This originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae section.
By Paula Krebs
I interviewed a job candidate the other day who — like many applicants I meet — had no experience at all at our kind of institution. Nor did he have a particularly good sense of who we were, beyond the fact of our 4-4 teaching load.
Now, that wasn’t entirely his fault. He had graduated from different types of institutions — a small private college followed by large research university. And like many job candidates I see, he didn’t know what he didn’t know. He didn’t know there were significant differences between the various types of public campuses. He didn’t know that a regional comprehensive public institution like mine may have more in common with his small private undergraduate college than with his large doctoral university, because we focus on teaching and don’t have huge lecture classes. He didn’t know that “public” means one thing for an R1, which is oriented to an entire state, and quite another for a master’s comprehensive, embedded in a much smaller region.
So here’s a primer on some of the characteristics that you should know about a public regional university — before you apply (if you want to be a convincing candidate and get an interview) and certainly before you arrive for a campus visit (if you want to get the job).
The public regional comprehensive, usually a master’s-granting university, is much more directly engaged with its part of the state than are most private institutions. If you picked up a small private liberal-arts college one night and moved it to another state, most of its students wouldn’t notice for days. The local economy might not notice for even longer.
Not so with public colleges and universities that, like mine, are named after towns or regions (“directional” institutions — Southeast X State or the University of Name of Town). We have deep roots in our region. Most of us have been around awhile. And when I say we’ve been around awhile, I mean it. Not as long as Harvard or Rutgers, which predate the Constitution, but longer than most campuses. My university, for example, was founded by Horace Mann, John Quincy Adams, and Daniel Webster.
Regional comprehensives often evolved out of teacher-training colleges — the better to meet the employment needs of the area. When you provide teachers to your own region, you live or die by their success. Their students end up in your classrooms. And, of course, education faculty have close ties to local school districts for student-teaching placements. So any university that grew out of a teachers’ college already had deep roots in its region. In addition, such institutions already offered liberal-arts education for their trainee teachers, and evolved to award liberal-arts degrees, then business degrees, then graduate degrees — growing a little at a time. Eventually, what had been a college became a university, with various internal divisions for education, liberal arts, and other fields.
Our institutions also expect disciplines outside the ed school to engage with the region, if only in the form of internships. Our students, you see, come from within less than an hour’s drive of the university, whether they are commuters or residents, and most will stay in the region after they graduate. We feel an obligation to the region to equip its young people to be good citizens, good community members, and, yes, good workers. In my own College of Humanities and Social Sciences, we educate social workers, for example, who leave with a license to practice their profession.
We offer liberal-arts education, education for life. And we know that — for the health of the region — we also need to offer internships that introduce students to professional positions and that show them how to apply their critical-thinking skills, or their fluency with language or numbers, or their project-management experience in a career as well as in the classroom. We know that our students need to leave us with confidence and skills as well as content knowledge, and we know that the businesses and social service agencies and local governments of the area need the kind of people who are graduating from our place.
I talk with employers — one on one and at regional civic gatherings — about the value of liberal-arts education, internships, service learning, and community engagement. Those may seem like buzzwords to you, but they’re real in my world. I love it when faculty in my college want to connect students with things going on in the region. When our students work as interns, part-timers, or volunteers, they’re representing the campus. They’re reminding folks that we’re here, feeding the economy and the civic life of the region.
The more employers and officials remember that, the more likely they’ll be to support state investment in higher education — or to take on another intern, hire one of our graduates, or even make a donation for a scholarship.
All of which is why, if you come to me as a job candidate with an understanding of what a university like mine means to its region, you have an advantage. If you come with any experience of connecting with a local community, then you’ve really got me interested. And if you pitch me ideas about how you could connect your teaching, research, or both, to the needs of the towns around this campus? Well, I’d trade that for any number of refereed journal articles.
I’ll bet your graduate advisers never told you that. They don’t know everything. Their job is at a research university. And they’ve been grooming you for the job they have. The one I’m offering isn’t that job. And if you think the one I’ve got — one with a lot of teaching and with a vital role in a local community — is the better one, then I want to meet you. You’re what we need.