The network effect

In April, I spoke at a conference at Lafayette College titled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World.” More than 200 administrators, including 50 college presidents, turned up for the gathering.

-The inspiration for the conference can be summed up in one word: anxiety. These are difficult days for liberal arts colleges. As a group we face significant challenges in demonstrating the value of the education we offer to an increasingly skeptical public, addressing the rising cost of attendance at our institutions and incorporating technology in ways that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs.

The conversation was interesting on many levels. However, I was puzzled by one notable omission: any sustained discussion of the role of alumnae and alumni in helping liberal arts colleges to innovate while remaining true to our core principles. That idea did not receive much attention during the conference. And yet it seems so obvious: no one understands the value of the liberal arts better than those individuals whose lives have been changed by the rigorous and broad-based study that is the hallmark of this approach. The graduates of liberal arts institutions are persuasive ambassadors and wise advisors.

Fortunately for Wheaton, our alumnae/i already understand and act upon this truth. Our partnership with the Posse Foundation began with the suggestion of Wheaton alumna and Trustee Emerita Patricia Higgins Arnold ’66, who learned about the foundation and immediately recognized how its goals complemented Wheaton’s objectives. Similarly, the interest and encouragement of alumnae/i, particularly Sukey Nichols Wagner ’56 and Diana Davis Spencer ’60, helped to drive the expansion of Wheaton’s global studies programs.

The interest of alumnae/i spans many areas. Early this year, the college considered the idea of charging students differential housing rates for various types of housing. The college’s graduates, as well as our current students, spoke out with passion and clarity on the importance of Wheaton’s egalitarian housing policy and the contribution it makes to sustaining our collaborative and inclusive campus culture. We listened; we changed course, and a number of alumnae/i have stepped forward with pledges to increase their philanthropic support for the college out of their recognition of Wheaton’s need for increased revenue.

This is not unusual. The Wheaton College Alumnae/i Association has been exceptionally strategic and effective in developing programs that address both the interests of graduates to contribute their expertise and the career counseling needs of current students. The revitalization of the college’s network of alumnae/i who are willing to provide career advice to students—whether it be through participation in a one-hour workshop, an occasional telephone call or frequent interactions with a student—demonstrates powerfully the connection between the liberal arts and myriad careers.

Wheaton and all liberal arts colleges face significant challenges in ensuring access to high-quality education and in demonstrating relevance to an increasingly skeptical public. Wheaton alumnae/i—through their interest, energy and expertise—are vital to strengthening their alma mater for the long term without changing our core values.