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How has Grinnell changed in the past twenty years?

Last night, I was having dinner with some of Grinnell’s trustees [1]. Upon hearing that this is my twentieth year at Grinnell, one of the trustees asked what had changed in the last twenty years. I gave a fairly long description last night. This essay is my attempt to think through that question again.

Hilary Mason ’00 tells me that each time she comes back to Grinnell she is happy to see how little it has changed. The students are still nice, smart, committed people who want to make a difference in the world. The faculty still care deeply about teaching our students and about advancing their scholarly fields. And Grinnell still has a strong commitment to serving high-need students [4]. But that doesn’t mean that Grinnell hasn’t changed, both for the better and for the worse. Here are some changes that I’ve seen since I arrived at Grinnell in Fall 1997.

The most obvious change has been in our student population. When I arrived at Grinnell, we were much more of a school of white students. We had international students. We had domestic students of color. But the ratios have changed significantly. Joe Bagnoli tells me that the entering class is less than 50% white. That’s a huge change. I think Posse made a big difference, and helped jump-start much more success in not only attracting, but also retaining domestic students of color. We’ve also made a more significant commitment to bringing in international students, including high-need international students who we support, and full-pay international students, who support themselves [6,7]. It’s an obvious change, but it’s been gradual enough that I didn’t quite pay attention to it until I met with some high-school guidance counselors a year or two ago and asked them what was most surprising about Grinnell. They said something like, You really are as diverse as you claim to be. I’m glad that we’ve moved in this direction, because I think the diverse backgrounds not only makes Grinnell a more interesting place, but also because it helps prepare our students for a more global society in which they have to understand a wider variety of people.

Another fairly obvious change (although one I don’t think I mentioned last night) is our buildings. Since I’ve come to Grinnell, we’ve torn down part of the Science building and built a much larger replacement for that part. We’ve torn down Darby Gym and the old Physical Education Complex and built both the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center [8] and the Bear [10]. We’ve torn down the old preschool and built a new one. We’ve added to the back end of Nollen house and the building next to Nollen house. We’ve turned some of the old affinity houses, such as Pirate House, into office space. We’ve renovated the Old Glove Factory downtown and moved more offices there. We’ve turned Windsor house from a guest house into a home for Communications and then into … well, I don’t know what Windsor house is now. We’ve built an awesome new research station at the Conard Environmental Research Area and also installed an equally awesome artwork there.

I find it a little scary that we have so many more building changes planned in the next few years: The new Carnegie/ARH complex, the new admissions center, significant renovations to the Forum so that it is accessible, whatever is planned for Goodnow and Mears, whatever is planned for all the land we have bought or are buying downtown, whatever is planned for the Grinnell College Country Club, the new bookstore (or at least what I hope will be a new bookstore), the new library (which I think has been on the agenda since I arrived at Grinnell), the new Student Health and Counseling Services center (which our SHACS review clearly recommended, but which seems to fit into no current plans), and so on and so forth.

I’m glad to hear that we’re thinking a bit differently about the new buildings. I appreciated hearing a trustee speak critically of the decision to ship stone from China for the JRC and of dorms which have rooms that are too small to appropriately hold the furniture for the students [11].

I’ve seen a significant change in our understanding of the endowment, which I’ll likely explore further in a forthcoming essay on donating to Grinnell. When I was first at Grinnell, it seemed like the endowment was so large that we didn’t really have to worry too much about sustaining Grinnell. But, as I understand it, the economic models we have suggest that we can’t continue to rely on the endowment to the extent we did in the past, which means we either have to significantly change how people donate to Grinnell, find other sources of income, or make some cuts to the many great things we do.

We are also dealing with a much larger set of rules and regulations imposed by the government. I think everyone on campus now spends more time on these issues. I also think that they mean that we need to do much more risk management [12].

We’ve seen what seems to be a large expansion of staff and administrators. I know that not all faculty are happy about this growth, since we certainly have not grown the faculty to the same extent. I expect that a lot of the growth comes from a need to handle these rules and regulations. Some growth in staff is also profitable; both Communications and Development and Alumni Relations help ensure that the College brings in more money. I’ll admit that I’d still like to see less of a zero sum game for faculty. As I think I’ve written in the past, I’m thrilled to have a line for a new faculty member. But I hate that knowing that the line either came from Physics or Classics, who were not allowed to replace a faculty member they are losing, and both of which are departments that I value highly.

We’re seeing a fairly significant change in the distribution of majors across the College. For most of my time at Grinnell, we had about 1/3 Humanities majors, about 1/3 Social studies majors, and about 1/3 Science majors [13]. These past few years have seen significant growth in the sciences, primarily at the expense of the humanities. Why? Part of the reason is our growth of international students. For better or for worse, the US Government provides powerful incentives for international students to choose a major in the sciences: three years of post-graduation work in the US for science majors vs. one year for students without science majors. I also know that students from many countries have much better opportunities in their own country if they have a science degree.

I think another part of the reason we see this change in student choice of majors is a significant change in how HR departments work. It used to be that HR departments realized that a good liberal arts student could probably do anything. At last spring’s reunion, I talked to a Classics Major and a Theatre major, both of whom had developed successful careers in technology. But these days, HR departments so often rely on software to process the too-many applications they receive that they filter out people who don’t have the particular skills they think they want now, as opposed to the broader learning, thinking, and communication skills that they really need [14]. And so students must worry about credentialing for jobs that pay reasonably well, which often means a major in the sciences.

