Mindshare and the life of the mind: a liberal arts college finds its market niche

Mindshare and the life of the mind: a liberal arts college finds its market niche – Dickinson College

David L. Kirp

For Bill Durden, the peripatetic president of Dickinson College, the October 5, 2001, issue of the Wall Street Journal contained some excellent news. A feature story touted Dickinson as one of “this fall’s hot schools”–one of just three liberal arts colleges among the 16 institutions singled out for such praise. It’s a “college for a new era,” the article enthused, “poised to be a player.” Such favorable publicity–any publicity, for that matter–marks a major turnaround for Dickinson. Although the college, tucked away in a colonial-era town in southeastern Pennsylvania, has long offered a solid liberal arts education, until recently very few people knew of its existence.

This anonymity was both a symptom and a cause of Dickinson’s decline. Beginning early in the 1990s, the quality of students at the college steadily worsened–at its nadir, the college was forced to admit more than four applicants in five and bribe them with outsized scholarships. Faculty morale bottomed out, and alumni responded with a decided lack of enthusiasm to a lengthy capital campaign. For the first time in years, Dickinson was operating in the red, and its bond rating slipped. U.S. News & World Report confirmed and reinforced this fall from grace in 1995 when it dropped Dickinson from its list of the nation’s 50 best liberal arts colleges.

William Durden was recruited in 1999 with a mandate to turn things around. A 1971 alumnus, he had spent 16 years at Johns Hopkins University, where he was a professor of German. He was also a talented entrepreneur, having taken a tiny campus center for gifted youth and turned it into the biggest program of its kind in the country. Then he left to become president of the Sylvan Academy of Sylvan Learning and vice president for academic affairs of the Caliber Learning Network, a for-profit distance learning venture.

That background, almost unheard-of in liberal arts circles, prompted some Dickinson professors to go public with their concern that, out of desperation, the school was selling out. But the paean in the Wall Street Journal was just another piece of evidence that the new president was making remarkable progress in putting his alma mater on the map. That he could do so without undermining the college’s academic integrity makes the Dickinson story a tale relevant to many other schools that are in a similar predicament.


A century ago, liberal arts colleges were a dominant force in American higher education. Now these schools, which educate fewer than 4 percent of all undergraduates, are becoming an endangered species. Intimate size, a residential setting, small classes taught by full-time professors, faculty-student collaboration, a personal commitment to students and institutional communities of discourse: these are virtues worth preserving. But the tides of fashion in higher education are running against these colleges. The “practical arts” are increasingly favored over the liberal arts–only a quarter of all undergraduates now receive liberal arts degrees, as compared with 50 percent just 30 years ago–and the label “university,” rather than “college,” is equated in the popular imagination with seriousness of institutional purpose.

Colleges perched at the top of the prestige hierarchy are in no trouble. But while “schools like Amherst and Williams have the financial power and reputation to remain in control of their own destiny,” economists (and college presidents) Michael McPherson and Morton Schapiro point out in a 1999 Daedalus article, “there are not even fifty colleges about which one could say that with confidence.”

On the lowest rungs of the status ladder, the picture is grim. Every year a number of these institutions go out of business–at least 27 since 1997, a third more than in the previous five years and more than 5 percent of all the liberal arts colleges in the nation; dozens more are in financial hot water, having borrowed many times more than their assets. A 2002 report from Standard and Poor’s, the bond-rating agency, concludes that colleges might have to “consolidate in large numbers of close as they struggle against stagnant levels of financial resources and substantially higher levels of debt.”

The challenge is to convince a skeptical public that, as sociologist Todd Gitlin observed in a 1998 Chronicle of Higher Education essay, liberal arts can “anchor a high-velocity, reckless, and lightweight culture whose main value is marketability.” That was Bill Durden’s assignment when he arrived at Dickinson.


Dickinson College is steeped–enveloped–in its past. The college, 16th oldest in the nation, was founded in the aftermath of the American Revolution. It had an eloquent champion in Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a free thinker in matters of religion who, improbably, made this Presbyterian-sponsored school his passion.

