Marksbury Comfortable On the Margin

December 1, 1996

Nick Marinello

The door to Rick Marksbury's office said it. The word "associate" had been obscured, leaving only the title "dean." The announcement of Marksbury's appointment to the top post of University College had scarcely percolated down through the campus, yet Marksbury already seemed comfortable and confident in his new role. "I know in my heart that our students are very, very good," said Marksbury. "I know that our classes are very, very good, and I don't need to defend them in any way or fashion."

Marksbury, who outdistanced a nationally drawn field of candidates to succeed Louis Barrilleaux as dean of University College, has a clear and unwavering view of the college's role within the university. He makes no apologies for the school's admittance standards that allow anyone in with a high school degree or for the college's curriculum, about half of which is taught by adjunct professors. For Marksbury, who has been an administrator at the college since 1980, these are a measure of strength, not weakness.

"To my mind," said Marksbury, "a division like University College is not part of the core of the university. This is a non-traditional unit." Marksbury uses the language of his own academic field--he received a doctorate in anthropology from Tulane in 1979--to explain. "In any kind of social structure, it is the people in the groups on the margin that are the innovators and the experimenters."

By being on the margin, said Marksbury, University College is removed from much of the ponderous scrutiny to which the other colleges are subjected. At a recent meeting of continuing education administrators, Marksbury argued against the impulse of some of his colleagues in non-traditional divisions to assimilate into the core of the university.

"If you are part of the core," said Marksbury, "you lose the very essence to do what it is that makes non-traditional learning exciting. We can move faster than any other unit at Tulane." That's why University College can offer an eclectic array of courses such as those on Vietnamese language, the Baroness Pontalba and her times or Internet publishing, said Marksbury, who adds that unlike Tulane and Newcomb colleges and the professional schools, University College is driven more by market than mission. "We determine the needs of the community and respond to them," he said.

Marksbury, who was associate dean of University College from 1982 to the time of his appointment in October, sees the college as "the university's arm to the community." With more than 90 percent of its students coming from the metropolitan area, University College is the "outreach component" of the university, he said. "It is through us that many locals experience Tulane. They can do it by taking non-credit classes, summer school classes or evening classes."

And they can do it for about a quarter of the cost of regular undergraduate tuition. Currently, there are approximately 1,400 students enrolled in University College, said Marksbury, who added that the motivation for these non-traditional learners varies.

"Sometimes it is self-improvement, but a lot of it is for certification or a second degree; a third of our students at University College already hold college degrees," he said. "We have people who come in with very, very good credentials." And some not so good. According to Marksbury, a survey conducted several years ago by the math department found that of all students who took math, both the worst and best students were those enrolled in University College. In accounting for the disparity, Marksbury suggested that "some of our students are 40 years old and haven't had math since they were 18 and others are coming in from the workforce where they are engineers and accountants."

No matter their motivation or background, all University College students have the opportunity to gain a strong liberal arts background, said Marksbury. About half of the 250 courses available to his students are regular undergraduate courses taught by Tulane's full-time faculty. The other half are taught by adjuncts hired from the local professional community or graduate students. "We are still based in the liberal arts," said Marksbury. "What I am hearing from the business community is that it is not looking for mere technicians. The business world is looking for people with good technical skills but also with a broad-based education."

According to Marksbury, the high-growth area in education will be "on the margin" in non-traditional learning, lifelong learning and vocational retraining. "Statistics suggest that a high school graduate of 1995 will have seven different careers," he said. "The need to train and retrain will be critical in this rapidly moving technological age. That's where all the action is going to be," he said. And there, on the margin, certainly, is where Marksbury is most happy.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000