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Unspoken Covenants of Small Public Selective Colleges


(November 5, 2003, speech to the Administrative Council)

By David G. Brown, Professor and Provost Emeritus, Wake Forest University
Interim President GCSU (Fall 2003), and Chancellor UNCA (1984-90)

As you plan to shape this exemplar of the 21st century public liberal arts college--- my advice is to focus planning around the six word-concepts that differentiate our new species among the genre of higher learning institutions –the small, public, selective, well-known university community.

Small. Public. Selective. Well-known. Liberal Arts University. Community.

Let me encourage you to write down synonyms for each of these six words. [Distribute a sheet of paper for people to write on.]

Small means personal.  Public means widely accessible.  Selective means quality and rigor.  University means complexity of curricular offerings.  University means the triple headed mission of teaching, research and service. Community implies a full spectrum of student organizations & residentially.

Small public selective well-known liberal arts university community.  Personal, accessible, rigorous, visible, undergraduate, complex, residential.

Undergraduate liberal arts colleges that are private, Amherst and Swarthmore and Davidson and Oberlin and Reed, have for two centuries been the institutions of preference for the children of America's monied and intellectual elite.  With the federal service academies and the great research universities, the highly selective private liberal arts college sets the standard for comparison.

A curiosity of history is that the post world war II demand for increased access to higher education, a demand that would decrease the percentage of students enrolled in private colleges from 50% to 18%, resulted in the creation of public junior colleges and the conversion regional teaching universities.  Between 1968-1996 we were part of that conversion.  States met the demand for more places in higher education through new types of institutions, not by replicating and extending with public funding, the proven model of the private liberal arts college. 

True educational access must include the availability of the type of colleges that have for centuries served our intellectual and leadership elites.  Some portion of America's ethical crises may be attributed to confusing access to college degrees with the true access to the substance of a college education. 

Along with New College of South Florida and St. Mary's of Maryland and Evergreen State of Washington and Mary Washington of Virginia, Asheville of North Carolina and Morris of Minnesota and a handful of other quality colleges, GCSU is the avant garde of this new and already proven type of public college.

Since the original ballooning of the public sector in higher education it has taken almost three decades of organizational experimentation and innovation to enable the essence of the private liberal arts college to be supported with public dollars.

Elite private liberal arts colleges could be rigorous by rejecting students with marginal records of preparation but citizens would not support local public universities that denied their sons and daughters admission. 

Private universities could use endowment income to fund departments of literature and classics but the public demanded its tax dollars be spent on business, and computer science curricula.

Private colleges could focus exclusively upon undergraduate teaching while local industries demanded of their publicly supported universities an array of services from small business incubators to horticultural consultants. 

Private liberal arts colleges could leave graduate education to others, while place-bound citizens demanded access to graduate programs at their nearby tax supported university.

The public expectations of local tax supported universities simply were not compatible with the essential characteristics of a rigorous undergraduate only liberal arts college.  Compatibility has only recently been enabled by a set of organizational innovations. 

Today's emerging small public selective colleges rest upon an array of fragile and largely invisible compromises or covenants.  John Gardener says in this book Excellence, "Liberty and duty, freedom and obligation, that's the deal."  I think it will be helpful to make these invisible covenants, these unspoken compromises more visible.

Eight Covenants
Covenant one is the agreement that faculty can specify the content of a comprehensive general education component as long as students also achieve logical preparation in a career discipline such as business.  Here are GCSU that means students majoring in Management and Nursing and all students are required to complete core courses.

Covenant two is an agreement that we may limit admission to a highly selective group of students if we simultaneously provide a mechanism for those who are rejected to prove us wrong.  This can be done, for example, by allowing marginal students to enroll on a probationary basis in the summer prior to their desired fall enrollment.

Covenant three is that small public selective colleges devote 99% of its effort to undergraduate teaching if there are organizations within the university, such as the Continuing Education, that visibly and energetically meet some of the service needs of the local community.  The college itself may limit its role of service to the community if individual faculty members accept services commitments through volunteering and consulting. 

Covenant four is that faculty shall pursue research but often it will be integrated with their teaching mission and enabled through the use of undergraduates in research assistant roles.  Undergraduates shall be working members of the research team.

Covenant five
is that the small public selective college may be selective in admissions as long as it is also supportive of other public colleges and universities entering its "territory" to offer college to those who it wishes not to serve.  If we wish to be state-wide for a specialized constituency, other institutions must be encouraged to meet local demand. 

