I am exploring forms of university ownership/control, governance, financing and organisational structure that I call heterodox, in that they might offer students, faculty and administrative staff educational outcomes in terms of access, cost, pedagogy and curriculum radically different from the prevailing system. Because of the near-hegemony of the marketised and corporatised forms of higher education, I searched for exemplars of very different imaginaries and considered how they might be adopted and adapted across the sector. These exemplars I considered to be ‘resources for hope’ (Kenway, Boden and Fahey, 2014). For this research I spent ten days in the U.S.A visiting two liberal arts colleges that are near-unique in U.S. higher education – Berea College in Kentucky and Deep Springs College in California. In 2011 the Washington Monthly, which celebrates schools on the basis of their contribution to the public good, ranked Berea as the top U.S. liberal arts college. A similar accolade was accorded to Deep Springs College in 2012 when it was ranked number one among America’s fifty best colleges by TheBestSchools.org. Liberal arts education has long had an established place in the U.S. higher education system with the expressed aim of developing well-rounded individuals, knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects and possessing a mastery of various transferrable skills (Haidar 2014).
An interpretivist paradigm was adopted to gain an in-depth understanding of the governance, ownership and financing of these colleges, and an appreciation for the teaching and learning experiences from the perspective of students and workers. Twenty-six semi-structured interviews were conducted with academics, senior officials and administrative staff and two focus group meetings with students. Additionally, students were observed in a classroom setting and I had one-on-one discussions with students at Deep Springs College during meals.
The next two sections provide a brief overview of the ownership, governance, financing and organisational structure of Berea and Deep Springs Colleges respectively and the impact of these elements on students’ outcomes. In the conclusion I examine the practical significance of these two colleges for education policy and how certain features could be resources for hope used in constructing heterodox higher education institutions in other parts of the world. Berea and Deep Springs are small colleges and I am not suggesting that their model can be applied to all higher education institutions, but there are salient features that can be adopted in transforming the higher education system, such as the public good initiative, and an emphasis on students as partners (potential friends and colleagues) rather than students as mere customers.
Berea in perspective – there’s no black or white
Berea was founded in 1855 as an interracial and co-educational institution in pre-Civil-War Kentucky by a small group of abolitionist Christians led by Reverend John Gregg Fee. Fee, a scholar of strong moral character, dedication, determination and great faith, envisioned a school that would be an advocate of equality and excellence in education for men and women of all races. The aim was to make high quality education accessible and affordable to African Americans and poor white men and women all under one roof. The College is built on pillars of learning, labour and service, and seeks to place the needs of its 1,600 students at the centre of its mission. The Biblical motto: ‘God has made of one blood all peoples of the Earth’ exemplifies its egalitarian ethos and commitment to social justice and inclusivity (Brennan and Naidoo 2008; Gyamera 2013; Lall and Nambissan 2011).
Berea offers four-year Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees. Originally established to serve the Appalachian region, extending from Pennsylvania to Alabama and one of the poorest in the U.S.A., it has since extended its remit nationally and internationally. Berea provides all students with a free-tuition scholarship, whilst accommodation and living expenses are paid in part by students or by federal and state aid on the basis of their family household income. Berea students’ average household income is $28,000 and 52 per cent have a family household income of $10,000 or less. Students with such low family household income are awarded a full scholarship. Berea also provides full scholarship to its 130 international students originating from more than sixty countries. Around a third of students are of black or minority ethnic heritage.
Berea’s tuition fees cost just over $24,000 per year while other expenses (accommodation, fees, books and incidentals) approximate $10,000. Students graduate from a four-year degree with no debt, or by choice (for example, borrowing for overseas educational trips) with debts averaging $6,600 compared to the national average of $29,000.
Most of Berea’s students are the first in their family to gain a college degree and the College admits only students who do not have the means to finance their education but who demonstrate high academic potential. Students average above 24 in the composite ACT score for English, mathematics, reading and science. This is well above the national ACT average of 20 and Berea students rank in the top 25 per cent of those who sat the national tests (Zhang 2014). Many of Berea’s graduates have proceeded to receive doctoral degrees in various fields. In 2002 alumni John Bennett Fenn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Another notable alumnus was Samuel Hurst, physicist and inventor of touch-screen technology. Others have advanced to professions in education, government, business/entrepreneurship, law, writing, acting and movie production. My fieldwork suggests that there is a strong relationship between students’ educational outcomes and the ownership, governance, financing and organisational structure of Berea.
