Thursday, February 19, 2009

Deep Springs revisited...or not (I never went there)

Last night I was at a college night, during which various college/university representatives spoke about their institutions.

One of the speakers was Peter Osgood, Director of Admission at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. Osgood was not merely there to represent Harvey Mudd; he was charged to represent ALL private colleges and universities. (Other speakers spoke about the UC system, the Cal State system, community colleges, and the like.)

While Osgood noted that the median size of a private school is smaller than the median size of a public school, there is still great diversity in private schools. He cited the University of Southern California as an example of a very large private school, and then asked if anyone knew what the smallest private college in California was.

Out of the crowd of a couple of hundred people, yours truly ventured to guess, "Deep Springs College?"

And yours truly is now the proud owner of a Harvey Mudd banner for getting the answer right.

I didn't get a chance to talk to Osgood afterwards, so I couldn't tell him how I came across this bit of trivia. (Hmm...another case in which a post could have gone into another of my blogs. But I don't see this as an NTN Buzztime question.)

So anyways, back in the dark ages of the 1970s, when Robert Plant was all the rage and the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated football - wait a minute, THE FIRST TIME when Robert Plant was - let me start again.

So anyways, back in the dark ages of the 1970s, when there were only three commercial television networks, I was back in Virginia, getting a lot of mail from colleges and universities. I forget whether I got this in the mail or read about it somewhere, but one of the colleges that I heard of was Deep Springs. My impression at the time was that the college was an interesting place, to say the least. Located in one state with an address in another state, the students (all male, I believe) read the classics for two years, when they weren't working on the ranch at which the college was located. I decided that was a little too far out for me, so I went to Reed College instead, where I read the classics for four years and worked on the Reed College Quest. (Any educator who reads this post is probably smirking right now.)

Well, Deep Springs is still around today. Still two-year, still all-male. But, unlike the 1970s, you can read about the college on its website:

Deep Springs is an all-male liberal arts college located on a cattle-ranch and alfalfa farm in California's High Desert. Electrical pioneer L.L. Nunn founded the school in 1917 on the three pillars of academics, labor, and self-governance in order to help young men prepare themselves for lives of service to humanity. The school's 26 students, along with its staff and faculty, form a close community engaged in this intense project.

Deep Springs operates on the belief that manual labor and political deliberation are integral parts of a comprehensive liberal arts education.

Each student attends for two years and receives a full scholarship valued at over $50,000 per year. Afterwards, most complete their degrees at the world's most prestigious four year institutions.

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But not everyone has the most positive experience at Deep Springs:

n 1975-76, I attended Deep Springs College, arguably the strangest college in the world. It was an interesting place; the academics were actually much tougher and more challenging than anything I had to do in graduate school....

I hated my time at Deep Springs, actually. The year I was there I was the only vegetarian, and the cooks were hostile, cooking even corn in pork fat. As a result, I ended up with some serious nutrition-related medical problems and a bad attitude, and I ended up leaving early. Nonetheless, you can't go to Deep Springs without having it shape you in some significant way.

I could say more about very small schools...but I won't.

But small private schools, as well as large private schools, have similar challenges in some ways. Osgood noted one obvious difference between private and public schools: namely, that private schools are much more dependent upon non-government sources of funding. And fund-raising issues hit Deep Springs also, as this January 2008 article shows:

Louis Fantasia — an acclaimed Shakespeare scholar and theatrical director — has been ousted as president of Deep Springs College after only six months in the position.

Fantasia’s sudden departure, announced with little detail on New Year’s Day, stunned many alumni and others who have since learned of it. Fantasia would not comment, and board members released only a vague statement indicating a “divergence of visions” for the college by Fantasia and the board.

Sources familiar with the conflict at Deep Springs say that the difference of opinion had to do in part with fund raising....

According to those who are sympathetic to what the board did, Fantasia did not understand the unique nature of Deep Springs governance (although he had taught there several times) or of the role of its president, and was too focused on fund raising....

Critics of Fantasia said that his interest in fund raising risked setting up a situation where donors’ views might take precedence over those of students, potentially endangering the self-governance of which alumni are so proud.

Supporters of Fantasia talk about similar issues, but with a different take. They argue that he has correctly identified a need to significantly increase the college’s endowment (currently about $15 million) and to make the institution more visible. By keeping fund raising ambitions more modest, these supporters say, the current board leaders are placing a higher priority on preserving the status quo than on improving the college.

The whole thing is odd when you consider the state of education today. I could be wrong, but it's possible that Deep Springs is the only private educational institution in which the board has criticized the president for doing TOO MUCH fund-raising.

Pass the alfalfa sprouts - the branded alfalfa sprouts, please.

Hmm...maybe this belonged in my business blog...

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