With the appearance in 1973 of Small is Beautiful, British economist E.F. Schumacher considered what might constitute sensible scale approaches to empowering people through economics. He launched an attack on the conventional notion that “bigger is always better” and that unlimited “growth is good.” Citing what he termed “Buddhist economics” based on the notion of “right livelihood,” Schumacher argued that for Buddhists the purpose of civilization is not the multiplication of wants and desires, but rectification of self through ethical formation of character. He coined the term “enoughness” in his consideration of human needs and limitations. University of the West (UWest), committed to whole-person education within the context of Buddhist wisdom and values, has held for 25 years this value of scale on behalf of human liberation through learning.
Located in east LA County, UWest is small by almost any standard of measurement of higher education. Presently enrolling 356 students, there is a 60% – 40% graduate to undergraduate ratio. Half of the total enrollment is international, mostly from Taiwan and China, but also with students from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. While undergraduates hail from many states, the majority is from Southern California. Students share multiple perspectives and values in ongoing inquiry as to what it means to be human in a global society. However small in numbers, UWest is large in vision, seeking appreciation of East and West worldviews. A comprehensive university, UWest offers a BA degree, MA degrees, various MBAs, doctoral degrees, and certificates in liberal arts, psychology, religious studies, chaplaincy, and business. Tuition is relatively small, as UWest is rated in the top ten of the nation’s most affordable independent colleges and universities.
Small at UWest also means a dynamic support network of Academic and Student Affairs, Residence Life, Advising, Peer Mentoring, Financial Aid, Health and Wellness, Career Placement, and a Success Center. Students receive personal attention, featuring a 10 to 1 student-faculty ratio. They forge bonds with peers and staff. Advising is not an act faculty consider peripheral to teaching but integral to it, extending instruction to wherever students gather. Students are given space to be curious and explore rather than withdraw. A Student Early Alert System illuminates academic distress, providing strategic interventions for success. Students receive mindfulness and contemplative practice training within a whole-person orientation to growth and learning. They come to understand spirituality as an expanded identity and awareness of self interconnected with life. As outcomes of work-study, internships, and service learning, the sacred is valued as the practice of awareness and mutuality displayed in humanistic respect toward all. Dialog groups of faculty and students stimulate the mind to inquire.
Cross-campus communication is significantly enhanced by small. Town-hall meetings, open spaces, retreats, and student meetings with the President unify the campus. UWest uses a conversation-based model of learning both within and outside classrooms, so students can speak and be heard, see and be seen by others. They are provided platforms to develop leadership skills, emotional intelligence, deep listening, decision-making, and critical assessment as found, for example, in the MBA Financial Security Trade and Analysis course, wherein students handle a financial portfolio and invest responsibly in real time on Wall Street. Dialog is an effective mode of campus interaction, understood as “meaning flowing through community.” It rests on the notion that little can be understood in isolation. Through dialog, UWest students become people acting in relationship with others. Small at UWest increases relatedness, belonging, and community as a container of support, inspiration, reflection, and purpose.
UWest students see small as an opportunity to step into largeness. Students at large universities often feel overwhelmed and disengaged from campus life, and thus are implicitly encouraged to live small. At UWest, on the other hand, a learning community for first-time college students encourages the two-year cohort to live larger. Four special courses designed with their needs in mind are linked by theme, inquiry, and pedagogy, supported by learning pods, math and writing labs, interest circles, and peer and staff mentors. The learning community supports first-generation students to be who they are and who they can be. By stepping into a larger life, students expand their talents, skills, and knowledge beyond neediness and self-doubt.
Peter M. Rojcewicz, PhD