Berea is a private non-profit corporation for educational purposes with no shareholders. While no one has ownership claim or title to the College, control resides in the trustees and management. Because Berea is a charity with no legal owners, in the event of liquidation the assets would be transferred to another charitable organisation or to the government of Kentucky.
Access to higher education in the U.S.A. is highly stratified. Similar to the U.K., it is more likely for students from middle to upper socio-economic backgrounds to obtain a degree than those from less privileged backgrounds (Reay, Davies, David and Ball 2001) because the overall cost of higher education is prohibitive and because of the fear of the burden of debt (McGettigan 2013). Currently only ten colleges in the U.S.A. offer free tuition; all require that students participate in some form of labour programme. Apart from the likelihood of minimal debts upon graduation, a significant attraction to Berea for many students was the labour programme and community engagement. Every student is required to work ten to twelve hours a week. Students work alongside the administrative staff in 116 labour positions, sharing responsibility for running the College and gaining valuable experience.
The College receives financing from five main sources: financial investment in the securities market; philanthropists; federal and state grants for students; entrepreneurship and payments for accommodation by students with family household incomes above $47,000. Berea was started with an endowment fund by its founders and every year the College receives over 10,000 financial gifts that further build up the endowment fund, enabling Berea to realise its goal of tuition-free education for all students. The largest gift received from a single donor was $10.7 million. Berea’s total asset portfolio as at June 2016 was $1.4 billion including an endowment fund of $1.1 billion. The endowment supports approximately 74 per cent of the operating budget. Other revenue is generated from the students’ paid labour programme. Student-made craft items (souvenirs, sofa throws, brooms and so on) are sold in the student craft shop next to the College-owned hotel, which is strategically located and a major revenue earner. Students also make some of the furniture that is used at the College and in the hotel. The College also sells the produce and the cattle reared on its 8,000 acres of land.
Berea is governed by a voluntary, thirty-member Board of Trustees. Students are not represented on the Board of Trustees because according to a senior official, ‘these people have fiduciary responsibility for the College and students cannot have such responsibility’. It is worth noting that the students do not own Berea College. There are student representatives on every committee except the administrative committee which comprises all Vice Presidents, but they do not participate in strategic decisions.
Students expressed satisfaction with management and the way in which their concerns were addressed at the highest levels when put forward by students who assumed leadership roles in different dorms. Management gave consideration depending on the issue at hand. Berea’s relatively extended organisational structure is shown in Figure 2.
The Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculty is a member of the Board of Trustees. The 603 staff and faculty work collaboratively towards the success of students. Significantly, a number of senior employees are alumni who have returned to Berea to serve because of the transformative impact it has made on their lives. A senior official told me: ‘I can spend the rest of my life working and giving to Berea and I will never be able to repay what Berea has given to me’. This individual, who was educated at Berea, as were his parents, spoke movingly of what Berea had done for him and he had given up a successful corporate career in order to repay a debt of gratitude by working there. What came out clearly in conversation with many of the professional staff is that money was not a motivator since some of them were able to earn higher salaries in the for-profit sector. What mattered was being a ‘Berean’, serving the community and helping to transform the lives of students in the same way that theirs were transformed.
Consistent with its ethos of learning, labour and service, one of the College’s Eight Great Commitments is service to community and to others.1 Berea is a College where students matter and management encourages a culture of connecting with students on a personal level, in the classroom and throughout the labour programme. A professor explained to me thus:
When students connect directly with people, they tend to stay at an institution in higher proportions than if they don’t … I have taught at a couple of other institutions and I would say that Berea gives our students a lot more personalised attention. We have lots of support structures built in so that if students go missing, we check up on them, send them e-mails, contact the residence halls to try to figure out what is going on and get the student re-engaged before it is too late for them.
