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Westminster aims for top of the class

April 19, 2004

The Salt Lake Tribune
BYLINE: Linda Fantin , The Salt Lake Tribune

Lee Chhen-Stewart is on a Mission Exhaustible: Twenty-five teenagers, six colleges, three days.

The tours are coordinated by Upward Bound, a federally funded program that helps disadvantaged kids get into -- and graduate from -- college.

This group is from Reno, Nev., and as the students crisscross the Westminster College campus in east Salt Lake City, Chhen-Stewart makes a confession.

"I have a bias toward small, liberal-arts schools," she says. "I just love this."

This is small class sizes, a cozy campus and a glad-to-have-you attitude, qualities that distinguish Westminster from larger universities but do little to steal students from the growing legion of like-minded schools.

So college President Michael Bassis is serious when he says he wants Westminster to become "The Bucknell of the West."

Maybe you have never heard of the central Pennsylvania school, but a lot of high-achieving students have. Bucknell -- like Oregon's Reed and Iowa's Grinnell -- aggressively recruits the nation's top students and lands an increasing number of them.

They do it with savvy self-promotion -- "We're not going to be as modest as we've been," Bassis says -- but also by having something special to sell. At Westminster, it's a university in college clothing.

During the past decade, the school has added a library, apartment-style dorms, a business college and the ultimate coming-of-age indicator: a parking garage. A $ 7 million recital hall is nearing completion, and the school is toying with hiring a concierge to familiarize out-of-state students with the area's off-campus cultural features and community service projects.

There are plans for a writing/computer/information commons, a diversity hub and a fitness center.

But during the next 10 years, school will focus on not just where students learn but how -- or rather how best.

"We can't just make the assumption that students will adapt to whatever we do," Bassis says. "Our goal is to create the most powerful learning environment possible."

Asked to explain, Bassis uses buzzwords like "multiple intelligences" and "experiential learning." But if you want to know what the heck he means, here's a story, of a lovely lady -- associate business professor Vicki Whiting, whose expertise is in organizational management.

In a lesson about equity theory, she asked students what would happen if Jan, Marsha and Cindy Brady opened a flower shop and Cindy, the youngest and least experienced, earned the most money. And, yes, the students sang the "Brady Bunch" theme song.

Tinkertoys, blindfolds, clotheslines have found their way into her classroom.

"Some of my best ideas," Whiting says, "come from Toys 'R' Us."

Westminster By the numbers

9 -- consecutive years ranked as a top-tier regional college

17 -- students in average class

35 -- percent of students who live on campus

90 -- percent of freshmen who receive scholarships

2,500 -- students enrolled

16,704 -- dollars for one year of tuition

5,300 -- dollars for one year room and board

14,000 -- dollars in average financial-aid package

Source: Westminster College

-- The Salt Lake Tribune