‘Our Enduring Commitment’ to Claim Our Future
F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield discusses the College’s strategic priorities
It’s a crisp fall morning at Franklin & Marshall College, and campus is alive again. Sunlight filters through tall trees as students hurry to classrooms in Hackman, Keiper, Stager and other buildings, where professors in numerous disciplines welcome them. It’s early in a new academic year—the perfect time to reflect on the College’s liberal arts tradition, and to look forward to its future.
In his Old Main office, F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield gains inspiration from the buzz of the new semester. He is also energized by the College’s new strategic priorities document, “Claiming Our Future,” which has been mailed with this issue of Franklin & Marshall Magazine. The document grows out of a strategic planning process that took place during the 2012-13 academic year, when a steering committee of faculty members, professional staff and students engaged the extended F&M community in conversations about College priorities endorsed by the faculty and approved by the College’s Board of Trustees.
As F&M students and professors pass by his office windows, Porterfield discusses the College’s academic tradition—which now stretches beyond 225 years—and strategic priorities of the future.
Q: The strategic priorities document that accompanies this magazine, “Claiming Our Future,” refers to this time as the most competitive and expansive era in the history of American higher education. What are the primary challenges for highly selective colleges such as F&M, and what factors are contributing to these challenges?
President Porterfield: Our greatest challenge is to make sure that we powerfully and authentically live our mission as a national liberal arts college. How do we most effectively provide an extraordinary environment that cultivates the excellence of our students, and that supports faculty members with their scholarship and teaching? That’s a challenge Franklin & Marshall has faced every decade of its history.
We also have a second set of challenges that relate to the strengthening of our overall profile and impact as a national liberal arts college. Those challenges include making sure we have the financial resources to recruit and support national-level faculty, to attract the most deeply talented and engaged students from the full spectrum of the country and the world, and to effectively enhance the value of an F&M education given the changing world in which we live. We want to ensure that all of the essential and accompanying components of Franklin & Marshall College, from our lovely campus to our new and historic facilities, to athletic programs, clubs, and support services for students, are well resourced in an evolving economic environment.
Q: How is F&M responding to national discussions calling for colleges to demonstrate the value of the education they offer?
President Porterfield: Part of adding value to an F&M education—and standing out in a competitive landscape in higher education—is fostering a continuing and developmental relationship with our alumni after they graduate. That’s one reason we created in 2012 the Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development, to help alumni connect with the College and each other after graduation for professional, intellectual and leadership development. Great colleges must respond to the evolving needs of students and young alumni to help them launch into successful lives and careers. F&M is especially well positioned to do that because our students are valued, challenged and supported by our outstanding faculty.
Q: The Class of 2017 is the most diverse and international class the College has ever welcomed, including students from 32 U.S. states and 27 countries. What will F&M do to prepare for what its student body will look like 20 years from now?
President Porterfield: Franklin & Marshall has built its reputation on our ability to find and educate extraordinarily talented students. In the year 2033, that talent will be even more dispersed across the entire country given the enormous demographic changes that are already in motion. Today we’re one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country in recruiting extremely strong international students, and in 2033, we will undoubtedly be still more international. In a rapidly-changing multicultural country and world, students who have learned, worked and played with other talented students across the supposed divides of identity will have enormous advantages in their careers and in their lives. That’s why it’s so important that we develop our strong existing pipelines that bring diverse students to F&M in order to claim our future as a leading liberal arts college.
Having a talented and global student body dramatically enhances the traditional quality of education that every student receives. In welcoming the parents of the members of the Class of 2017 during Orientation Weekend, our interim provost and longtime professor of government Joe Karlesky noted that a great liberal arts education teaches students to examine questions, issues, history, culture, and data from multiple perspectives, insistently problematizing easy answers and asking again if there is another way to understand a particular phenomenon. There is no better environment in which to ask these questions than at a global liberal arts college.
Q: Many alumni remain in contact with F&M professors who have had profound influences on their lives and careers. What steps will the College take to attract and support the best teachers and researchers for future generations of students?
President Porterfield: Attracting and supporting exceptional scholars and teachers is a crucial priority for Franklin & Marshall. The strength of the faculty is a defining feature of a leading national institution, and the enduring bonds between students and professors have defined F&M for more than two centuries. Our upcoming capital campaign will prioritize funding for faculty positions, faculty research and career-long faculty development. It’s also crucial that we continue our practice of recruiting extraordinary incoming faculty who understand the values and the ethos of F&M, and will be committed as scholar-teachers to be challenging, supportive educators, always approachable to every student, and long-term mentors. That commitment to finding professors who are the right fit for our culture and aspirations is embraced by our faculty, and is a critical component to sustaining our culture of excellence at F&M. Not every new professor wants to teach four or five small classes year after year, and it’s important that we recruit those who do—and those who have the capacity, supported by the institution, to generate new knowledge in their research.
This is why we’re investing in a Faculty Center—a center for faculty support and professional development that you’ll see referenced in the strategic priorities document—to enhance the vibrancy of intellectual life among the faculty. This center will help professors become even better mentors and advisers, more innovative teachers and forward-thinking scholars, and more deeply engaged colleagues. We’re also investing in new support for student-faculty research and financial aid so we can always attract the deepest pool of students. These are key investments to retaining the best possible faculty.
Q: Last year, F&M celebrated its 225th anniversary of teaching and learning. What is the College doing to strengthen its curriculum and build on this centuries-old liberal arts tradition?