As I went around the College, it was common to hear this expression of commitment and engagement with students, not only from academic staff but from workers at all levels. Berea’s small class sizes mean that students receive lots of individual attention, facilitating learning and intellectual development. Berea offers thirty-two different courses.2 As stressed by students in the focus group, the passion and dedication of lecturers have been very beneficial to their learning experience and overall success. As one student explained:
Professors schedule special hours in the offices on evenings if there are students who cannot make the hours during the day. After 5.00pm when professors could be home with their families, they are still on campus committed to ensuring that we are performing well in classes and that we are able to achieve. I think that just shows how dedicated they are to making certain that we all perform at a really high level.
Because Berea’s students are from less-privileged backgrounds and in some cases troubled homes, professors feel obligated to invest additional time to understand each student’s background and to do whatever they can to facilitate learning. To strengthen this point another student explains her classroom experience:
The professors are so strong in helping you get to that next level … and are so good at working with you … and reaching you … and I think that has really helped me in the learning experiences that I have had so far at Berea. Every professor has helped me along the way, no matter what I needed help with and they have shared their passion with me, but in a way that I would understand and be able to love it the same way that they do.
The (paid) labour programme is formally evaluated as part of the undergraduate degree, against a set of key criteria similar to that used to evaluate employees in any workplace environment. The labour programme is such a disciplined part of the student’s learning experience that those who fall short in their formal evaluation receive coaching and an opportunity to improve their performance. Sanctions, although rare, include probation, suspension or even dismissal if performance is unsatisfactory. Upon graduation, students receive an academic transcript and a work transcript, which they can take to any future employer, detailing their labour accomplishments and experience.
Walking around the offices and workstations, I was unable to differentiate between permanent staff and students because of the students’ professionalism and efficiency. A survey undertaken in the 2013–14 academic year revealed 90 per cent of students said that their academic development has been supported by skills acquired in their labour positions.
Deep Springs in perspective: A radical experiment
Deep Springs College is a progressive junior college of twenty-eight students, offering a two-year associate degree in the liberal arts and is located on an isolated cattle ranch in Deep Springs Valley, between the bare mountain plains of Sierra Nevada and the Inyo-White Mountain range of California desert.
The College was founded in 1917 by an electrical pioneer and business tycoon, Lucien Lucius Nunn, as a radical not-for-profit experiment with the aim of educating and empowering promising young men to take on leadership roles and to provide unselfish service in uplifting mankind from materialism to idealism (Deep Springs Board of Trustees 1975). Nunn studied law for a semester at Harvard before moving to Colorado, where he created the Telluride Power Company and constructed the innovative Olmsted Power Plant. A pioneer of long-distance transmission of electricity and constructor of the Ontario Power works at Niagara Falls, he had many successes before turning his attention to education. Nunn had learned in the American West, where small towns were largely autonomous, that self-governance could foster individual virtues so he introduced a system of self-governance at the Telluride Association which he founded for his power-plant employees next to Cornell University (Newell 2015).
He established Deep Springs on the pillars of liberal arts education, manual labour and student self-governance for the purpose of preparing exceptional students to serve humanity (Newell 2015). Nunn’s trust fund provides full scholarships, currently valued at $50,000 a year, to the all-male students regardless of their socio-economic status. In exchange, all students are required to work on the College property for a minimum of twenty hours a week as part of their educational programme and to participate in self-governance while also giving selfless service to the community.
The exclusion of women has been a subject of concern to the College for many years and problems with the technical interpretation of the original trust deed are currently being litigated in court. I found overwhelming support from students, alumni and faculty to allow access to female students. Deep Springs has had a more diversified student group since 2011. For the academic year 2014–15 the student body included eleven students of colour while eight originated from five countries outside the U.S.A. Students hailed from mixed socio-economic backgrounds and six were first-generation college students (Deep Springs College 2015). Unlike Berea the inability to afford a college education is not a selection criterion.
