Liberal Arts and the Research University

By Rebekkah McKalsen

“Research schools” often brings up an image of specialized universities, such as Johns Hopkins University, or otherwise very large and well-known institutions like Harvard or Cornell. However, research at small liberal arts colleges is thriving, and there are huge benefits to the programs in place there – for the academic community as well as the students they serve. 

Hope College, a liberal arts institution located in Holland, Michigan, with 3,388 students, stresses lab and explorative work as separate from classroom projects. The college’s Carl Frost Research Center focuses on the social sciences and fosters not only collaborative projects between students and faculty but also interactions with the local community. According to Milly Hudgins, the center’s Operations Manager, past projects have included conducting a survey for the local Board of Public Works, riding buses to ensure customer satisfaction, and also assessing programs from Ready for School, an initiative that gets children ready for kindergarten. The center has a wide area of influence beyond Holland, however. An industrial furniture manufacturing based in Michigan recently contracted with the Frost Center, Hudgins said, “to conduct a nationwide users’ survey which compared important criteria such as quality, pricing, and value of their products in comparison to their competition.” 

Any phone surveys gathering raw data are typically conducted by students, Hudgins explained, giving them the time to learn tangible skills as well as observe how the information collected is interpreted and applied to improve the world around them. The center is currently conducting research “about schools with research centers similar to ours,” she said, to examine the pros and cons of being a part of a small institution without a graduate school. 

The labs at Kalamazoo College showcase one of the benefits of being smaller: flexibility. The college recently published the results of their six-year experiment that looks at Alzheimer’s from an evolutionary perspective, which biology Professor Jim Langeland said wouldn’t have been possible at an institute with larger facilities. A press release on the college’s website suggested that in many larger labs, “The exigency of understanding Alzheimer’s in order to development treatments for it may not favor such an extended timeline or evolutionary approach.” The experiment started as a Senior Individualized Project (SIP) in 2007 and continued, with the collaboration of several faculty members and a total of four Biology students. Although Provost Jan Tobochnik said that it was a “special case,” three of the students continued working with the project in the lab as alumni. 

Virtually every student at Kalamazoo is involved in some type of research, whether as a part of their SIP or independently over the summer with a faculty member. Tobochnik said that, typically, each faculty member chooses two or three students to stay each summer to work in various programs. One of the other benefits to being smaller, according to Tobochnik, is that their programs aren’t meant to attract graduate students and so the programs and staff involved focus on the experiments themselves, without the distraction of sifting through applications and incorporating recruitment materials into the experience. Another benefit is that, with a student-faculty ratio of 12:1, Kalamazoo students are interacting with faculty, not graduate students, in their endeavors, and according to Tobochnik, the students might “have more responsibility than at larger institutions” due to the lack of graduate student assistance. 

Not only are colleges maintaining pre-existing programs, but new opportunities are being created, as schools stress learning outside of the classroom in practical, real-world settings. Wells College, a school of just over 500 students in Central New York, has recently come forth with a plan to add a summer research component for students to work with faculty on larger projects such as the senior thesis. According to Provost Cindy Speaker, “There will also be an in-residence program during the academic year to encourage students to interact with professionals in their fields outside of the classroom structure.” The in-residence program will be a part of the college’s current Center for Business and Entrepreneurship, hosting professionals working in the college’s four academic divisions for an “intense period of time” ranging from one to seven weeks, allowing students time to learn from and collaborate with experts. Speaker said that professionals could range from visiting writers to environmental specialists. Wells President Thomas de Witt called the program an “incubator space” which would create optimal conditions for research ideas to develop naturally.

The new program will dovetail with the college’s Institute for Sustainability and the Environment (WISE), another project that is underway for the coming year. The institute will take advantage of the fact that the college is situated on a lake to explore problems with basic resources that are occurring worldwide. That is not everything that the college hopes to implement over the next several years, however. De Witt said, “In five years, I envisage a working vineyard as well as an organic farm with perhaps some sheep – things that will help students apply skills learned in the classroom as they relate to the environment… We will be melding professional skills with a liberal arts education.” 

Although most facilities focus on experimenting and working in the sciences, Princeton University, with an enrollment of 5,264 undergraduate students and only 2,648 graduate students, has leading research facilities including a strong humanities component. Martin Kern, a faculty member in the East Asian Studies Department, recently published his findings after exploring the origins of over forty manuscripts from ancient China which did not give any explicit author credit. In an article for Princeton’s Discovery magazine, which is dedicated to publicizing research efforts at the university, Kern said, “We start out with the assumption of a unifying person with a unifying set of ideas. Now we look at these texts, and we see it’s not at all like that.” He encouraged experts in fields related to Chinese studies to consider the implications of the findings in terms of the notion of “the author” as a presence connecting written texts. 

Students are also highly encouraged to participate in research over the summer, which they can get involved in through contacting the head of the department in which they would like to study. Princeton is able to fund so many varying programs because, as the mission statement for the Dean of Research states, administrators there are dedicated to “helping researchers compete effectively for research funding and assisting with the establishment of new partnerships.” 

Thus, regardless of the state of the economy or the focus on cutting budgets, research opportunities are alive and well. Even the smallest liberal arts schools across the country are presenting students with a wide variety of offerings. As de Witt of Wells College said, “Students will graduate with a skill set students in other colleges don’t have. What we have here is…unique but we cannot remain what we’ve been because there’s no demand for it.” However, overly-specialized training can also be dangerous, as de Witt explains: “Management is all about teams right now, and in a team, everyone needs to be creative and needs to be able to write. Liberal arts skills are invaluable.”

Rebekkah McKalsen is a senior at Wells College majoring in English. Wells College is home to the Xi of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.