Assessing—and Bucking—Trends to Develop New Programs and Services

By Richard Ekman

How does CIC determine the issues on which to focus in the years ahead?

First, the Board of Directors, staff, and members assess which issues among many possibilities are likely to be of most concern to member institutions. Of these, CIC considers which are best addressed by CIC, by individual colleges, or by other organizations. Then we try to determine which of today’s issues will likely remain high priorities for several years. More than once, not following the trend or countering futurists’ predictions has served CIC well.

For example, when MOOC offerings expanded in 2012, some considered them the future of higher education. Stanford and Harvard trumpeted them, as did then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Despite the optimistic goals of the MOOC movement, no one knew then that giving anyone, no matter their educational background or location, access to a high-quality, low-cost college degree would be very difficult to achieve.

In 2013–2014, CIC asked itself how the MOOC movement could benefit small colleges. Instead of using the technology to teach large introductory courses, CIC’s approach was to showcase the technology for upper-division courses that are necessary for students in small fields. This led to the creation of CIC’s Consortia for Online Humanities Instruction, through which courses have been developed and shared among 42 institutions. Some 80 courses have now been shared widely, and many previously skeptical faculty members in the humanities have come to understand the circumstances in which online instruction can be advantageous. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported these efforts generously.

At CIC, we don’t always read the tea leaves the same way futurists do. We first assess the validity of a prediction and then ask what stance CIC should take. For example, some futurists now predict the disaggregation of degree programs, while CIC is trying to make it easier for students who transfer, especially from community colleges to four-year private institutions, to receive full credit for the courses they have already taken. CIC commissioned a data analysis from the National Student Clearinghouse that provides the basis for a forthcoming advisory paper to member colleges in this area of activity. Several of CIC’s State Councils of private colleges and universities, including those in North Carolina and Texas, have already made good progress toward clearer community college transfer pathways.

Many futurists also predict that the liberal arts are dying. Rather than foster the growing marketplace view of college enrollment in which liberal arts programs are being devalued, CIC has offered faculty seminars to boost instruction in the liberal arts. Led by renowned scholars in American history, classics, and art history, these seminars have revitalized teaching and curricular offerings at hundreds of colleges in past years.

Exploring the many innovations now under way at liberal arts colleges, CIC’s Securing America’s Future workshops gave approximately 500 leaders from 121 CIC member institutions the opportunity to discuss possible advances for their own campuses. CIC’s new summary report, Innovation and the Independent College: Examples from the Sector, is peppered with references to these innovations and links to background materials (see cover story). Our hope is that over the next year even more colleges and universities will be inspired by these ideas. Key to these successes has been the rejection of the “disruptive innovation” model advocated by some trustees and the embrace of organic, incremental change that has led to faculty leaders being engaged along with senior administrators and trustees. This initiative enjoyed widespread foundation support from, among others, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Arthur Vining Davis, Lumina, and Endeavor Foundations.

And in a new project that draws on teaching and learning in the liberal arts, CIC recently launched an institute for faculty members and administrators that focuses on issues of free speech, civility, and diversity on campus. Instead of an approach that aims mainly to alleviate students’ emotional distress, the new Diversity, Civility, and the Liberal Arts Institute emphasizes the need for deeper grounding in the best research on aspects of these sensitive issues in order for faculty members to turn students’ emotions about these matters into teachable occasions, aiming for increased cognitive understanding.

What other topics will CIC likely focus on within the next three to five years? Here are a few of the projects that CIC is developing.


Retention and degree-completion rates confirm that the pedagogy of small colleges is often more effective than at larger institutions. Even so, there are new approaches for our faculty members to learn. CIC will offer an online program that links pedagogical improvements in the liberal arts with better career planning by students. Developed by the Association of College and University Educators with Strada Education Network support, the program is already being used at larger institutions.



We are often told that employers want more recruits with science and technology skills. Data have shown that small colleges can be more effective than large universities in producing career STEM professionals and in helping students think like scientists. CIC will offer a new series of workshops on science pedagogy, supported by the W. M. Keck Foundation, to build on the already strong track records of small private colleges. Stanford University professor of physics and Nobel laureate Carl E. Wieman will guide the workshops based on a demonstrably successful method he has researched and that is described in a new book published by Harvard University Press.


A new project will boost public appreciation for basic and applied research and the colleges and universities that foster such knowledge. The initiative will leverage the strengths of small colleges and universities—institutions that frequently house archives and special collections of significance to local communities. It also will help students in the humanities develop research skills that will enable them to address issues of importance to the public. Imagine, for example, a college archive with rare materials about the history of a once-dominant local textile industry whose decline has left major questions of city and regional planning unresolved. A student’s analysis of these materials, when presented at a public forum, would likely be helpful to the city, the college, and the student.

In a few years, the array of CIC’s programs and services may look considerably different from today’s. There is a natural, incremental evolution at work here, but there also is an ongoing effort to separate today’s trendiest issues from those that will have lasting impact. In this process, wise suggestions from CIC members and insightful counsel from the CIC Board of Directors continue to be both welcome and necessary, as judgments about the significance and durability of CIC’s programs and services necessarily remain more art than science.