Adjusting to the New Normal W&L Alumni Magazine: Summer 2013

THE NATIONAL PRESS is saturated with stories on the challenges facing higher education. Depending on the day, you can read about the transformation in the industry, or the disruption caused by technology, or the student loan crisis, or the fear that the liberal arts are useless.

Amid the hyperbole, I worry that we are losing a sense of what a college is for.

At Washington and Lee in particular, we offer a distinctive education of exceptional quality, one that develops our students' hearts as well as their minds. We occupy a small but vital corner in higher education. We do not simply train students for jobs or transfer information to them. We offer education in the classic meaning of the term.

I know I am not alone in believing that what we do here matters. Still, it was comforting to hear the generous comments that Columbia University's Andrew Delbanco made in his splendid address to the Founders Day/ODK Convocation this past January. (See http://livestream.com/wlu/2013-founders-day-odk for audio and video of the speech.)

Delbanco, whose recent book, "College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be" is having a major impact on the national conversation, reminded us that, in the face of this drumbeat of criticism, we should not lose sight of the mystery of higher education-that wonderful, indescribable moment when a student catches fire in a classroom.

He described W&L as "a true college based on the faith that there is an incendiary capacity in every teacher and inflammability in every student." Such flattery should not, however, lead to complacency. We must keep the flames alive, and that will not be easy as we confront the new normal for higher education and for Washington and Lee.

Over the past quarter century, the University experienced significant increases in both enrollment and endowment that are mostly counter-cyclical to what has happened elsewhere.

These increases-surges, actually-have resulted from decisions that are distinctive to us.

Not only did we intentionally increase enrollment to develop an academically strong, coeducational student body, but we also enjoyed an endowment surge. From 2007 to 2012, our total endowment increased by 20 percent, and our per-student endowment by 18 percent. This growth was due not to investment returns but almost entirely to gifts to our historic capital campaign.

These surges will not repeat themselves in the next decade. We do not intend to increase the size of our student body. Tuition growth has leveled off with no prospect that it will take off again. We cannot count on endowment growth to continue at the same level.

Absent a foreseeable revenue surge, we must begin adjusting to a steady-state period. This means finding a way to shift to new priorities only when we can shed old ones. It means reallocation and reorganization rather than addition and expansion.

Here, then, is the bottom-line challenge: We must maintain and enhance one of the best liberal arts programs in this country, within the constraints of a challenging fiscal environment, but inspired by the principles of academic excellence and educating students for character and integrity. I am confident that we will meet that challenge.