From the outset, however, money was a problem. “Get money,” Rush urged a close friend, sounding like a harassed development officer. “Get it honorably, if you can, but get money for the College!” Lack of funds persuaded the Presbyterian clergymen to turn over control to the Methodists, but those clerics didn’t do much better. Out of financial desperation, the college closed its doors between 1816 and 1821 and again from 1832 until 1834. It has never been able to raise a substantial endowment, and so over the years it has turned to wacky financial schemes to stay afloat; at one point it tried to coax parents into signing up their children when they were in elementary school.

Still, Dickinson has consistently offered a solid grounding in the liberal arts. Although Rush was something of a radical in emphasizing the practical arts rather than Greek and Latin, for most of its history the school has been rigidly orthodox in its curriculum, a defender of the old order against the new. James Morgan, Dickinson’s president during the first decades of the 20th century and author of a 1933 history of the college, ends his narrative with the boast that Dickinson “has held steadily to its first and only love, the liberal arts and cultural studies.”

Doubtless thinking of rivals like Lehigh and Gettysburg, Morgan points out that while many colleges “have offered courses in near-engineering, in commerce and business–easier courses suited to the many who are not fit for the culture of the liberal arts–Dickinson has never bowed to commerce.”

Well into the 1990s, the commitment persisted to what is referred to as “the Dickinsonian way.” But the Dickinsonian way wasn’t selling. In this consumerist era, parents need a very good reason to spend $25,000 a year on their child’s education–especially when tuition is so much lower at Penn State, another of the Wall Street Journal’s “hot” schools, whose honors college goes head-to-head with Dickinson. In this environment, it helps to have a leader who appreciates both the life of the mind and the imperatives of the marketplace.

When a headhunter initially called, Durden insisted that he wasn’t interested in returning to his alma mater. ‘Im the wrong guy. I’d move that place, and I don’t think they’ve got the guts to do that.” He offered the trustees a scathing critique of the school’s recent history. “You’ve blown it,” he told them. “The place is adrift. It’s become the ‘safety school,’ and that’s outrageous.” But eventually he was persuaded that he’d have the leeway needed to “drive” the college.

Durden’s old boss, Johns Hopkins President Steven Muller, was skeptical that he could accomplish much at Dickinson. “No one dies of English,” said the former head of a university blessed with a world-renowned medical school. “That was the challenge,” Durden says. “How do I find an energetic basic charge that other places get from finding a cure for cancer? How do I create buzz?”


Ever since taking the job, Durden has been emphasizing what makes Dickinson College stand out from the crowd. “Soon after I got here, I hiked part of the Appalachian trail with some students,” he recalls, retelling a story that he has made a part of the new Dickinson folklore. “A senior who’d done very well told me that she really didn’t know what it meant to be a Dickinsonian. In retrospect, that became a defining moment of my administration.”

Durden’s experience at Sylvan had taught him a valuable lesson. “What I learned is the importance of knowing your product. Sylvan could answer the question: ‘What are we?’ Colleges don’t have this perspective.” Dickinson College needed a compelling story–a “brand I could use to lead the institution.”

As a scholar of languages, Durden is keenly aware of how much can get lost in translation. “I use words like ‘consumer,'” he says, but in an academic environment, students are coming to Dickinson because they like what we offer.” Moreover, “we’re different from business. We don’t have to fulfill every desire because we’re an academic institution that knows what we are. We’ll listen, but don’t confuse our good will with our agreeing with you.”

Clarity of purpose was not easy to come by. The college had long suffered from that familiar academic malady, sclerosis caused by governance through faculty committee. In the decade before Durden’s arrival, a dozen reports had been generated, running nearly 1,500 pages and covering every aspect of institutional life. These documents were earnestly debated, only to wind up filling shelf space. Durden immediately formed a task force drawn from all the campus constituencies and gave the group an ambitious charge: shape a vision, draft a coherent plan of action and get the school to embrace it–all in a single academic year.

“The discussion was civil,” recalls religion professor Mara Donaldson, one of those fearful of creeping commercialism. “The biggest disagreements were over how to integrate student life with a liberal arts education–and about money, of course.” Remarkably, Durden’s timetable was met. More remarkably still, the strategic plan isn’t another anodyne document. This “guide to our identity as Dickinsonians,” as the president calls it, proceeds in a straight line from a declaration of principles to the enumeration of specifics. It lays out measurable aspirations for everything from minority enrollment to endowment growth and campus expansion.

