Signature Programs Alone Will Not Save Our Colleges

The forecast of a major contraction in higher education, especially among small, private liberal arts schools, has college administrators scrambling to find ways to save their schools. Some are implementing “signature programs” that organize and supplement the academic curriculum to add value to a student’s education.

Signature programs are designed to support and enhance the educational experience of college students. The organizational coherence of these programs makes it easier to demonstrate the relevance of liberal education and the ways in which such an education can lead to success in the world.  

At Transylvania University we take advantage of our size, location, and academic calendar to offer programs that tie courses to the real world. Our location, for instance, in the heart of downtown Lexington, Ky., makes it possible to connect students with alumni mentors through the 100 Doors to Success mentoring program and provide internships to any student who wants one.  

We recently invested almost $1 million in digital liberal arts to ensure that our students understand, use, and critique technology to better make their way in the emerging digital world.

Our academic calendar includes May term, during which students take one highly innovative course. May term courses are typically team-taught, travel courses, or integrated into our community.

Each of these initiatives adds value to our students’ experience. And while they might qualify as “signature programs,” they do not constitute the identity of our school. They are not our primary focus. Our identity is grounded in teaching excellence. This is our signature and the best indicator of the quality of our education.

The nexus between identity and quality is crucial during these times of unprecedented challenges to our industry. As Douglas Belkin recently pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article, “colleges and universities are segregating into winners and losers—with winners growing and expanding and losers seeing the first signs of a death spiral… Demographics and geography have some influence on which side of the fault line a school lands, but quality is also a big factor.”

Transylvania has been around for more than 230 years, and its resilience has no doubt been tied to excellent teaching. It was 30 years ago, however, that this point of focus became our explicit signature advantage. The board chair at that time, businessman and philanthropist William T. Young, understood that to sustain teaching excellence, it had to be supported and incentivized. To this end, he created the Bingham Program for Teaching Excellence. It is clear from his letters that he had a sincere appreciation for “inspirational” teachers, as well as the “threat of stagnation that comes with lifetime tenure appointments.” (Bingham Archives, May 7, 1987)

Over three decades, the Bingham Trust has invested more than $18 million, primarily in the form of annual financial awards to Bingham Fellows, to sustain teaching excellence at Transylvania. This investment has had a tangible impact on the quality of teaching on our campus. As Veronica Dean-Thacker, professor of Spanish, points out, “the recipients are keenly aware that this facet of their position has been acknowledged and must be nurtured. Since the introduction of the Bingham Awards, teaching methodologies have become a focus of discussion… more professors visit their colleagues’ classes to both learn and guest lecture…. [T]he Bingham Award has allowed me to do work in Spain, which directly impacts my students. Each summer I use these funds from the Bingham Program to conduct interviews with distinguished Spanish authors. These interviews have helped shape, and continue to inform, my scholarship and teaching.”

More generally, the Bingham application and renewal process forces faculty to stop and think deeply about what they do in the classroom and why they do it. This introspection, along with related discussions among colleagues about what works and what doesn’t, has sustained the quality of teaching on campus and promoted collegiality among faculty.

Paul Jones, Transylvania professor of religion, describes the dynamics of this process: “[T]eaching is neither private nor personal…. [I]t takes a community of scholars to fashion a professor. Countless conversations about the seminal ideas of one’s discipline shape the contours of one’s thoughts and frame the interrelationship of concepts and methods. At its best, the Bingham Program concurrently recognizes the achievements of this vocational process and promotes more of the same via collaborative exchanges with both students and faculty.“

Jonathan Berkey, professor of history at Davidson College and Bingham board member, observes: “The Bingham Program is perhaps unique in American higher education. Many colleges and universities insist that teaching excellence is central to their mission. Often, however, we don’t really discuss specifically and honestly what exactly constitutes ‘excellent teaching’ and how to achieve it. What the Bingham Program has done is create a sophisticated mechanism, involving extensive consultation with and examination by professors from other liberal arts institutions, to evaluate classroom instruction at the University.”

Any program that requires external reviews of tenured faculty by their peers and provides large financial rewards to the successful candidates will generate questions and concerns. There is no perfect way to support and incentivize excellence in teaching while honoring the traditional codes and protocols of academia. Nonetheless, the vision of William T. Young has turned our attention to teaching while overcoming the intractable challenge most schools face in finding resources to implement signature programs.

It also addresses lacunae in current debates about the true value of liberal education. Scott Carlson argued recently that passion for a subject is more important than pursuing a career that lists job openings. His position reflects the deeper insight expressed by philosopher Michael McCarthy: “a foundational principle of our common humanity… is the unrestricted desire to know, the eros of mind, and the equally unrestricted desire for good, the eros for all that is truly worthwhile” (Correspondence, January 2015). The skill of our faculty does more than purvey knowledge or techniques; it inspires and transforms the lives of students by opening them to the ground of our common humanity.

This is idealistic; nonetheless it is practical. There is nothing more powerful to boost retention and graduation rates than the fulfillment that comes from genuine discovery and learning under the tutelage of inspirational teachers. Signature programs that succinctly communicate the value of liberal education are essential going forward, but they cannot substitute for the central mission of our schools. Student passion and fulfillment that follow from discovery and learning are the best indication of a quality education and necessary for lasting institutional success.