Liberal Arts Colleges and COACHE: Big Impact on a Small Scale

by Kiernan Mathews

A path leading toward a red-brick building on a college campusFor most of COACHE’s 13 years in existence, research universities have dominated the roster of our institutional partners. Their sheer numbers of faculty are a quantitative researcher’s dream!

However, a quiet but sizable minority of liberal arts colleges have consistently relied on the Collaborative’s surveys, analysis, and leadership coaching. Over time, I have been so encouraged by the efforts of their presidents and deans to create the conditions in which faculty do their best work.

Liberal arts colleges matter so much in COACHE data because they are so different. The first “cut” our researchers make is to separate the baccalaureate institutions from the research universities. Our statistical reports explain why: on average, liberal arts college faculty are more satisfied, both statistically and practically, on almost every theme covered in our flagship Faculty Job Satisfaction Survey.

Today, I am writing to “throw a little shine” on liberal arts colleges because they have been instrumental to our comparative understanding of faculty in the U.S.—not just from their faculty’s responses to our surveys, but from their deep engagement in the COACHE research-practice partnership.

  • First, COACHE’s National Advisory Council includes the perspectives of small college leaders to inform our research and development. These voices have included Andrew Shennan, Provost and Dean of the College at Wellesley College; Muriel Poston, Dean of the Faculty and VP for Academic Affairs at Pitzer College; and Joe Klesner, Provost at Kenyon College. Among other contributions, they help check the assumptions of the large university CAOs on my board (e.g., “We don’t have ‘departments.’”)
  • Recently, I have been leaning on the insights of small college deans by appointment them as “COACHE Visiting Practitioners” here at the Harvard GSE. Typically occupying this role while in a professional transition (I call it our “halfway house for provosts”), they help COACHE investigate an important problem or challenge where research and practice meet—or should meet. Last year, Hamilton College’s former CAO, Patrick Reynolds, conducted an interview-based study of provosts’ perception of faculty turnover and retention actions at liberal arts colleges. He shared initial impressions at our AAC&U panel in January; COACHE partners will have access to Pat’s complete report in the very near future. Our next Visiting Practitioner will be Skidmore College’s CAO Beau Breslin, who will help us develop a learning module for data-driven faculty engagement in institutional change efforts.
  • About those AAC&U panels: COACHE regularly convenes panels of deans and faculty to share their best practices as identified or encouraged by COACHE data. At the next AAC&U Annual Meeting in January, I have assembled three deans who are leveraging their participation in COACHE in ways that are bucking the trend. The program is titled, “Less Is More: Data-driven Strategies for Reducing Faculty Workload,” in which the chief academic officers of Scripps, Harvey Mudd, and Skidmore Colleges will describe how they are flipping the culture of faculty overwork in teaching, research, and service. At the panel and throughout my time in Washington, DC, I’ll be listening to and advising provosts about their leadership and engagement of faculty.
  • Liberal arts colleges have been some of the most enthusiastic users of COACHE to inform accreditation cycles: Hendrix and Kenyon for the Higher Learning Commission; Amherst, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke and Wesleyan for NEASC; Barnard and Skidmore for Middle States. Our website offers links to their reports, when publicly available, and I invite our partners to share their own if we’ve missed them.
  • Finally, liberal arts colleges dominated our “Benchmark Best Practices” series of white papers highlighting the successful strategies of high-performing COACHE institutions. Hamilton, Holy Cross, Kenyon, Middlebury, Stonehill, and Hobart & William Smith Colleges showed us the advantages—but also some of the challenges—of support faculty at the small-college scale.

Of course, research universities also have much to offer in the way of insights into successful faculty recruitment, retention, and development approaches. They tend to attract the attention of researchers because they offer samples sizes promising a statistical power that will pass the test of peer review.

COACHE, however, has assembled a tremendous amount of data on liberal arts college faculty—many thousands of records across 13 years of survey administration. I’ll be meeting with scholars at the Association for the Study of Higher Education next month to get these data into their hands, and then their findings into the hands, minds, and practice of COACHE provosts.

I am grateful for the support of so many institutions who believe in the Collaborative’s mission and benefit from its data, analysis, and networks. When every dollar matters, a dean’s decision to invest in faculty can feel like an act of bravery. I am lucky, through COACHE, to serve those academic leaders in making their investments count.


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