The key goals are printed on a laminated wallet card, widely distributed so that everyone, from the trustees to the groundskeepers, can know at a glance where Dickinson College is heading. Durden tells a story about a family visiting the campus. “They asked the guy watering the flowers for directions and he went into a discussion of the strategic plan.”

To help the school establish its identity, the president hired a marketing consultant, a Johns Hopkins PhD named Mark Neustadt. After conducting scores of interviews and focus groups, Neustadt developed the college’s “positioning statement”: Reflecting America, Engaging the World. Neustadt wrote that the statement “sets Dickinson apart from its competitors … resonates well with prospective students … and elicits enthusiasm from alumni.”

Because Dickinson had so few minority students, Neustadt pointed out, the first part of the slogan “does not reflect current reality, and would therefore require substantial institutional change to implement.” But the second part aptly described Dickinson’s academic strengths, since “world-engaging” pedagogical experiments were being launched well before Durden arrived. A research center established in 1994 conducted inter-disciplinary studies of contemporary policy issues, demonstrating the link between liberal learning and the world outside southeastern Pennsylvania. It also brought in political figures whose talks were aired on C-SPAN, giving the college visibility–at least among political junkies.

At the same time, students in the “American mosaic” semester were venturing into the dying community of Steel-town and the apple orchards of rural Adam County, using oral histories and archival research to document how communities evolved. The course spawned similar projects in places as varied as Patagonia and (in conjunction with historically black Spelman College and Xavier University) in Cameroon.

This “international mosaic” is just the latest iteration of the college’s long-standing commitment to international education. Dickinson runs 32 programs on six continents. Eighty percent of its students spend at least a semester abroad at campuses from Bologna to Nagoya, and a fifth of them major in a foreign language–the highest percentage in the country. In 2002, U.S. News & World Report ranked Dickinson’s international program 6th in the nation.

The old rule was that no particular program should be singled out for recognition, but now, says Durden, “we trumpet our strengths.” To Robert Massa, who carries the imposing title of vice president for Enrollment, Student Life and College Relations, this is just good marketing. The school’s “programmatic brand” is the “permanent association” between Dickinson and “a handful of our premiere programs,” he told the alumni. “When the public thinks of Dickinson, we want them to think ‘international’ of ‘workshop (hands-on) science and research’ or ‘pre-law.'”

“Here was a school I’d never heard of,” says Associate Dean Joanne Brown, one of Durden’s Johns Hopkins recruits. “Although I’d grown up in Philadelphia. As soon as I looked at it, I was astonished by its academic strengths.”

In short, Dickinson has been finding its “niche”–responding, but not “bowing,” to the demands of commerce by clarifying its mission. “Leadership is what was missing,” says Provost Neil Weissman. “Bill came, took the pieces and added vigor and coherent packaging.”

In an article called “Gained in Translation,” Durden lays out his approach. “The themes and key words that define the [Dickinson] leadership story are unequivocal: citizen-leaders; a useful, liberal education; crossing borders; interdisciplinary; reflect America/engage the world.”

In its marketing campaign, Dickinson emphasizes its roots, rewriting its own history in the process. The college used to trace its origins to a grammar school founded in 1773, immediately before the American Revolution, and it celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1998. Now Dickinson, chartered as a college just six days after the Treaty of Paris was signed, calls itself the first “revolutionary college.” What Benjamin Rush proudly described as his “petulant brat” is defining itself as a school with “attitude” and “spunk.”


Since the turn of the last century, when William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, looted the faculty of Clark University, stealing luminaries has been seen as the fastest way for universities to move up the ladder of academic prestige. But liberal arts colleges must take a very different approach. As Dickinson’s task force recognized, the fortunes of such a school depend mainly on the caliber of its students.

Everything else follows from attracting abler undergraduates–greater public recognition (and a boost up the U.S. News & World Report rankings), more alumni giving, more high-powered faculty. In “re-positioning” the college, all decisions, from the design of new student housing to the revision of the curriculum, had to be undertaken with this goal in mind.

