

Roger N. Casey
McDaniel College (MD)

Jeffrey R. Docking
Adrian College (MI)

Margaret L. Drugovich
Hartwick College (NY)

Elizabeth A. Fleming
Converse College (SC)

Thomas F. Flynn
Alvernia University (PA)

Christopher B. Howard
Hampden-Sydney College (VA)

Todd S. Hutton
Utica College (NY)

Walter M. Kimbrough
Dillard University (LA)
Larry D. Large
Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities

Paul J. LeBlanc
Southern New Hampshire University

Mary B. Marcy
Dominican University of California

John McCardell
President and Vice Chancellor
Sewanee: The University of the South (TN)

Kevin M. Ross
Lynn University (FL)

Ed L. Schrader
Brenau University (GA)

Elizabeth J. Stroble
Webster University (MO)

Henry N. Tisdale
Claflin University (SC)

Edwin H. Welch
University of Charleston (WV)

John S. Wilson
Morehouse College (GA)

Cynthia Zane
Hilbert College (NY