08/28/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

Small Is Still Beautiful

Understandably, colleges and universities today are seriously considering the consequences of what President Obama and his administration are proposing for significant changes to how higher education in this country functions, and measures its worth. Those of us who have made higher education our life's work know from experience that the merit of these changes will be intensely debated in our circles and perhaps some may actually come to fruition. That said, early response is suggesting many of these reforms will be difficult to actually implement.

It will be argued that those of us in the small school sector may have reason to be most concerned about measures of productivity that are driven by formulas not appropriate for the markets we serve. As president of a small, independent, university I certainly have an obligation to consider what is on the horizon for my school and take these cautions seriously.

On a more positive note, however, I feel fortunate to have had an opportunity over the past several years to express my own point of view on reforms. This included an invited meeting with the President's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. The Yes We Must Coalition, led by Dr. Gloria Nemerowicz, has provided small schools such as Thomas University with the means to have a national voice in the important debates of higher education's future. Those who represent the independent sector such as the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities and the Council of Independent Colleges also represent our sector well and will be strong voices in the current debates.

I choose to be optimistic about our future and particularly that of the small school sector. First, when examining the rich history of higher education in the United States it is difficult to find a period when we were not confronted with change. You need not look any further than the small, independent, sector to see many successful stories of survival, in spite of the one time dire predictions. There are many reasons for our successes but none more than the advantages of scale and how that plays into the operational elements of a college or university.

In 1973, E.F. Schumacher authored a provocative book entitled Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. His message of hope for what, at the time, was a dismal declining economic condition in the United States did influence many of us to begin thinking differently about scale. Many of us who were around may recall that between 1970 and 1975 we experienced two recessions, rapidly elevating inflation, runaway interest rates and high unemployment. Small, independent, and tuition driven colleges and universities were about to begin one of the most vulnerable periods in their own history. There was good reason to consider the future of this sector as for many it appeared bleak.

Schumacher's book had a powerful impact on my own way of thinking about business, governments, and how we functioned in higher education. Although that book was published at the beginning of my own twenty plus year relationship with a large independent university, the key messages of economies of scale would set the course, to this day, for how I researched, taught, consulted and administered in my fields of management and higher education.

Burton Clark's, The Distinctive College, published in 1970 and later in 1972, Alexander Astin and Calvin Lee's The Invisible Colleges, were among the first published works that focused on the role, challenges and opportunities of small schools in the United States. These seminal publications were influential for many of us who were students of higher education. Since then, much more has been written about the small school sector including my own co-authored book, The Liberal Arts College Adapting to Change: The Survival of Small Schools, published in 1996. Many of the message are the same and include the unique advantages to being small when confronted with major organizational development challenges and the forces of change. One only needs to examine the successful evolution of business and industry, during this same period of time, to see the positive consequences of downsizing. The corollaries of change between business and industry, and that of higher education, are stronger than we sometimes care to acknowledge...but that is a subject for another day.

Some, including myself, would argue that many characteristics of the small independent school sector positions us to be at a greater advantage to weather change, including that which we are about to experience. The fact that many of the detractors who were ready to write off the small school sector in the 1970s, yet are attentive to how we conduct our work today, is certainlly evidence that something special is going on here.