Positioning the College toward a Vibrant Future

Published 4 years ago -

Francesco C. Cesareo, President of Assumption College

Recently I met with the members of the Restructuring Committee to discuss the restructuring of the College. In the course of our conversation, all of us thought it would be helpful if I provided the community with a brief rationale for the restructuring. 

The current structure of the College does not reflect our reality. Given the various academic programs that Assumption currently offers- from traditional liberal arts and sciences to pre-professional programs, as well as graduate programs the College most closely resembles a comprehensive university as opposed to a strictly liberal arts institution. The addition of new pre-professional programs will further contribute to the comprehensive nature of Assumption.

Under our current structure, there is a lack of cohesion to our academic offerings that gives the impression of a wide-range of unrelated offerings with no differentiation or connection among any academic program. This makes it particularly difficult for prospective students to know what the College has to offer or the pathways available to them. If prospective students are not able to easily know what the College has to offer, they will lose interest and gravitate toward exploring an institution where they can quickly identify academic programs in which they have an interest. Therefore, from a recruitment standpoint, separate schools will allow prospective students to more easily identify programs, provide pathways within and among schools and better understand what the opportunities are within the particular school, resulting in an increase in student interest in Assumption, an increase in applications and growth in the number of students who attend the College. This is especially the case for international students because they are interested in attending universities where they can identify the specific area of study they intend to pursue. When an international student hears college, it is akin to hearing high school, which reduces the likelihood that they will seriously look at Assumption. Separate schools will move Assumption toward being a university and more fully opening up the international student pool.

Separate schools will not simply group disciplines together, but bring about cohesion around common disciplinary approaches, goals and learning experiences that are integrated and related to an overall philosophy of the educational outcomes desired in a particular school. This will provide students a more focused and comprehensive academic experience that revolves around related disciplinary perspectives. These learning outcomes will be linked to the liberal arts Core Curriculum as the foundation upon which each school relates its overall mission within the mission of the College, providing the unifying and common element of the education that students receive across all the schools.   

In today’s higher education climate, innovation, creativity, flexibility and “first to market” are essential in order to remain competitive. Institutions that do not respond quickly to emerging market needs consistent with its mission will not be able to sustain a competitive edge vis-à-vis their peers. This is more easily accomplished in separate schools since the faculty in the school has the expertise and knowledge within the disciplines that comprise the school to work together innovatively. This will allow for the development of new programs, including signature programs, or what I like to call “Centers of Excellence,” that can differentiate the particular school, and the College in general, more quickly. The school structure actually gives faculty a greater voice since they, along with the Dean, determine the direction of their school. Having separate schools will contribute to the vitality of the whole institution.  The success of one school will contribute to the success of the other schools.

Separate schools allow for increased opportunities for fundraising that currently do not exist. It is easier to get donors to support a particular school since they will typically have an affinity with the school, whether because of their own interests or careers that resonate with the scope of the school and its programs or, in the future, because they were a student in that school. Separate schools provide the affinity group for alumni as donors from whom they get their identity as students and alumni, along with their connection with the College. 

We have seen within our own competitive peer set several institutions that have established separate schools (Providence, Stonehill, Merrimack, Sacred Heart, Fairfield, Salve Regina, etc.). This trend is continuing (Simmons College recently announced the establishment of separate schools). The institutions that already have established separate schools have experienced growth in terms of applications, students, new programs and resources that have made them stronger. Competitive academic institutions are attractive to prospective students. The separate school structure has allowed these institutions to brand themselves in a way that reflects that students will have an experience akin to a university, with all that entails. In fact, the data indicates that today’s applications to universities are growing on average at a rate of 3 percent per year; applications to highly selective liberal arts colleges are only growing on average by 1 percent per year, similar to the impact experienced at Assumption.

The separate school structure will bring with it the appointment of Deans. The role of the Dean is to be an academic leader who advocates for his or her school and, most especially, for the faculty in that school. When I served as a Dean, I saw my role as helping to advance the initiatives of the school and the needs of the faculty.  Let me provide some examples:

The faculty in my school, which was the largest of the 10 schools, had the highest teaching loads at the university. Yet, they were held to the same research and scholarship standards  (which were quite high) for tenure and promotion as the faculty in the other schools. This was something that the faculty hoped to change. Through my advocacy for the faculty, three changes occurred. First was the reduction of teaching loads for faculty who taught in Ph.D. granting departments, bringing them in line with faculty in the other schools. Second, a reduction of teaching loads on a case-by-case basis for faculty in non-Ph.D. granting departments based on their scholarly productivity. Finally, a pre-tenure sabbatical for faculty on the tenure track (my College was the only school that received approval for this initiative). This would not have happened had there not been a Dean to advocate on behalf of the faculty.

Another example has to do with curriculum. The President of the university thought that my College did not have a signature program that could be marketed for recruitment purposes. Working with the Chairs of the departments, we developed a curriculum for freshmen that paired three courses per semester into a year-long learning community. Within six weeks of the President’s request, the faculty completed this curricular change, illustrating how utilizing the expertise of the faculty within a school who share a common understanding allows for flexibility and agility. The Dean plays an important role in encouraging the development of new programs, supporting their development, providing the necessary resources, and advocating for the programs to the senior administration.   

The Dean also plays a key role in fundraising because he or she can best represent and articulate the importance of what the school is doing, since the Dean has first-hand knowledge of the initiatives in need of support to advance the school. College development staff cannot have the intimate knowledge or expertise that a Dean brings to a donor since they have general knowledge, but not the details that flow from the disciplines in the school that would resonate with a prospective donor. The Dean is able to advance the school through involvement in fundraising and, therefore, bring in resources that will support the faculty in their efforts. 

The budget for my school had to be approved by the Provost, President and Board, which is standard practice. Once I received my budget, I had autonomy as a Dean to determine use of the budget, how to allocate faculty lines (after approval from the Provost and President), determine compensation, how to provide resources to support faculty in research and teaching and to advance initiatives that would positively impact the students. This is how we envision Deans will operate at Assumption.

On a final note, the restructuring will strengthen the College’s commitment to the liberal arts and the Catholic, Assumptionist mission of the College. These key aspects of our mission will have greater prominence as each integrates the mission into each particular school, allowing the programs within each school to reflect key characteristics of our mission and, therefore, to be distinctive.

By establishing separate schools, it will allow the College to leverage its strengths; more easily develop new course options and programs and allow us to be innovative. Such a structure will allow the College to better adapt to the changing landscape in higher education. Almost all of the larger universities that have been successful started as a single college, but made a conscious decision to restructure so as to better reflect their reality. We should be thinking of this restructuring as an opportunity to re-imagine the College as being built on a firm foundation rooted in the liberal arts.

President Francesco C. Cesareo, is the president of Assumption College.

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