Probably uniquely in the U.S.A, during the academic term Deep Springs enforces abstention from illegal drugs and alcohol and a regime of isolation that prohibits students from leaving campus unnecessarily (Neidorf 2016) to visit the two nearest towns (forty miles away). To prevent students from becoming distracted from their studies, no student is allowed to invite guests to the College without prior permission of the student body. This body has sole responsibility for governing the conduct of students and for enforcing these ground rules.
The modest buildings on the cattle ranch that house the College, and the very informal atmosphere and sense of humility for each other, mark Deep Springs as distinctly anti-elitist. Yet the College’s success in placing students at prestigious universities (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge) puts Deep Springs in a category of its own. The College has been kept deliberately small; it claims an exceptional educational experience (Newell 2000), which students described as formative and empowering. Others described their initial notion of being in an isolated environment within a small community where all they did was labour and engage with peers as ‘striking a romantic core’ and an experience that would make a meaningful and powerful enduring imprint on their lives. Not all found this an easy process as one student indicated:
Once I was here I realised that I don’t like physically being isolated that much. It’s not that nice but then you realise that if you want to go to Deep Springs and benefit from all the other things that happen here – meeting incredible people, having the labour programme, having fascinating and inspiring teachers, then you certainly have to accept isolation as part of that entire project. So I don’t really have a problem dealing with it right now simply because I know what I will get from being isolated.
Students are clearly highly intelligent as witnessed by the depth of classroom discussions and their deep, weekly debates, which they engage in as part of the curriculum. The level of responsibility and leadership exhibited was impressive. About 50 per cent of alumni go on to obtain a doctorate. Deep Springs has produced Pulitzer prizes, Rhodes and Truman Scholars and MacArthur Fellowships (‘Genius Grants’). Alumni exemplify Nunn’s ideal of service to humanity in professions including academia, law, journalism/writing, medicine, politics, science, non-profit administration, agriculture, business and design (Deep Springs College 2010).
Deep Springs has no separation of beneficial ownership and control; meaning that self-serving managers with no interest in students’ welfare or who are unaccountable to the beneficial owners cannot misappropriate funds or get any power (Berle and Means 1932). Many of the Trustees are alumni of Deep Springs and during my visit it became clear to me that there was a great deal of mutual respect and trust between students, management and the Board of Trustees.
The Board … has no committees without students on it. There is nothing the Board can do without students knowing about it. That is really great and it’s partly because it’s a little bit Board centric. The founder of the College said that the students are the beneficial owners of the College and they take that to mean that this is all ours; … as a legal term it means that the students all receive the benefits of the property even though they are not the legal donors, and the Board takes it very seriously, and tries to involve students in all parts of governance.
Deep Springs’ main sources of funding are from the endowment fund, philanthropists, alumni and their parents; a small amount comes from the sale of produce grown on its 2,500 acres of land and cattle sales (see Figure 5). Most food on the farm is grown for consumption by students and workers. In 2014–15 Deep Springs’ net worth was $32m including an endowment fund of $23m. The endowment supports 55 per cent of the operating budget. It has been built up by gifts from many supporters, in amounts ranging from a few hundred dollars to several million. Over the years the College has also received bequests in excess of $6m.
Keen to maintain its autonomy, Deep Springs has decided not to use federal aid to support its students’ education, leaving it free from any Federal requirements (like expected contributions from families). Donations are not solicited from students’ parents, as a senior official explained:
We don’t ask the parents for donations either. The ones whose families are well off, as soon as they leave I will ask their parents … but I don’t do it while they are here, because we want the student committee to be genuinely democratic and so we don’t want any awareness of economic hierarchy filtering into the College and that extends to not even fundraising from their parents.
This is an important policy aimed to eliminate the possibility of any potential conflict of interest or preferential treatment of students while attending college, particularly as Deep Springs is a community where faculty, students and employees work and reside as a family.
The Board of Trustees is the overall governing body of the College but they are supported at the operational level by the College President, who reports directly to the Board of Trustees, and the student body. The President is assisted by a dean and an office manager. There is also one senior officer with responsibility for identifying sources of funding.
