Monday, January 14, 2008

The School of Hard Knocks

This morning The News & Record, a newspaper covering south-side Virginia presented a devastating portrayal of the situation at Founders College. The article describes a deeply demoralized institution that is unable to retain staff and faculty, honor its many promises to students and is seemingly floundering in a sea of financial debts. If this story is accurate (and I see no reason to doubt its veracity) the very idea of Founders College appears to be in grave jeopardy.

This is tragic news. I feel obligated to report it here because in my conversations with Founders' students and faculty, I was told that my earlier posts here on the College helped influence their ultimate decision to matriculate or teach. As such, I feel the responsibility to insure that my name is publicly associated with a full representation of the situation at the College. In my view, while I hope that Founders still has the potential to recover as an institution and fully deliver on its promise, those odds nevertheless appear to be long and future students and faculty should be aware of what Founders is currently up against and make their decisions accordingly.

And lest any of the College's past detractors feel any glee over the recent turn of events, I'd like to share an anecdotal story that I think might help to put the situation in perspective. Last spring I spent about a week on the Founders campus as a trial marketer. While I was disappointed that the job never panned out (the running gag among my friends is that I was an unpaid intern with non-transferable college credit) I still saw enough behind-the-scenes to be able empathize with the huge load that the college's principals had taken upon their shoulders. My visit came before the College had closed on its property and I was in Founders' president Tamara K. Fuller's suite as she negotiated with financiers for the funds the College needed for settlement. The personal burden of this responsibility weighed heavily upon her and I could clearly see it in the weariness of her face; the picture was so striking that I resolved not to forget it so that one day, when the College had earned its success, I could recount the story and share just a slice of what it took to make such a dream possible.

Later that evening, I walked with Tamara on the grounds of the Berry Hill estate and she shared her reasons for taking on such a burden, one that for her to be successful would demand that all her past achievements and assets be put upon the line. She spoke of a passionate faculty and a curriculum that would present students with the core ideas they would need to succeed in any endeavor of their choosing. As if reciting a sacred prayer, she said for her to achieve that, it would all be worthwhile.

Reflecting on my own dispiriting struggles in higher education, I remarked that it seemed she simply wanted to clear the road for those our world seems most determined to barricade. Tamara jumped at the analogy and said she would use it in her speech celebrating the College's opening semester. A few months later, she did just that and I was deeply satisfied; not all payments for services rendered are made in dollars.

Nevertheless, as the news story unfortunately indicates, decisions have been made in the subsequent months that from my (albeit distant) perspective seem neither wise or even just. Yet I would be lying if I said I didn't feel heartache over Founders' troubles, even though I have no real relationship with the school beyond being an early supporter. The reason for this is simply that education is a beautiful thing; it is the process by which people can come into their own as human beings and to be involved with it is a deeply honorable endeavor. It speaks simultaneously to reason and hope, knowledge and achievement, passion and joy. Founders' trials are certainly proving to be baptism by fire, yet in these trials, I hope the institution and its people can recover and come to endure.

Why? Because Reardon Metal is good. It is figuring out how we fully live up to it that is often the hard part . . .