The biggest changes were needed in admissions and financial aid. Beginning in the early 1990s, the college had been forced to dip deeper and deeper into its applicant pool, eventually admitting more than 80 percent of its applicants. Even so, enrollment shrank. Lee Fritschler, Durden’s predecessor, kept reassuring the school that similar declines were being posted elsewhere. But longtime rivals like Muhlenberg College were doing better in the admissions wars, and schools that had never been regarded as competition, like Loyola College of Maryland, were encroaching on Dickinson’s turf.

Dickinson’s problems stemmed mainly from its financial-aid philosophy, which held that when making awards it was wrong to take into account a student’s academic record or the likelihood of his enrolling; the only ethically relevant consideration was a student’s actual need. This admirable principle is one that the handful of colleges rich enough to admit students on a “need-blind” basis can live by, but it cost Dickinson many of its ablest applicants.

Moreover, the school didn’t award sizeable scholarships even to needy applicants. Its “discount rate”–the difference between what the typical student pays and full tuition–was just 20 percent, well below that of comparable institutions. So firmly did Dickinson insist on the irrelevance of money in making college choices that applicants didn’t even know whether they’d receive any support until after being admitted. Word spread among college counselors that Dickinson wasn’t just principled but penurious.

As the admissions situation worsened, faculty members were obliged to dumb down their courses. When French professor Sylvie Davidson returned to the campus in 1996, having run the college’s program in Toulouse for four years, she found her classes peopled by “an entirely new–and much worse–group of students.” Understandably, the drop-off in student quality dampened faculty morale. Several senior professors contacted individual trustees, urging them to fire Fritschler. The professors did more than complain. With remarkable selflessness, they passed up salary raises in favor of scholarships and rejected a plan to reduce their teaching load when they realized that would mean bigger classes.

But such noble sacrifices couldn’t solve the admissions problem. Belatedly, the college began to award scholarships based on merit. In 1998 it hired consultant Jack Maguire, a key figure in the transformation of admissions and financial aid into the business-like field of enrollment management, handing him complete responsibility for making financial-aid awards. Maguire was able to increase the size of the freshman class by 80 students, to 620. But to achieve that result, more than 80 percent of the freshman class received financial aid, compared with about 60 percent at similar schools; the discount rate ballooned to 52 percent, half again as high as at competitive institutions. Although Maguire had delivered a quick fix, Dickinson couldn’t sustain this level of largesse.

To turn things around, Durden recruited Massa, whom he had known during his years at Johns Hopkins, and gave him authority over everything from admissions to student housing, alumni affairs to athletics. Like his boss, Massa was initially reluctant to come. “I looked at the statistics, and said to myself, ‘Oh my God! I don’t think I can do it–it’s really bad.’ But Bill had confidence, and Bill has a way about him.” Massa is the embodiment of the modern corporate manager. As the nature of college admissions has evolved from counseling and gate-keeping to recruiting during the past 30 years, his role too has changed.

Initially he was more interested in students’ lives than what he calls the “supply and demand aspects” of higher education, but he came to appreciate admissions and financial aid in strategic terms. He expresses no qualms about the commodification of higher education. The name of the game is branding, he tells the alumni. “Dickinson, in a purposeful way, is creating ‘mindshare’ among prospective students.”

Like many of his counterparts, Massa junked the generic promotional material sent to prospective students, replacing it with materials studded with pointed questions and answers about academics and student life–about what’s “distinctively Dickinson.” What’ s more important, he turned financial aid into a key recruiting tool. “We ought not give merit aid to kids who will already enroll,” he says, criticizing his predecessors for “looking at [merit aid] as a reward” rather than a way to attract students who would otherwise go elsewhere. Now “we examine past results to estimate what giving students with 1350-plus SAT scores $17,500, versus $15,000, would do for enrollment.”

This strategy has done what Massa hoped it would. Between 1999 and 2002, Dickinson’s discount rate fell from 52 to 33 percent. Just 60 percent of the students receive aid, and 10 percent of the scholarships are merit rather than need based. Those figures have brought the college in line with similar schools. Even as enrollment has remained high, average SATs have risen to 1240. The generation of students whom the faculty dubbed the “Simpsons cohort” is receding into history.