The College originally was founded with what the founder called student self-governance, by which he meant that the staff should stay out of it voluntarily and allow students to control their lives in the dormitory. Outside the dormitory they had very little control of anything, but in the hundred years since then, student self-governance has expanded in the spirit of the school to include many more things – the way we make the choices we make about how the school operates and the staffing and the applications processed, etcetera.
The nature of the labour relationship at Deep Springs is different from Berea because at the former students are not employed or paid for their labour. They work from five in the morning milking cows, cooking, cleaning, collecting eggs, irrigating the farm, assisting in harvesting crops and working as cowboys on the ranch. They provide assistance to the office manager as necessary and shoulder many of the College’s normal administrative functions, in addition to self-governance. Deep Springs can be compared to a monastic community that operates on the basis of mutual care and support, and students, faculty and administrative staff work together in a communal relationship. Students approach their responsibilities not as chores but as a natural part of their daily lives and a key aspect of the College’s educational goals.
The student body convenes weekly to discuss matters of importance to academic studies and labour duties. A labour commissioner is appointed by, and reports to, the student body to coordinate the labour programme, assign duties to students on a termly rotational basis, and to evaluate their performance.
The student body is guided by its own set of bylaws, which are different from those of the College, and they govern themselves. The president of the student body is rotated biannually to give other students a chance at leadership and to allow sufficient time for their academic work. There are three main standing committees (see Figure 6) whose members rotate annually. The dean and/or a faculty member are also members of each committee, which convene weekly and are chaired by a student.
The student body does not actually recruit academic staff but facilitates this process through the Curriculum Committee (see Figure 6) by reviewing applications from prospective professors, shortlisting, conducting interviews and then making recommendations of a suitable candidate/s to the College President. Lecturers are selected on the basis of their ability to present a stimulating lecture to the student body on a particular topic and to respond intelligently to penetrating questions both personal and programme related. Candidates may also be invited to have lunch with the students who get a better opportunity to make an overall assessment. As one academic said, ‘When I came for an interview it was more an interview with students than anyone else, so they hired me …’ Candidates who rise to the challenge and can demonstrate to the students that they are in command of the topics being addressed will find favour with the student body. The Curriculum Committee also sets academic policies, reviews all cases of academic misconduct, directs what courses will be taught and makes recommendation to the College President on the retention of faculty members.
The role of the Applications Committee is to review all applications submitted by prospective students each year and to make selections for the academic year. Between twelve and sixteen students are admitted each year, although over two hundred applications are received. The selection process is based primarily on essay writing and an interview process even though students who are admitted have an average SAT score of 700 in mathematics and reading/writing compared to the national average of 511. Prospective students are also invited to spend three to four days orientation at the College where they will be up from five in the morning to go through what is a typical day in the life of existing students. The purpose of these few days is to allow prospective students to decide whether Deep Springs is the ideal place for them.
Finally, the Review and Re-invitation Committee reviews each student’s progress throughout the first year to determine whether they should be re-invited to proceed to the second year.
Students’ influence is demonstrated in the democratic structure of the College (Figure 6), in which they take control of the curriculum with guidance from an academic staff member and are protagonists of their own learning. Students design the curriculum and select their professors on the basis of the course offerings that will stimulate them and that are in keeping with the educational mission of leadership and enlightened service. There are only three permanent professors on staff and a dean of studies. If students are interested in pursuing a subject outside the expertise of the permanent academic staff, then these classes will be taught by visiting professors.
The curriculum consists of nine course offerings only, in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences; students pursue two or three courses in any one year. The courses on writing and public speaking, where students are taught to develop an argument convincingly are the main ones on which they are evaluated. Although students pursue courses such as mathematics this did not interest them as much as the humanities and social sciences where they get to critique an author or to challenge each other on difficult topics. The College also runs a summer induction seminar for all incoming students led by professors who speak on issues of governance, leadership and work ethics.
This comment from an experienced academic points to the exceptional development of students at Deep Springs. Unsurprisingly, Deep Springs alumni include U.S. ambassadors, heads of corporations, university presidents, members of Congress, distinguished scholars and prominent news analysts (Newell 2015). Nunn’s vision of preparing exceptional students to serve humanity has truly been realised in an isolated desert valley and could serve as a model of inspiration for reforming higher education institutions.
