Small liberal arts college “insiders”
Posted by Melissa on June 27, 2011
In the past few months, I have been involved in several conversations where someone mentioned that a particular faculty member or administrator was or was not an alum of a small liberal arts college (SLAC) in a manner that seemed to suggest their status as a former student of a SLAC (or not) clearly explained why the individual took the particular action or made the particular decision being discussed. (Generally the tone of the discussions has been that “good” decisions/actions are attributed to someone having attended a SLAC and “bad” decisions/actions are attributed to someone not having attended a SLAC.) I’ve heard this type of conversation before, and every time I hear it, it bothers me. Institutions are enriched by the diversity of experiences that faculty and staff bring, and the experience of having been a student at a liberal arts college does not by default make an individual a more valuable or wiser member of the community.
I am an alum of one small liberal arts college teaching at another small liberal arts college. I value the sense of community that exists at this type of institution, and I am committed to the liberal arts mission and undergraduate student-centered nature of these colleges. That being said, I feel strongly that having been a student at a SLAC does not make me a better fit as a faculty member than someone who went to a large research university. Despite my supposed familiarity with the SLAC environment, it took me several years of being at Carleton before I felt comfortable, and I still have occassional moments of feeling like an outsider. After all, each SLAC has its own character, traditions, and mores. Assuming that one can transfer a knowledge of the values and norms of one SLAC to a different SLAC is arrogant. Additionally, the institutional perspective one has varies depending on position. My interaction with the college and the college community as a student was very different than my interaction with the college and the college community as a faculty member. Perhaps if I had been involved with student government, serving on college committees, I would have gotten a sense of how the college ran, the behind-the-scenes politics, and the competing demands. As it was, my significant involvement with my alma mater came through residence life, where I was first an elected (unpaid) house president and then an appointed (paid) head resident. Through these roles, I got to see the nitty-gritty of how residential life worked at one college, but that realm intersects little with the current realm I inhabit as a faculty member.
I’d be interested to hear others’ perspectives. If you are a faculty member, do you often call upon your experience at your undergraduate institution as you navigate your current institution as a faculty member?