Those concerned about equity have reason to worry about these developments. More Dickinson students now come from richer families–that’s the meaning of having fewer students on scholarship–and the intention is to increase their numbers. Meanwhile, the number of first-generation college students has been dramatically reduced. In 1999, 22 percent of the freshmen fit this category; within three years, that figure was cut almost in hall to 12 percent.

Like many liberal arts colleges, Dickinson also has a problem with the group known in admissions circles as the “disappearing males.” In recent years, considerably more women than men have been applying to these colleges. The fear is that once a school gets a reputation as a “women’s college,” fewer and fewer men will come. When two-thirds of the freshmen who enrolled in 2000 were women, Massa rewrote the admissions criteria to emphasize SATs and “leadership skills,” on which men do better than women, rather than grades, where women excel. Does that amount to affirmative action for men? Massa acknowledged to a Wall Street Journal reporter that “if all other things were equal,” which was the case for about 5 percent of the applicants, “we admitted them.” Whatever it’s called, the approach has worked–in 2002, the proportion of males grew to 42 percent.

Dickinson is also one of the few selective private colleges that doesn’t require applicants to submit SATs. This policy pre-dates Massa’s arrival, and although he initially favored reinstating the exam, as one of Dickinson’s rivals, Lafayette College, has done, he has since become an advocate of the policy.

“Not having the SAT requirement has improved our image among counselors and students and allowed us to take kids with lower scores and intriguing profiles.” For “intriguing” read “minority”–just 7 percent of white applicants, but a quarter of all nonwhite applicants, don’t submit SAT scores. This makes recruiting minorities easier, and any edge in that department is vital for a college committed to diversity (“reflecting America,” as its positioning statement puts it) in a location that isn’t a natural draw for minority students. In 2002, 11 percent of the freshmen were nonwhites, as compared with 6 percent just two years earlier.


The turnaround in Dickinson’s fortunes has required a new kind of leader. But Durden’s activist managerial style troubles some of those long-time faculty members who dreaded the idea of bringing in a “corporate guy.” Although Durden didn’t fire anyone, several senior administrators quit within a year of his arrival. The bevy of recruits from Johns Hopkins–Bob Massa, Admissions Director Seth Allen, Academic Dean Joanne Brown, “positioning” consultant Mark Neustadt–led campus wags to propose that the school change its name to Johns Dickinson College.

Durden’s top-down management style has also elicited complaints. When he brought the Washington Redskins’ summer camp to the campus (a deal that proved short-lived), he saw the decision as a no-brainer, since their presence meant revenue and publicity. Some professors grumbled that no one else had ready access to the gym, but their real complaint was that the decision was made without consulting them. A Sylvan Learning Center operates on the campus, the first such deal made by the company. To Durden, this is “a way to serve the community while bringing in money,” but again some objected that the decision was made unilaterally.

Durden makes no apologies for his way of managing. “Sometimes failure to act means an opportunity lost. For Dickinson to achieve its vision, it must benefit from leadership and it must desire to be led.” This emphasis on presidential authority marks a sea change. Ben James, emeritus dean and professor of psychology, arrived at Dickinson as a freshman in 1930 and has been there ever since. “I went through many presidents,” he says. “They were not strong overall.” He recalls the era when the president sat at the head of a long table dispensing edicts to the faculty members, who were seated in strict order of seniority. But those days are long past, and when Durden arrived, there was a leadership vacuum. Lee Fritschler was a “nice fellow, happy to preside and look good,” says James, “but he wasn’t getting the job done, either in the academic or financial sense.'”

The faculty’s impression that governance was shared under Fritschler’s leadership was also largely illusory. The former president largely left the running of the school to George Allan, the venerable dean of the faculty. “Allan operated a Soviet-style system,” Assistant Dean Joanne Brown dryly observes. “You keep people in bread lines, constantly busy with their committees, so that there’ s no revolution because they’re engaged in the theatre of democratic process.”

Now, says Brown, the bases for leadership ate open and visible. “The irony,” she says, “is that initially [that openness] was producing closure, as people started blowing issues out of proportion.” She adds that “the problem is partly technological. People began to pass e-mails around in ways that mimicked open conversation; written passages were taken out of context, and stayed in the air as conversation doesn’t. The impact was distrust.”