President Porterfield: We continue our long commitment to small classes that enhance teaching and learning. There’s no better way for talented young people to develop their minds for lifelong intellectual power than by being taught directly by accomplished faculty, class after class, semester after semester, in a setting that provides the spark of mind-on-mind engagement. By taking multiple small classes in different disciplines at the same time, students learn profound concepts of intellectual design—they see that each faculty member defines, structures and sequences knowledge differently. And they learn, as if by osmosis, the shared and differing assumptions of multiple disciplines. That kind of education prepares students to ask questions whose answers nobody’s thought to look for before. Other models of education that are based on lectures, rote memorization, distance learning or other forms of impersonal idea transmission can’t match this tradition of education.
In academic year 2014-15, we will have implemented our new general education Connections curriculum, the result of in-depth research and planning by our faculty leadership. The Connections curriculum helps students understand the connection of foundational concepts across disciplines while giving them more opportunities to develop writing and research skills early in their undergraduate years. It prepares them to choose an academic major with exposure to a breadth of disciplines and methodologies, a hallmark of our liberal arts tradition.
At the same time, we’re deeply committed to providing students with depth in their majors and with multiple opportunities for independent studies with faculty, and to participate in research. I invite our alumni, parents and friends to see the results of this work at research fairs on campus each fall and spring, which showcase outstanding research students have accomplished under the supervision of faculty members.
Q: How will F&M answer the public charge for higher education to prepare students and young alumni for successful lives and careers in a dynamic, global economic landscape?
President Porterfield: By first, foremost and always providing a deeply challenging liberal arts education that exposes students to great questions and to methodologies for creating knowledge in many disciplines. This will take place in the classroom, where students engage directly with faculty or work independently on research that leads to real-world applications while they’re learning about the scientific method; where students learn about an artist while developing an exhibit about the artist’s work; or where students study human rights while helping local refugees through community-based learning. This also will take place by enabling students to learn in and out of class from a deeply talented global student body of their peers. And this will take place in a campus culture organized to provide a learning experience in our distinctive College House System, through the weekly Common Hour program, in activities, study abroad and community service.
No one knows what the future will bring in terms of scientific innovation, changes in international relations, the economic framework of the country, or how nations and citizens alike will respond to extraordinary challenges like climate change, global migration and the digital information revolution. What we do know is that students whose minds are trained for rigorous thought and intellectual complexity will thrive in a fast-paced, knowledge-based, multicultural, global knowledge society.
Ralph Ellison wrote in “Invisible Man” that “America is woven in many strands…Our fate is to become one, and yet many.” That’s now true of the world’s population, and those educated best for that reality will be the leaders.
Q: The “Claiming our Future” document speaks to the role of alumni engagement for the future of the College. What is your message to F&M alumni regarding the importance of re-engaging with their alma mater?
President Porterfield: We love you, we respect you, we want you and we need you. It’s inspiring when I meet alumni from around the country and hear the powerful ways in which F&M has shaped their lives. The arms of F&M are open to all alumni, and we want all of them to contribute to the life of the College. You might be able to graduate, but you can’t leave. An engaged alumni community is crucial to our strength.
We’re building F&M to be a still more accessible lifelong resource for our alumni and alumnae. Our Franklin & Marshall Admission Network, Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development, and upcoming capital campaign are just three of the ways we invite alumni to participate with us in the strategic imperative of strengthening Franklin & Marshall for a bold future as a signature American liberal arts college.
Q: The physical campus was a large focus of the College’s strategic plan in 2004. What physical or technological improvements will take place over the next several years?
President Porterfield: The key enhancements are the acquisition of 28 acres of land north of Harrisburg Pike—land that currently hosts portions of the Norfolk Southern railway. That property will be converted into a precinct for athletics, including Shadek Stadium, and the new facilities for softball, baseball and track, as well as an extension of Liberty Street that will connect two parts of the city that are currently separated by the railway. This space for athletics will include paths, trees, lighting, banners and perhaps eventually monuments that will dramatically enhance our campus and set the stage for the development of new academic buildings, lawns and walkways on the site of Sponaugle-Williamson Field. This transformation of the physical campus will likely occur over two decades. It is extraordinary that F&M was able to acquire so much property adjacent to our historic campus—a powerful legacy to the leadership of our 14th president, John Fry, who combined both creative vision and can-do spirit to develop the property.
Q: What do you think best defines Franklin & Marshall’s core identity?
President Porterfield: We’re defined by academic excellence and our enduring commitment to liberal arts education that is empowering for life. Given our name, our location and our tradition of outstanding teaching and learning, we’re an iconic American institution, one whose values were established with the birth of a new nation. The founders of the country and the founders of F&M believed that a rigorous higher education serves citizens and society. We help develop the thinkers, the leaders, the knowledge, the preserved culture and the respect for reason necessary for a functioning democracy and a better world. This is the work for which we were built, and it’s what we'll be doing 100 years from now. Looking forward, in a changing society, developing ourselves as a national institution consistent with those core values will always allow us to succeed while being authentic to ourselves.
Q: What excites you most about the College’s future?
President Porterfield: The fact that building on Franklin & Marshall’s historic strengths will allow us to make a greater impact on new generations of students, and that our core values as a liberal arts college will matter more than ever in the future. I have the privilege, each day, of seeing the tremendous new students we’re attracting and the extraordinary new research of our faculty—both of which will change the world.
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