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Former Lebanon College Dean Wants To Launch Liberal Arts Institute

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Charlotte Albright
/
VPR
Robert Craig Baum, former Dean of Lebanon College, explains plan for new Lebanon Institute of Liberal Arts, or LILA.

The former Dean of the now defunct Lebanon College in New Hampshire is trying to launch a new kind of educational institution that would offer liberal arts instruction in non-classroom settings.

When the college closed its doors this fall, citing financial problems and declining enrollment, Dean Robert Craig Baum was devastated. Baum laments that the small, private college serving diverse students in the heart of Lebanon’s downtown district was unable to maintain a deep commitment to liberal arts education. He says competition for students comes in part from a rush to provide workforce training—for example, for radiographers, people who administer X-rays.

“And specifically one of Lebanon College's partners, the DHMC, the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, at the same time it was saying, on the one hand, ‘we respect the academics, we also need workers,’ so they created their own medical assistant radiography program at the same time we are trying to compete for those students,” Baum says.

So what if, Baum wonders, a new kind of institute provided liberal arts education for non-traditional students – not in competition, but in collaboration with other colleges and with local employers? And what if that institute kept its overhead low, didn’t own a building, and partnered instead with financially stable leaders in the creative economy of the Upper Valley? Places like the Lebanon Opera House and the Center for Cartoon Studies? That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind the Lebanon Institute of Liberal Arts, or LILA.

“LILA allows for this apprenticeship model to work directly with these  amazing institutions and say, when you are doing a series - a new lecture series - or a new artist comes to town, there’s usually a group of people that want to see that, want to attend that,” Baum says.

“Can we find a way to give them more of an academic platform on which to stand while they are looking in or participating in these events and then build individualized programs around that eventually?” he’s been asking community leaders.

With hair over his ears and a bandana around his neck, Baum doesn’t look like a typical tweedy academic. He is also a media producer. He earned his Master’s degree in Liberal Studies from Dartmouth College, where he worked with playwright August Wilson. His Ph.D. comes from The European Graduate School, an unusual program he says could be a model for the Institute he'd like to start in the Upper Valley.

Baum says he knows that Institute faces tall odds.  Even if partners and students show interest, he will need funding, non-profit status, and a sound business plan. But the larger business community, he promises, would benefit from a free-standing liberal arts program reborn from a college that has died.

“That’s what we are trying to do, we are trying to detach from basically a very toxic environment, create a home for ideas and traditions that honestly are going to save us,” he says.

Save us, Baum says, from a world where workers are unable to think critically beyond the immediate task before them. The Lebanon Institute, he says, would try to foster intellectual flexibility. It would begin, he says, as a series of TED-style talks by creative entrepreneurs. Heather Clow, the Executive Director of the Lebanon Opera House, says she has been talking with Baum about co-producing a series like that.

Meanwhile, LILA has no website or Facebook page yet, but updates on the early planning process are accessible through Baum’s Twitter account, N1Academy.