I taught at a lot of institutions I guess in my twenty-five years of teaching, you know, but, with one possible exception, I never met students that are this engaged and intelligent and, you know, interested, and they really are extraordinary. So it’s just a joy to teach here and the place has a certain life.
Resources for hope
My research aims to identify heterodox educational models that differ from the existing neoliberal hegemonic higher education system and to explore how salient features of these models may be adopted and adapted to provide students with different educational outcomes.
Deep Springs and Berea are located many miles from each other and have different histories but in their ability to impact students’ lives and the wider community through teaching and learning they display important similarities. Both colleges make access to higher education affordable and attainable to promising young people in the U.S.A. and internationally. While no model is perfect and it may not be possible to reproduce these two colleges, they possibly provide the following resources for hope for the wider higher-education system globally:
- The experience of Deep Springs College shows it is possible to have a higher-education institution in which students are the beneficial owners working collaboratively as partners with academic and administrative staff in controlling and managing the day-to-day affairs of their institution. The engagement of students in the affairs of their institution is self-evidently important in a non-commodified education system because a higher-education institution exists for the benefit of students.
- Models for regional or community higher education institutions can be established that embrace faculty, students and workers as equal partners in the democratic governance, rather than the branding of students as customers. The heterodox model can engage students in strategic decision-making and allow for a pedagogical framework that is collaborative and practices democracy in learning. Students will have the opportunity to develop strong discipline and to grow in character and intellect.
- It is possible to set up higher-education institutions that work in the interest of the public good, changing communities for the better and all the people living in them by providing full scholarships.
- Addressing the problem of scale is essential because these heterodox models have traditionally been small. One way to transition to larger heterodox higher-education institutions is to seek affiliated partners by broadening the scope of ownership beyond its local community to include organisations in the social economy or third sector (cooperatives, trusts, worker-owned enterprises) that cover a broader regional spectrum. Consequently, the heterodox higher-education institutions may be able to grow in capacity and continuously attract professional students from among the affiliated partners as well as internationally.
- Berea and Deep Springs have demonstrated that people are willing and ready to contribute financially towards the success of a higher education institution that has a mission to ensure that every student with academic potential from a less privileged household benefits from higher education and this is an avenue to be explored in reconfiguring higher education institutions.
- Students’ education should develop the individual holistically (professionally, academically and by instilling the values of a life of service to the community). Maintaining a flat structure helps achieve this, keeping operating costs down. By allowing students to work within the institutional environment as part of their full scholarship, they acquire professional skills and practical experience that will be useful in their future career. While there is more engagement of students in the flatter structure of Deep Springs, the steeper hierarchical structure of Berea seems not to be detrimental to the academic-management relationship with students because of the College’s strong commitment to its students and the wider community engagement.
Berea and Deep Springs may not provide all the answers but they offer hope to students who otherwise may not have been given the opportunity to realise their true potential and they can be drawn upon as future models to counteract the effects of a neoliberal higher-education system in the U.K. and other parts of the world.
I express deep appreciation to the management, academic staff, students and administrative staff of Berea and Deep Springs Colleges for allowing me to carry out this case study and for being so open with information. The warmth and patience exhibited during my stay contributed towards the success of my mission and for that I say thank you. In particular I make special mention of Chad Berry, Linda Strong-Leek, Jennifer Marciniak, Monica Jones, Keith Bullock, Chris Green, Sean Clark, Ashley Cochrane, Jeff Amburgey, Gail Bowman, Chris Lakes, Virgil Burnside, Theresa Lowder, Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens, David Tipton, Richard Cahill, Judge Wilson, David Neidorf, Amity Wilczek, William Ehlers, Isaac Price-Slade and Niki Frishman. I owe a debt of gratitude to Professor Rebecca Boden for painstakingly reading the draft of this paper and providing constructive critique for its improvement. Thanks also to the editors for their invaluable feedback.
This research was funded by the EU PEOPLE Marie Skłodowska-Curie ITN project called UNIKE (Universities in the Knowledge Economy), Grant agreement number PITN-GA-2012-317452.
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