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Interview by Todd C. Ream

Enlarging the Imagination

A conversation with Shirley Mullen.

The quintessential college campus is located in a rural area, defined by park-like grounds, and dotted by white-columned buildings. Instead of being held in cavernous lecture halls, classes take place outside in semi-circles where 18-22 year olds intently focus on the oratorical skills of accomplished scholars. After class, students find themselves woven into tight-knit communities, study with great diligence, and spend their free time discussing the writings of Homer, Aristotle, and Shakespeare over coffee.

Such places still exist—at least places not unrecognizably different from that idealized vision—and Houghton College in western New York is one of them. With its tree-lined campus, long-standing focus on the liberal arts, and a student-faculty ratio of 11:1, Houghton has expanded the horizons of thousands of students from both inside and outside the sponsoring Wesleyan denomination since the college's founding in 1883.

Sustaining such cultures is harder than ever in today's world. Costs for tuition and room & board are far outpacing inflation. Advances in technology are providing an ever-increasing number of alternative models for educational delivery. Government oversight and accountability is increasing and threats to religious freedom are mounting. As a result, even the most remote and idyllic of college campuses face a vast array of mounting challenges unthinkable even a generation ago.

Shirley Mullen assumed the presidency of Houghton College just prior to the current recession. Having served at Westmont College for 23 years, first as faculty member and later as provost, Mullen came to Houghton in 2006 to serve as president of her alma mater. The experience, while challenging, has also proven more rewarding than she could have ever imagined.

Are the challenges facing female college presidents different from the challenges facing male college presidents?

Not appreciably. I frankly believe that personality is more significant than gender ...

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