You are here

Future Shock

Flagship State Colleges

Public institutions serving as a rising tide to lift all boats.
University Business, Feb 2008

Flagship is defined as a ship in a fleet that carries the commanding admiral, the best or most important thing owned or produced by a particular organization, according to <em>The New Oxford American Dictionary,</em> (2nd ed.). How does it apply to state colleges today?

Most state colleges began as state normal schools in the 1800s. These mission specific institutions provided education for the vast majority of primary, secondary, and postsecondary schoolteachers in America. Over time, the missions of most of these institutions gradually expanded and normal schools evolved into state teachers colleges; still later they morphed into comprehensive state colleges. Eventually some of these public colleges were transformed into state universities.

Paradoxical though it may seem, the difficult challenge facing many state colleges today is the need to define more clearly their distinctive (if not unique) mission and focus. Caught between the modern proliferation of public universities, community colleges, and for-profit vocational schools, and without the benefit of mega-endowments, big-time collegiate athletics, high-end research grants, and global scholarship reputations, some state colleges still struggle to redefine their missions and reinvent their academic niche.

Today a new breed of state colleges has emerged alongside these more traditional teachers colleges-a more nimble, market-driven generation of contemporary state colleges. These forward-looking, public four-year colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to partner with their public and private two-year college colleagues to provide a progressive, stair-stepped pathway to baccalaureate and graduate school completion.

With this historical context in mind, join us for a brief look at flagship state colleges and on exemplars who have charted alternative courses. Leaders at these entrepreneurial institutions have chosen a variety of paths for achieving state college "best of breed" status-each with its own special academic twist.

The first secretary of education in Massachusetts, Horace Mann, would have taken considerable pride in the state colleges that have evolved from their early beginnings as normal schools. Two state colleges that have taken entirely different yet complementary courses to a more competitive position are <b>Westfield State College,</b> with a primary focus on undergraduate teaching, learning, and professional career preparation and with a special statewide niche in criminal justice and law enforcement, and <b>Salem State College,</b> an institution with aspirations for university status and doctorate-granting authority.

Some state colleges struggle to redefine their missions and reinvent their academic niche.

Founded in 1839, Westfield State has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Today the college takes considerable pride in having been the first coed state college and in its recent completion of an impressive array of campus improvements, including residential and student commons facilities and a state-of-the-art fitness center. Westfield also takes justifiable pride in boasting that its incoming students score highest on aptitude tests and class rank among state college cohorts. In the words of its new president, Evan Dobelle, "Westfield State has the near-term potential of becoming one of the nation's premier state colleges-a wonderful place to learn, live, play, work, and raise families."

Chartered in 1854 by the state legislature, Salem Normal School became the fourth normal school in Massachusetts. After more than a century, its name was changed to reflect the comprehensiveness and diversification of its programs. One can sense the mission evolution as we stroll along downtown and drop by Salem State's aquaculture program nestled in a biomarine laboratory in Cat's Cove, the site Deacon Samuel Edson fished in the 17th century. Salem State's aspirations stand out among its Massachusetts state college peers as it strives toward university status by developing mission complementary doctoral programs in the several fields of nursing, education, geo-information sciences, and social work.

Turning north toward the Canadian border where the Fish River meets the St. John lies the <b>University of Maine at Fort Kent,</b> named three years in a row by the Princeton Review as a "Best Northeastern College." Founded in 1878 as the Madawaska Training School, Fort Kent was chartered to serve the educational and civic needs of French-speaking Acadian people who had become U.S. citizens.

UMFK's unique mission is to serve the needs of rural communities, preserving Maine's natural environment and celebrating and exploring the region's Franco-American heritage. The university's president, Richard Cost, considers this heritage intertwined with the history of the United States, and Fort Kent in particular. Early on in his presidency, Cost reminded the UMFK community, "Major William Dickey understood that the only way [French-speaking Acadians] could be educated would be to create a school for teachers here in the valley." Today UMFK houses the Acadian Archives, one of the most comprehensive repositories of Acadian culture in the United States.

The 1863 enabling legislation that established the first normal school in Maine gave birth to the state's first public institution of higher learning. While the Farmington Normal School stayed true to its teacher preparation mission, there was a strong belief that effective teachers must have a liberal arts background if they were to teach the arts and sciences. After merging with the University of Maine system in 1968, the institution became known as the <b>University of Maine, Farmington.</b> Celebrating its liberal arts traditions, UMF has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report for more than a decade as one of "America's Best Colleges" and by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) as one of 20 schools that foster student success.

On the banks of the St. Mary's River lies a special independent, public institution of higher learning. Founded in 1840 as a girls' boarding school, <b>St. Mary's College of Maryland</b> has been ranked near the top nationally among public, liberal arts colleges by <em>U.S. News & World Report</em>-and called a "best buy" by the <em>Princeton Review</em> and <em>Barron's Best Buys</em>. Featured in <em>Newsweek's</em> America's Hottest Colleges and the <em>2006 Fiske Guide to Colleges,</em> St. Mary's is often cited as a national model <em>charter college.</em> St. Mary's College has become an elite public institution where the largely undisturbed historic city surroundings allow students to experience history, while its honors college designation encourages students to create their own paths.

These state colleges have become more selective, competitive, and attractive.

Emerging from two Kentucky institutions, Central University and Walters Collegiate Institute, <b>Eastern Kentucky University </b>has reached far beyond its early development as a normal school established in 1906 by the Kentucky General Assembly to train classroom teachers. With more than 160-degree programs and its own planetarium, EKU has developed a prominent focus on the health and safety needs of the nation.

By way of example, EKU has rolled out its latest interdisciplinary degree program-a program in homeland security that is wrapped around the career fields of public safety, security, and emergency management. President Doug Whitlock explains that the highest profile public safety, security, and emergency management program is the College of Justice and Safety, which enrolls about 1,640 majors and currently has about $80 million annually in externally funded projects.

Consistently ranked by <em>U.S. News & World Report</em> as one of the nation's top comprehensive public colleges, <b>Lewis-Clark State College</b> (Idaho) began its evolutionary journey with the creation of a normal school by the Idaho legislature in 1893. While the primary mission of the school was to prepare teachers to serve in rural, one-room classroom schools, over time the institution grew in size and programs and was authorized to award bachelor's degrees.

Lewis-Clark's modern development was not without its challenges, however, and declining enrollment coupled with financial woes at the outset of the Korean War led the Idaho legislature to close the school in 1951-only to reopen it in 1955 as the Lewis-Clark Normal School. Finally in 1971, the legislature changed the name to the Lewis-Clark State College to reflect its expanded mission.

Conceived and chartered as small normal schools over a century ago, these and other aspiring state colleges have achieved flagship status through academic program diversification, degree elevation, niche marketing, and by partnering with mission complementary institutions, businesses, government, and the nonprofit sector.

Beyond academic program comprehensiveness, graduate level degrees, and applied research, these state colleges have become more selective, competitive, and attractive to an increasing segment of U.S. middle class families-who have been squeezed out of the private higher education marketplace by spiraling tuition rates and declining financial aid.

Horace Mann, an early founder of American state colleges, would take considerable pride in the achievements of these flagship institutions, recognizing that "a rising tide lifts all boats."

<em>James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).</em>

Register now for UBTech 2018

Register now for UBTech 2018, June 4-6 at the Mirage, Las Vegas. At UBTech 2018, you’ll network with a dynamic community of higher ed leaders who are shaping the future of campus technology and explore topics like cyber security, distance learning, campus learning space design, communications, personalized learning and more. Your UBTech registration also includes a free pass to the InfoComm exhibit hall.

Register now>>