Last month, Alan C. Price was inaugurated as the president of my alma mater, Earlham College, a small, liberal arts school in Richmond, Indiana, that was founded by Quakers. He is the school’s first president of color.
Before coming to Earlham, Price, a native New Yorker and Earlham alum who also earned a law degree from Harvard, was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as the associate director of management for the Peace Corps. He was also the acting chief of staff for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington, D.C.
Although Price is not a Quaker, his background seems to have prepared him to lead a place like Earlham, which is nonsectarian but still holds principles and policies informed by its Quaker roots.
“The critical issue for colleges like Earlham is having to navigate its special blend of community and shared governance,” Price told me. “One can learn that in a number of places, although I started to learn it when I was a student here. I have used that throughout my professional career and life, in a variety of contexts.”
New Man on Campus
What’s probably unique about Price among higher education leaders is that he has no experience in higher education! But his role managing the Peace Corps does offer parallels to that of a college president.
“We had 6,000 to 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers that had to be moved, housed, fed, provided with all these support services—very much like what colleges have to do for students, not just the ones on campus but the ones off-campus and around the world.”
Price had also recently served on Earlham’s Board of Trustees, and, years earlier, on the alumni council which worked with the Board of Trustees. Some trustees whom he knew from those earlier years were still serving—a few as honorary members.
“The commitment and dedication of our trustees to the college is extraordinary,” Price says.
Two new developments at Earlham that sound particularly exciting are its new designation as a Peace Corps Prep college, and the school’s new EPIC initiative. Although these initiatives were in development before Price took office, as president he will of course be overseeing their execution.
As a Peace Corps Prep college, Earlham grads are advantaged in the competitive Peace Corps application process. The Peace Corps receives about 24,000 applications every year for 3,500 openings.
This partnership “gives our graduates a leg up in the application process, because they’ve demonstrated through their coursework and service work that they have the commitment and skills to be successful Peace Corps volunteers,” Price says.
The EPIC Initiative
Earlham’s EPIC initiative helps students deepen their liberal arts education while also preparing them for the workplace. I couldn’t help telling the new president that I wish Earlham had had EPIC in place when I was a student there. EPIC, I think, is what every college student needs.
Price says the program developed from strategic conversations about extending what is already good about Earlham and making sure that all students can benefit.
“…certainly interdisciplinary learning and student-faculty research projects—every component of EPIC was already at Earlham, but you had to run through a bunch of obstacles and roadblocks and self-design and kind of figure it out. It was certainly an equity challenge and not available to all students.”
Yes, I know, that sounds like life. And I think there is a place in people’s lives for “figuring it out.” But I’m convinced that college is the place and time for maximizing opportunity and exposure. Fortunately for Earlham students, its leadership feels the same way.
“If you can afford to do an unpaid internship that’s a bit of privilege, but you can get a great experience that will go on your résumé. Meanwhile some students actually need to earn money while they’re students.”
Through the generous giving of some alumni, the school has been able to expand EPIC’s reach.
“So whether it’s a guaranteed paid internship, a faculty-student research or service project that would result in some academic outcome like a published paper—these should be available to all students, not only as a differentiator in the marketplace, but also because that broader perspective enriches their education.
“We want it to stay true in that there’s an educational impact in the liberal arts tradition—it’s not just job [preparation],” Price says.
Sitting in the Center of the Dining Hall
I told Price that I’d recently interviewed Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College and author of the acclaimed and recently revised book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? I encountered that phenomenon as a college student and asked him if students were still doing that.
I was delighted to hear that Price himself eats in the dining hall about once a week, and he usually sits right at the center table!
“I just came from the dining hall,” he told me, “where I sat with one black student, one Quaker equestrian, an Indian-American student from Chicago, and a white student from New York.” Price said he couldn’t discern any one characteristic that brought the diverse group together.
“It gives me great encouragement that Earlham students continue to try to see the light of God in every other person and seek to make friends based on more substantive connections than just ‘we look alike.’
“If the current global conditions tell us anything,” he continued, “it is that the world is calling out for leaders who can manage diversity and lead inclusively and resolve conflicts in peaceful ways. Earlham is really good at developing leaders who are capable of those things.
“When they leave here, wherever they find themselves, whether in other diverse settings or more homogeneous settings, those skills will help them do what the world needs our leaders to do, and not be unable or unwilling to see past superficial differences, but to focus on people’s true humanity to solve problems.”
For more about Earlham College, visit its website.