Earlier this month the Saybrook Board of Trustees unanimously selected Mark Schulman to serve as Saybrook’s next president. Currently serving as President of Goddard College in Vermont and Washington, whose endowment he has tripled while increasing its enrollment, Mark has also served as President and Professor of Humanities at Antioch University Southern California; and Academic Vice President, Dean of the College, and Associate Professor at Pacific Oaks College (California and Washington). He has held faculty positions at the New School for Social Research (New York), City College of New York, Saint Mary’s College of California, and others.
Mark received his PhD in Communications from the Union Institute and has consulted and published extensively on higher education and communications strategies and issues.
He spoke with the Saybrook Forum last week. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.
SAYBROOK FORUM: Your degrees are in, in this order: literature (for undergrad); instructional systems technology (as an MS); and communications (for a PhD). Intellectually, what was the path from one to the next? How did you get from there to here?
MARK SCHULMAN: “Ever since high school I’d been a print journalist, and I’d always been interested in underground media, alternative media. In fact I put together an underground paper in high school and got in trouble with the administration because they didn’t like some of the words in it. By the time I got to college there were a lot of things involving communications as a field of study that I was interested in. As an undergraduate, I did a lot of work in film, and was very involved in it, and I was still involved in print journalism, but at the time these were all subsumed under the field of ‘literature’ as a major. So I majored in ‘literature’ at Antioch in order to do all of that.
The opportunity to go to Indiana University (for an MS) came in a time when jargon was accelerating – do you remember when trash collectors were being called ‘sanitation engineers?’ – and so while I was technically going to school for ‘instructional systems technology,’ what I was really interested in was educational media. Communications again. That’s what I was studying. Among other things, getting this degree gave me access to equipment so that I could do my own media work. Very practical, hands on, work – that was what I was passionate about doing. And I did that, but then I just kind of got the bug to be a teacher, and then an administrator in the sense of setting up programs, and got more and more into communications as a department, as a field.
After about 10 years of doing that I decided to go to Union Institute, which is somewhat similar to Saybrook in its focus on the learner (that was extremely important to me) because over time I’d become much more involved in scholarship in the theory of communications. So I did a lot of interesting work in communications theory, sort of tying everything I’d been doing together while working on neighborhood radio, and I put a non-profit low power radio station on the air for Harlem, and this was part of the new emerging field of community communication.
So the thread between them is using media and working in media, which then became transformed into thinking about media and being engaged in media studies in a scholarly way, and then finally putting programs together for media in a scholarly context and institution.
At a couple of different points in my life I’d actually considered going into print journalism as a career – I’d always been interested in combining the skills of journalism with a commitment of social justice – and sometimes I do wonder if I made the right move going into education. I really do love working in journalism and working with media.”
SAYBROOK FORUM: Your career seems to have turned out well for you though.
MARK SCHULMAN: “Most college and university presidents will tell you: when I was a kid, I never said ‘when I grow up, I want to be the president of a college.’ Me neither. Like most people I got into academia to be a member of the faculty, and I just ended up always organizing things, committees and so forth. Then I took a risk … risk taking is something else I tend to do in my life … and left a tenured position at City College of New York to take an administrative position in the New School for Social Research.”
SAYBROOK FORUM: It’s interesting that you say that, because often today academics have a reputation for not taking personal risks. Of thinking important things but not wanting to put their own sweat or money or time on the line.
MARK SCHULMAN: “Well, so much of it is tied into the life of the mind, and while I think I’ve done some really interesting scholarship and have a good notion of intellectual curiosity and the rigor it takes to be a scholar, I’m also an activist in a number of different ways. I never really had that piece of the academic mentality that becomes the striving for tenure; and then the achievement of tenure can lead to a sense of having made it, of wanting to stay here, and then in some cases unhappily thinking ‘I have to stay here.’ We probably all have met people who think like that. I was happy in tenure too, but I left because I felt even more strongly about the program I was leaving to head, and that this was more important than staying in a safe position.”
I would say that faculty at less traditional institutions like Saybrook tend to have a greater sense of risk. They’ve already chosen not to take the safe path: they could just do what everyone else is doing and focus on what all the big institutions say is important, but they’re not. So they have to face more formidable obstacles already.
I do feel like the faculty who I’ve met at Saybrook are already involved in thinking about what it means to have that ability to be experimenting, not just ‘be experimental’ but actively experimenting, thinking about what education means in a very practical way and getting involved. This also comes out of the humanistic side of psychology, that you’re not just going to be an academic or a scholar. Saybrook talks about this very well, you need to commit to both the library and the street. So you’ve stated something different from the usual academic idea where you’ll only be involved in something that is removed from the ‘real world.’ That’s one of the things that attracts me to Saybrook.”
SAYBROOK FORUM: Were you familiar with Saybrook at all before you applied for the job?
MARK SCHULMAN: “Absolutely. Saybrook was a competitor to Goddard in the psychology area, and we used compatible approaches to the educational process, a hybrid or blended learning model … so there was some connection in that respect. In fact, when I was doing my interviews I discovered that 50 Goddard students have gone to Saybrook over the last few years. That’s certainly a connection. And Saybrook really was also a part of thinking about what the commitment to the social justice side of education can be. I was certainly aware of it in that sense.
