BY Michael A. Miller, Northland College President
My phone started buzzing moments after Sweet Briar College, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, announced closing its doors, closing with 700 students and an $85 million endowment. Northland College, where I am president, is a small liberal arts college located on the shore of Lake Superior. We have 584 students and an endowment that is not nearly so large.
In an Inside Higher Ed article, Sweet Briar officials cited overarching challenges that the college has been unable to handle: the lack of interest from female high school students in attending a women’s college like Sweet Briar, declining interest in liberal arts colleges generally, and eroding interest in attending colleges in rural areas. “We are 30 minutes from a Starbucks,” James F. Jones Jr., president of the college, told the reporter.
Northland College is ninety minutes from a Starbucks. The closest one to us is Duluth, Minnesota. Instead we have a half-dozen entrepreneurial coffee shops and restaurants. We are not like everyone else and our students appreciate this distinction. While the pundits report that liberal arts is dead or that students don’t want this or that, higher ed needs to look at changing the liberal arts business model.
We can no longer sit idly, waiting for students to arrive. We need to be nimble on our feet, create partnerships, diversify revenue and embrace and build on our assets. I can’t lie. I’d rather have 800 students — the number we had in the heyday of the 1990s — but we’re not there yet, and may never be. In the last five years, we’ve worked to evolve our curriculum, take inventory of our natural assets, build our pillars of strength and stay relevant.
In addition to a million acres of national forest, we have Lake Superior, the world’s largest fresh water lake in the world, in our backyard. The global issue of our time is climate change and for many reasons, Lake Superior is the ideal location to study climate change adaptation.
Our faculty continues to adapt curriculum to match the concerns and passions of students in a changing world. Instead of writing off the liberal arts, we need to make them relevant. We bring science and the arts together because as much as we need science, we need a generation that can interpret and communicate the findings.
We offer programming, initiatives, and coursework around the subjects of water, food, rural community development, sustainable living, environmental restoration and environmental communications.
Through years of discussions — that escalated during the 2008 financial crash —this campus community concluded that returning to our initial mission of environmental stewardship — by being more like we started out, rather than less — served not only the planet but our students and financial stability best. We are a teaching hospital for the environment with a great deal of experiential learning, advanced internships, teaching through partnerships, faculty-student research focused on innovations and solutions.
At a time when small colleges are merging, downsizing or closing shop, we’re ramping it up. We’re taking advantage of our unique location. The College has engaged with the community to partner on programs around the health and future of the region. And people who care about Northland College and our surrounding community and region are interested. Many find value in our story and want to engage with and invest in this approach.
My wife and I chose Northland College for its quality of life. We kayak, paddleboard, and walk the icy path to the frosted sea caves. It is a community rich in arts, music, adventure, festivals, organic farms, and entrepreneurs. Our students don’t look to city lights and nightclubs for stimulation. They find vibrancy in nature, adventure, community participation and deeper relationships with other students, faculty, staff and partners.
Northland College has not given up on the next generation. We know and trust they want more than just a nearby Starbucks. In fact, we’re counting on their passion, instincts and ingenuity to lead us into the future. We also count on our ability to make it work.