Covenant six is that we remain small of we justify having the facilities needed by a complex university through sharing of facilities with other institutions and groups within our city.  This means jointly sponsoring the Visitor's Center, scheduling community events at the Centennial Center.

Covenant seven is that we may have a rigorous graduation requirement, one that results in a relatively low graduation rate, if we can devise mechanisms for outplacing with dignity those students who we determine are not capable of completing our own work.  We have yet here at GCSU fully to conceptualize the latter half of this particular covenant although we are making great progress. 

The last and by far most important covenant is that high ability students will continue to choose public over private selective colleges of they end up in the same graduate schools, same quality jobs, and with the same capacities for civic leadership.

In choosing among colleges, the best students seek out colleges

  • that motivate long hours of study,

  • that attract qualified and demanding faculty,

  • that insist upon a challenging curriculum,

  • that involve students in learning,

  • that provide a rich array of co-curricular opportunities,

  • and, crucially, that establish the reputation of motivating & enabling graduates to take their degrees & be successful in life.

For GCSU this means attracting top prospective students, assuring a rigorous and effective while here, and motivating high aspirations beyond the GCSU years. 

Extending the Reach
The difficult-but-easier part is attracting top students.  Already we are being successful.  Our 1089 incoming SAT average was not UGA' 1200-but it was up an incredible 154 points and established us above all 34 USG except UGA, GA Tech and GA Poly.

Next Monday embarks on a statewide tour to tell our story.  In each community we are inviting all high school counselors and principals to lunch so that they can hear that GCSU has its own small public selective college. 

The word is getting out. The students are coming. Many of you have shared with me the difference you feel in your classes. I feel it. 

Our biggest challenge of all is to keep the last covenant with these students, specifically to stretch the reach of each of our students to be at least equal to what it would have been had he/she attended a small private selective college.

  • Our best students must reach to graduate and professional programs at Harvard & Berkeley & Stanford & Chapel Hill & Texas & Michigan.

  • They must be nurtured to stretch for Fulbright & Rhodes Scholarships.

  • Our students must be encourages to strive for jobs with the world's finest corporations, not to settle with what's close and easy. 

  • Our students must expect of themselves to be leaders of civic causes.

In his 1989 inaugural address at the University of Richmond, President Richard Morrill (a past UNCA humanities lecturer) nicely articulates the challenge of a college striving for national leadership among small, largely undergraduate universities:

National leadership has much less to do with geography that with the quality and rigor of the education we give our students and the reach of their achievements when they leave us.

At GCSU we are demanding academic performance every bit as rigorous as the elite private colleges.  Where I fear we may fall short is in nurturing the "reach" of our students' achievements. 

Granted it is easier to conceive of Harvard Graduate School if your mother, or your roommate's father, graduated from there in 1962.  It is easier to nurture leadership confidence in students who are mostly living on campus & are mostly not working their own way through college.  When the parents of your high school and college buddies operate the corporations, it is easier to arrange and pursue interviews for the top jobs.

The delightful challenge of the small public selective is to set aside these excuses, to lift the reach of the students it serves to stretch as far as the reach of students who start with other advantages.  It is only then, when our students are absolutely competitive within the students from the finest and most prestigious colleges of this nation, that we will have fully met our covenant. 

Points of Attack
How we can best extend the reach of our students is clearly worth discussing.  The first point of attack is the admissions office.   High reach students need to be planted as exemplars within each incoming class.  This means expanding the applicant pool, selecting the best of who apply, and through merit scholarships and other means making sure that the best applicants enroll.  This means other things among emphasizing our Honor's Program. 

The second point of attack is providing special learning experiences, especially ones that stress involvement, teamwork, and collaboration.  Rigorous curricula, high expectations, extensive assignments out of class-these are other key ways we build capacity, motivation, confidence, and reach.  We need more international programs, more co-curricular opportunities where students can hone their leadership skills. 

Most of all, a fourth point of attack, we need to keep working to improve the teaching effectiveness.  As we prepare for our decennial Southern Association Accreditation Review, it is important for us to self-audit our teaching effectiveness-for it is through teaching effectiveness that reach of student achievement will be most extended. 

Distinctive Opportunities

  • Improve downtown (need a campus town)

  • Broaden advisory committees (beyond county and state)

  • Partner nationally (with former women's colleges, former state capitols, COPLACs)

  • Pursue columns of excellence (about 3)

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