Rather than compete head-on with the major research universities, small colleges cultivate a unique niche.
Liberal arts colleges often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up new science-faculty hires. Manju M. Hingorani, a molecular biochemist at Wesleyan University, says that the college lavished upwards of $300,000 on her equipment and a similar amount on renovating her lab, inherited from a retiring researcher. But Wesleyan's investment quickly paid off when Hingorani won a five-year, $1 million grant from the NIH.
Wellesley College President Diana Chapman Walsh says that steep start-up costs are a fact of life for liberal arts colleges serious about having science faculty combine teaching with research. "We need to help them get started because we know it's harder here" to land large research grants. The Wellesley College Science Center, which underwent a major renovation in 1991, boasts two nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers, microcalorimeters, two electron microscopes, and a high-powered laser—all kept in steady use by faculty and undergraduates. Walsh says that the success of Wellesley's science faculty in securing research grants "has affected the larger culture of the college. The social scientists have gotten wind of it and now they want to do more hands-on research mentoring of students."
Many small colleges, in much the same spirit, have replaced cramped science buildings that dated from the Sputnik era. Williams College opened a new science center in 2000. Haverford College opened its new Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center in 2002. In 2003, Mount Holyoke College completed Kendade Hall, which cleverly links existing lab space and other academic buildings into a unified science center. A similar center at Swarthmore, which opened this past spring, connects the science and math departments. All these centers cost their colleges tens of millions of dollars.
It's a fact of life, however, that research universities are always going to have the advantage of newer, bigger, and better equipment, simply because "research-intensive universities are fundamentally different from small liberal arts colleges in their mission and focus," says Shirley M. Tilghman, president of Princeton University and a former HHMI investigator.
Nevertheless, if they wish to do science well, small colleges "must decide whether they are willing to make the investment in infrastructure to provide the environment for science to prosper," says Tilghman. "If not, they cannot turn around and expect the faculty to be competitive."
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Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
Summer 2004, pages 10-21.
©2004 Howard Hughes Medical Institute