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Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College's Strategic Climb to National Distinction (review)

From: The Review of Higher Education
Volume 28, Number 4, Summer 2005
pp. 637-638 | 10.1353/rhe.2005.0048

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The Review of Higher Education 28.4 (2005) 637-638

George Keller. Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College's Strategic Climb to National Distinction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. 117 pp. Cloth: $26.95. ISBN: 0-8018-7989-2.

In an approach that is affectionate but not sentimental, George Keller details the transformation of Elon University, formerly Elon College (in Elon, North Carolina), over the last 30 years to a position of increasing national prominence. In 1973 when J. Fred Young was named president, Elon College primarily attracted regional students of average ability from families of modest means. Now, Elon University attracts students of high academic standards from across the nation. The school has more than doubled the number of students over the last 30 years and has built over 27 new buildings since 1980.

Keller identifies three key factors in this case study of institutional transformation: the importance of people, financial acumen, and marketing. Keller devotes considerable attention to the harmony that exists at Elon among the faculty, administrators, and students. The college made strategic decisions to hire promising young faculty rather than hiring more established faculty. Keller observes that the faculty work together without feuds or power struggles. As a result, the faculty have been able to focus on innovative ways to create excellent learning environments for students. The dedication to student learning has been a major reason that students find Elon to be such a desirable institution, and the annual survey of students annually rates the quality of teaching as the best feature at Elon.

Keller also argues that one of the main reasons for Elon's transformation is an investment in facilities. The college erected a number of new buildings, and Keller compares the campus to a country club, lacking the litter, graffiti, or even unpruned branches that go unaddressed on many campuses. Keller claims, for example, that maintenance is never deferred at Elon.

To fund campus improvements, the college assumed substantial debt. As of 2003, Elon University had accumulated $54 million of debt. The operating budget of the university is only $90 million. Keller presents Elon as a unique case in this regard; rarely do administrators take such financial risks to build an institution.

Finally, Keller argues that Elon has marketed its new identity in a package designed to attract students and faculty who will want to join in "the Elon way." The combination of "program, price, place, people, and promotion" has yielded an effective marketing program for the new Elon, and Keller provides instructive examples in each category.

Transforming a College is an excellent book for anyone who has been or is seeking to be affiliated with Elon University. Students interested in attending Elon University and alumni should find the book appealing. The text is accessible to a broad audience and comes in at a succinct 107 pages. Candidates for faculty positions at Elon would be wise to read the book before interviewing, as Keller's description of the history, culture, and aspirations provide an important foundation for understanding the tacit and explicit foundations of the "Elon bubble."

For the field of higher education, Transforming a College could be especially useful to upper-level administrators at small to mid-sized liberal arts colleges. Strategic planners might also find the book useful. Keller's description of the transformation substantially outweighs his analysis of it (by a ratio of about five to one), yet his identification of key factors (e.g., institutional leadership, faculty commitment to teaching, institutional advancement and financial risk-taking, marketing) is apt and instructive.

Transforming a College occupies an unusual space in the higher education literature. Keller has not written a paean to Elon, but he is clearly fond of the institution, and the book could easily be read as a tribute to the leaders who took bold steps to transform a relatively poor, regional institution. The sources of Keller's information are not always clear, and readers looking for the customary "methods" section in a book-length case study will not find one here. Missing, too, is the level of detail and evidence typical in a scholarly account of organizational change.

Keller cites Elon's...

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