My direct connection was meeting (LIOS College President) Shelley Drogin, who I met as LIOS was talking about becoming part of Saybrook University. He came to Goddard to sit on a panel we had set up to talk about progressive education, and I was very interested in all of the connections Saybrook was making and the idea of a humanistic education.”
SAYBROOK FORUM: So you’ve thought about the humanistic tradition Saybrook comes out of?
MARK SCHULMAN: “It’s needed now more than ever. I’ve been going over some of the discussions about preserving the ‘soul of Saybrook,’ and keeping it distinct from the more monolithic universities which don’t really have these values. Much of higher education is becoming, I suppose you could say more corporate, and I think that by offering an alternative Saybrook is poised to achieve an even greater level of success, because it’s remained true to its roots.
It’s very interesting to me the way the philosophy of humanistic psychology became a part of the idea of humanistic education. We should look at what humanistic psychology calls ‘a way of being in the world’ and see how it applies to the whole of an educational experience.
SAYBROOK FORUM: Are there any humanistic thinkers who have particularly inspired you?
MARK SCHULMAN: “Of course Carl Rogers and Rollo May, but really I’ve been inspired by a broad range of discussions about what it means to be a humanist in the world and what humanism … talking about it broadly … means now. Especially talking about it out of an Anglo-European context. What does humanism mean to many different kinds of people? I think that’s one of the major questions for Saybrook: how do we broaden this to appeal to people all across the world? One of the ways I’ve been thinking about this is in terms of reciprocity. I want to explore all kinds of different dimensions of what this means for the 21st century, I want Saybrook to hold fast to what it was and how it has been in the world, but also to look at what it means to be in a changed world.”
SAYBROOK FORUM: How do we start?
MARK SCHULMAN: “We look at where the opportunities are to have this conversation. Not to seem self-serving, but I’m interested in media studies. I think that’s a good field to look at, and the whole notion of communications and media studies are important ones. I think the area of education, what it means to have teachers who are humanistic, represents a real opportunity. I think we continue Saybrook’s examination of religion and spirituality. I think we look at the law. I think when you look at the humanistic tradition, and I would add to that the progressive tradition, and I would even say an emancipatory tradition, it becomes a question of what fields are we capable of handling well? Right at the moment I think it’s our current three colleges, the field of sustainability in business, and education – and I know you’re talking about that.
When you talk about it practically, of course, it has to be scaled, and we have to have conversations about what we can do well and how it fits together and how we can make it fit together, but five years from now I think we’ll be moving on a lot of initiatives for the future, and that will be very exciting.”
SAYBROOK FORUM: “Why did you decide to seek the position of Saybrook President?”
MARK SCHULMAN: “When it first became clear to me, in conversations with Shelley, what was going on at Saybrook … I was amazed. It hasn’t gotten enough publicity, it’s not raising the awareness of what Saybrook is now and its transition beyond psychology … but it should, and it will. When I became aware of that I became fascinated by the possibilities of building on that as part of the structure of a new kind of university … I think it’s something I’ve been trying to do at every university I’ve been at. And then when I met people at Saybrook, and spoke with them about what was important to them in the educational process, it just seemed very right, it seemed like a very good fit between my ethos and Saybrook’s. I saw it as a logical step, and it started with the kernel of the notions of what Saybrook is becoming and what I am becoming … I am always trying to become … and the more we talked in this process over four months or so, the more excited I became about the possibility. Fortunately, people also became more excited about me.”
SAYBROOK FORUM: What do you think Saybrook does particularly well?
MARK SCHULMAN: “I think the way Saybrook constructs the educational experience – it goes beyond simply being ‘student centered.’ That’s actually a phrase that has become kind of contaminated because everybody’s using it, even universities with 50,000 students. What Saybrook does is to change not just the student, but also allow the change to occur for us as well, and that is part of the notion of being involved in an experiment, really. You’re willing to put yourself into a situation where you’re excited about the outcome, not just going through the motions, and that appeals to me. The things you do with it, the residential conferences, online work, and so forth, are all secondary to those values. I also should note Saybrook’s dedication to providing a very rigorous academic experience, because often people think that a non-traditional academic experience doesn’t provide that rigor. But at Saybrook that rigor is there and that’s solid.
I’m particularly interested in learning how you do that in psychology, which is what Saybrook is most famous for, and to see how you can apply that to other disciplines. It seems that you’ve got a handle on it, and it works well.
SAYBROOK FORUM: When do you start?
MARK SCHULMAN: “I start July 1, but I’m actually going to be out there for the June Residential Conference. What people should feel very happy about is that this transition between Bob Schmitt and myself with the Board is working out very well, and I’m already involved in a number of ways, such as the budget. So I’ll be out there in June and starting July 1.”
SAYBROOK FORUM: Is there anything you’d like to say to the Saybrook community?
MARK SCHULMAN: “I’m really excited to become Saybrook’s president and really looking forward to meeting the entire community, and I particularly want to get to know the alumni better. A number of people have already gotten in touch with me, and I welcome any kind of communication. That’s part of the learning process, and the more communication there is, the more I learn.”