I’ve also seen a lot of changes in technology and technology use. We now use technology in a wide variety of situations in which we used to use paper, and technology does not always make our lives easier. The example I gave last night is our advising software. It takes me between fifteen and thirty seconds to load my list of advisees. It takes me another fifteen seconds to load an advisee once I’ve selected him, her, or zir. It took about five seconds to grab an advisee file from a drawer [16]. As I’ve written in an earlier essay, we’ve also seen a significant change in our Web site, which used to be not only a repository of information about Grinnell, but also a collection of useful ideas we shared with the world. Now, our primary Web site is intended only as a recruitment tool for students, and things that might be useful to people on campus, for recruiting faculty, or to people around the world are either discarded or hidden away on GrinCo.

I was going to say that we’re worrying more about assessment, but we’ve tried to pay attention to assessment for as long as I’ve been at Grinnell, primarily because our accrediting agency tells us to.

If I recall, at some point in last night’s conversation, I mentioned Convocation. When I started at Grinnell, Convo was mostly a weekly event, and that meant that more people thought about it as something that they should include on their weekly schedule. Now, it’s a once-in-a-while event, which not only means that some people forget about Convocation, but also that people now seem to schedule things in conflict with it [17]. I think that makes Grinnell a less good place.

We pay much more attention to accessibility than we used to. We still have a way to go, but I very much appreciate that we think about how we can make our classes available to students who have visual, auditory, physical, or other impairments.

We also deal much differently with mental health, but that’s something else that deserves a whole essay of its own.

I could go on and on. There are many other things that have changed on campus, certainly more than I can write about in one essay, and probably more than I can recall or identify [18,20]. However, in spite of all these changes, Grinnell feels very much the same to me. It’s a place where we bring in talented, interesting, students, irrespective of their ability to pay; we focus on giving them a great education and developing them as people; and then we send them on their way to make a difference in the world.

Oh, since a trustee asked this question most recently, I should reflect one one more very important change. When I came to Grinnell, the trustees, as a group, did not consider Grinnell a great institution. I think the current trustees do.

[1] Last year, the trustees decided that each time they came to campus, they should issue an open invitation to faculty from one of the three divisions to dine with them and chat. I expect that the idea came from Patricia Jipp Finkelman ’80, who is thoughtful and committed to the College [2].

[2] No, I’m not sucking up. I really like both Dan and Patricia. I had the opportunity to spend a weekend with them in a small workshop in which we discussed the Wilson program and also how the College can help students develop soft skills. I find them smart, thoughtful, and concerned people. I also appreciate that they have helped support our recent Pioneer Day fundraising campaigns and that they endowed the directorship of the Center for Careers, Life, and Service [3]. And I appreciate that when I complained to Patricia about the idiotic Named Chair stoles, she promised to get something done about them. She also said really nice things about one of my students, who happens to be president of SGA.

[3] I also appreciate that this means that I can call Mark Peltz the Finkeldean.

[4] One of the things I appreciate most about Grinnell is that we try to provide a top-rate liberal arts education to all qualified students. That means that we don’t pay attention to ability to pay when we admit students, and we meet full demonstrated financial need for domestic students [5].

[5] Many students will tell you that what the Government thinks is reasonable for families to contribute is not really reasonable.

[6] I worry that we’ve grown the number of international students without significantly growing our staff in international student affairs. And, while some other institutions with a similar number of students get by with a similar size staff, those institutions generally have a much more homogeneous set of students.

[7] President Kington would like me to remind you that even full-pay students don’t pay the full cost of their Grinnell education. If I remember correctly, there’s about a $15K-20K gap between the actual cost of a year at Grinnell and our tuition.

[8] Also known as Joe’s Quarter or The JRC [9].

[9] That’s pronounced jay are see.

[10] Is the Natatorium official part of the Bear? I don’t know. And is it the Osgood Natatorium or just the Osgood Pool?

[11] Since one of my sons resides in such a room, I particularly appreciate hearing the comment.

[12] We’re lucky to have someone who straddles the academic and the administrative working hard on how we think about risk.

[13] When I write Humanities, Social studies, and Science, I refer to the divisions. Many folks would classify History as a humanistic discipline, and while Mathematics is in the sciences, it does not employ the scientific method [14].

[14] My children would tell you that Computer science is also not a science.

[15] Both of the alums I was talking to confirmed that they did not think they would now be able to have the career paths they did.

[16] More precisely, it took about five seconds for an organized faculty member to grab an advisee file from a drawer. It either takes me five seconds or a day to find advisee files.

[17] I find that the Dean’s office is often the worst offender.

[18] Even if we just look at curricular issues, there are lots: MAPs (and MIPs); the Expanding Knowledge Initiative; new disciplines, like film studies, an expanded GWSS major, and a new statistics concentration; a completely different career center; the new scholarship for all initiative; all of the centers; changes in study-abroad and double-major policies [19]; a new languages initiative; a commitment to open access; and so on and so forth.

[19] We still have no official triple-major policies, at least as far as I know.

[20] We’ve also lost an enormous number of wonderful Grinnellians during my time at Grinnell: Grant Gale [21], Joe Rosenfield, Pam Ferguson, John Pfitsch, and many more. The loss of each one has changed Grinnell.

[21] I’m glad I got to meet him; It still infuriates me that the College didn’t bother to videotape his tribute speech about Robert Noyce from the festivities surrounding Phase I of the Noyce renovations.

Version 1.0.2 of 2016-10-07.