Baker paves the way for nontraditional students

SPGS classroom

Though prairie raids and disease were concerns of the day when Baker University first opened its doors in 1858, a different set of difficulties plagued the landscape in 1976 when Baker launched new programs in the Kansas City area.

Baker’s earliest adult programs were on the cutting edge of the educational movement of catering to working adults. University Presidents Jerry Walker and Ralph Tanner had developed and then sustained the Master of Liberal Arts program in the mid 1970s.

In the first decade, enrollment was low, as adult education was not yet a prominent feature of the American university. Though the programs have since grown into Baker’s largest school with more than 3,000 students, adult education originally carried substantial risk.

“When I came, the University didn’t have excess capital,” said Daniel Lambert, Baker’s 27th president. “The University in 1987 had substantial debt. It was essential that we expand our academic base, and adult education was an obvious choice. Over the years, it has done exactly that.”

When Lambert arrived, he said it was clear a decision had to be made.

“I had studied it pretty carefully before I came to Baker, and as discussions were under way, I became convinced that we should move quickly to seize the opportunity,” he said. “Still, serious questions remained. Discussions were very animated, and there was no anonymity within the campus community.”

“I came out of a very traditional liberal arts background, and I had the same questions as many of the faculty,” Lambert said. “Ultimately, I told faculty that if they voted not to do this, we would not.”

Lambert said the primary concern of faculty members was that a venture into adult education would diminish the traditional values of the University, which had been providing liberal arts education in Baldwin City for more than a century.

“Many felt that adult education would not be as rigorous as Baker’s traditional programs,” he said.

To address the concerns of a hesitant faculty, consultants from the Institute for Professional Development (IPD), a proposed partner in the program, came to campus and spent a day answering questions. Concerns were somewhat eased, and the faculty voted to proceed, but it would take more time before the traditional faculty in Baldwin City would become comfortable with the new adult degree programs.

By the fall of 1988, Baker’s expansion was in full swing. Working with IPD, Lambert officially opened the School of Professional and Graduate Studies (SPGS) with a small campus in a high-rise office building in Overland Park.

With a new school came new complications. In the first years, Lambert said he realized the University required a new concept in academic governance.

“It was the growth that really began to force the University to make decisions about the governance,” he said. “We were still operating under the old structure, and that frankly wasn’t working.”

First SPGS graduatesLooking for a new leader, Lambert turned to an established presence in the adult education arena. Donald Clardy had developed a comparable school for Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tenn., and in fact had served as a consultant for Baker in the late 1970s.

“Baker really was struggling,” Clardy said. “They had about 150 students, a small staff and two classrooms. We could get our entire staff around the table at lunchtime. It was losing money. Really it was costing more than it brought in.”

However, the new dean saw potential in Baker’s programs. Between Clardy’s arrival in 1990 until leaving the dean position in 2007, SPGS grew phenomenally to become the largest of Baker’s four schools, providing degrees at four campuses and in many individual locales throughout Kansas and Missouri. As Baker’s programs flourished, a number of benefits were seen both on the Baldwin City campus and at SPGS.

“The adult programs moved Baker into a whole new level of influence in the metropolitan area,” Lambert said. “Baker was no longer seen as an outlier but as a significant contributor to the business community in Kansas City.”

The economic boost provided by SPGS brought revenue to the Baldwin City campus, allowing for a number of improvements, not the least of which was enhanced compensation for faculty and staff.

“I had so much admiration for the faculty because they were providing undergraduates a first-rate education on a shoestring,” Lambert said. “Coming in as president, I understood that couldn’t continue. We had to generate income.”

Through the teaching and development of solid academic offerings, SPGS made its way from a struggling program in the late 1980s to a forerunner in adult education, which has since grown exponentially throughout the region. Clardy said this is evident at a consortium sponsored by the more than 20 schools affiliated with IPD.

“People from these schools get together several times a year,” Clardy said. “Interestingly enough, over those 17 years, IPD continued to work with other schools, but Baker has become the best. Baker joined to learn from other schools and now we’re seen as the best.”

Just as the University had 125 years before, the School of Professional and Graduate Studies has flourished despite difficulties, surviving a struggle to bring intellectual, professional and personal development to the surrounding community.

“I can remember the first commencement to include the non-traditional students,” Lambert said. “I remember watching the graduates – mid-30s and up. Many of them were moms and dads with children. They had full-time jobs and had given up so much to go through these programs. I have so much respect for them.”

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