Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The end of Founders College at Berry Hill

The Gazette Virginian reports the following on Founders College:

Founders Land Company has assumed management at the Berry Hill hotel and resort property, according to a Monday press release issued by John E. Powell, director of marketing.

"The Berry Hill Estate is under new management," according to the press release. "On April 3 the lease to Founders College Education ended. On that date the owner of the property, Founders Land Company, assumed direction of management."

"The exclusive focus of new management will be on hotel operations rather than the college," continuted (sic) the press release. "Its goal is to develop this historic local treasure to its full potential as a destination hotel, resort and center for important events in the South Boston community."
As someone who thought that the Berry Hill property was an exquisite setting for the college, this news comes as a disappointment. In fact, all of the news to come out of Founders College of late has been a disappointment.

So what went wrong? My frustration rests in that the project was never truly able to communicate its intellectual distinctiveness in a way that resonated with college-bound students and their parents. Yet when I talk to members of Founders' faculty, it becomes clear to me that the actual idea of Founders as a center for hierarchal and integrated learning was sound.

For example, one professor friend of mine in economics talked about how the professors from other disciplines sat in on his classes and vice versa and how this participation upped the quality of the presentation. In the extended after-class sessions that took place at the on-site tavern, each professor would integrate their disciplines with each other over dinner. Students, who of course tagged along, got to sit in as various experts in their fields talked with one another about how seemingly disparate ideas drew upon a common source and integrated together toward a common end. My friend relayed that he had never experienced anything quite like it in his long career and that the experience was quite enriching (and from what I heard, the students got a lot out of it too).

For me, this anecdotal story was revealing. Out of the simple expectation that Founders professors were to be aware of what their colleagues were teaching and expected to look for commonalities, this emergent property developed in a way that you don't typically see elsewhere. That's important. But was this story and other important stories successfully conveyed to the public? Not that I can see, and perhaps that is one reason why Founders lost its campus so quickly.

Since hindsight is twenty-twenty, if I am ever fortunate enough to be in a position to launch a college, I would not do it until there was some sort of intellectual manifesto that fleshed out the ambitions of the movement behind the launch. The progressives had the works of John Dewey to inspire them and rally behind; my own paternal grandparents were both part of that movement, with one working in public education and the other working at a private progressive grade school that was founded in the 1920's for the sole purpose of carrying out Dewey's educational program. Founders' need for its own intellectual justification and rally point was little different, but Founders never had such a manifesto, at least not in an explicit and easily packaged form that could have been easily shared with the public. In hindsight (and added to all the management and financial woes) that absence was a key defect because it allowed critics to dismiss Founder's promises as mere marketing hype and not the underpinnings of a great sea-change in education.

Founders could have been. Founders should have been. But in the end, it wasn't. I think that is a deep tragedy, but like all tragedies, there is a lot that can be learned from it--and we should. The core problems in education that made an idea like Founders even worth considering in the first place will continue to plague us until those inspired by Ayn Rand's ideas can apply her philosophy to the practical problem of education--and apply it in a marketable, profitable and economically sustainable program.