Over time the climate has improved. “I administer out loud,” Durden says, and he tries to answer every e-mail within two hours. “People started letting go of the illusion that things had been democratic and started to think about what would make faculty governance really work–how people could speak but not waste each other’s time.”


Durden has been able to sell his vision for the college, not just to prospective students but also to alumni. He is regularly on the road, appealing to alumni for money, and he’s getting it. In 2001, the college received, for the first time in its history, four fully endowed chairs from individual donors and a total of seven gifts of a million dollars or more. Since his arrival, the proportion of alumni who contribute has risen 10 percent, a big increase at a mature institution, and the amount of alumni giving has more than tripled, to $8.7 million. Overall, gifts to the college have increased 40 percent.

“I haven’t had a ‘no,'” says Jennifer Barendse, who became vice president for development the year after Durden came. “People love the place–and we’re the first people who’ve been asking for money in [a] systematic way; we made more than a thousand one-on-one meetings with alumni last year.” Even in the aftermath of September 11th, when contributions to higher education were generally stagnant, gifts to Dickinson increased by 10 percent.

The changes at Dickinson College are evident even in the littlest things. The signs that point visitors to campus buildings are written in an array of foreign languages as well as English, unsubtle reminders of Dickinson’s commitment to internationalism. In another break with the past, these signs all carry an identical red-and-white seal. The old insignia, designed by the beloved Benjamin Rush, incorporated a Latin motto, “Pietate et doctrina tuta libertas,” emblazoned over an open Bible, a telescope, and a cap of liberty.

But consultant Mark Neustadt pointed out that these references to religion, knowledge, and freedom were obscure to today’s students, while the Latin was off-putting. Now everything from the English Department’s stationery to the lettering on the dinner trays and dump trucks is emblazoned with what Durden calls the “identity system.” At campus entrances that used to be unmarked, signs that arch over newly installed gates spell out “Dickinson College” in understated gold lettering.

Some old-guard faculty members scoff at these touches. The gates demarcate a “gated community,” they say, and they “don’t make us Yale.” They dismiss the new logo as a vulgarity which, as they correctly observe, looks like the Seattle Mariners’ insignia. The logo makes an easy target, but what these faculty members are really apprehensive about is their slipping power. And well they should be. Dickinson is dramatically–irretrievably–different. The new logo is just a tangible rendering of the president’s great ambition–to embody the college in a single memorable image, to give it a brand that sets it apart from its rivals.

In a fiercely competitive environment where U.S. News rankings are the coin of the realm, Bill Durden would like to see Dickinson move into the ranks of the top 20. That’ s a tall order, for schools in that elite tier are well versed in the art of what economists call “positional warfare.” But whether or not he realizes his ambition, Durden has already shown that it’s possible to sell a traditional liberal arts college–to “create buzz”–without sacrificing the soul of an old institution.


Year % of Freshmen Cohort

1996 75%

1997 69%

1998 74%

1999 76%

2000 77%

2001 77%

2002 77%

Note: Table made from bar graph.


Includes FTE matriculated students on-campus and studying

off-campus on Dickinson programs. Excludes non-matriculated

students and matriculated students studying off-campus on

other programs.

Year Number of Students

1996 1824

1997 1915

1998 1865

1999 1902

2000 2076

2001 2154

2002 2213

Note: Table made from bar graph.


Year Percentage

1996 40%

1997 52%

1998 50%

1999 52%

2000 37%

2001 34%

2002 33%

Note: Table made from bar graph.


Year Percentage

1996 83%

1997 79%

1998 74%

1999 64%

2000 64%

2001 64%

2002 51%

Note: Table made from bar graph.


Year SAT Scores SAT Scores SAT Scores

(Applied) (Admitted) (Enrolled)

Fall 1996 1171 1186 1154

Fall 1997 1176 1197 1166

1998 1181 1206 1189

1999 1181 1214 1193

2000 1201 1235 1216

2001 1216 1247 1235

2002 1229 1273 1239

Note: Table made from bar graph.

David L. Kirp is professor of public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California-Berkeley. This chapter is adapted from his new book, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education (Harvard University Press). He retains the copyright to this article.

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