ACM Mission and Action Plan

 Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM)

April 4, 2008

A Mission for the ACM at 50 Years

In articulating a Mission Statement, the evolution of the ACM provided the foundation for thinking about the aspirations that best fit the challenges and opportunities facing the consortium today.

Fifty years of accomplishments

Founded in 1958, the Associated Colleges of the Midwest stands proudly as one of the oldest and most successful American higher-education consortia. With roots reaching back to 1920 in the Midwest Collegiate Athletic Conference and to 1951 in the Midwest Faculty Conference, the ACM can claim an extraordinary record of collaboration amongst its member colleges. With the ten founding members (Beloit, Lawrence, and Ripon in Wisconsin; Coe, Cornell, and Grinnell in Iowa; Carleton and St. Olaf in Minnesota; Knox and Monmouth in Illinois) still actively engaged, and strengthened by new members Macalester and Colorado Colleges in 1967, Lake Forest College in 1974, and the College of the University of Chicago from 1988 through 2008, the ACM has shown remarkable stability and vitality over 50 years of profound change in American higher education. 

The founders of ACM, united in a common commitment to excellent liberal arts education, identified three main purposes to support the members through joint action:

  1. To advance the interests and to contribute to the educational effectiveness of the member colleges of the Association;
  2. To develop and assist the member colleges in improving the efficiency of their operations both administrative and cultural;
  3. To assist the member colleges in developing additional sources of revenue.

President Miller Upton of Beloit College in 1958 summarized the collaborative goals of ACM in saying that the new association should “provide individual colleges through collective action” with assistance they could not provide individually; ACM should help the member colleges’ president, faculties, and trustees be better able to “appraise their existing educational efforts, stimulate them into awareness of certain conditions…and encourage experimentation in meeting the demanding problems of the future.” Upton further wrote that the ACM should “help identify areas where cooperative college action might be undertaken with profit and serve as a creative stimulus to the individual colleges in planning for their separate missions.” That common purpose and commitment to ACM as a “creative stimulus” remains vital after 50 years.

New challenges

American higher education—and the place of the residential liberal arts college within it—has changed considerably since 1958. Barely 3% of American college students are educated in liberal arts colleges, and public understanding of this distinctive educational mission has fallen, along with public resources for higher education in general. Meanwhile, financial and other disparities have emerged among member colleges of the ACM, changing the early dynamics of the association. Off-campus study programs have proliferated on member campuses and throughout the higher-education community, multiplying the alternatives to ACM programs and putting pressure on the long-established business model for ACM programs. Not only has competition in off-campus study become fierce, but the falling dollar, changing enrollment patterns, and steep costs have added further challenges. New media technologies, a significantly expanded higher education market, and a vastly more internationalized economy all contribute to a remarkably different educational milieu than the ACM founders knew in 1958.   Meanwhile, the rise in members’ dues to underwrite programs has raised questions whether they undermine the founding assumption that the association should help its members find more “efficient and productive ways to operate.”

New opportunities

ACM enters its 50th year poised to take advantage of the opportunities promoted by changes in society. Interest in global and experiential education has never been higher on our campuses, and students and faculty recognize the need to understand the complexity of our world within a liberal arts framework. Our colleges also recognize that one of our key assets—outstanding teaching in an environment that privileges student-faculty interaction—can be enhanced through support for collaboration among faculty.  Technology, which can threaten the principles of liberal arts education, also enables the building of collaborative communities across distances and over time.  In support of these collective interests, key foundations indicate the benefits of working with consortia, not simply as a means of fostering efficiencies but as a way to generate synergies, bringing together like-minded institutions for sustained and innovative collective action that exceeds what could be achieved individually.  

At this point in its history, ACM finds significant opportunities to reaffirm its founders’ goals of collective action, experimentation, and “creative stimulus.” At such a time it is fitting that the association re-articulate its mission and formulate a priority plan for action over the next five years.

Mission Statement

The Associated Colleges of the Midwest, a consortium of residential liberal arts colleges, aims to strengthen its member colleges as leaders, and exemplars, in liberal arts education through significant, innovative, and sustainable collaborations. The ACM does this by:

  • Fostering professional effectiveness of faculty and administrative leaders at member colleges;  
  • Providing exemplary liberal arts learning through off-campus studies;
  • Promoting members’ excellence in teaching and learning, especially as achieved through collaboration

This new articulation of ACM’s mission reaffirms the Association’s role as both a creative stimulus and a facilitator for the member colleges, providing intangible benefits of community as well as a portfolio of distinctive, high-quality programs for its member colleges. As in the past, ACM seeks to foster excellence in liberal arts learning, through grant-funded opportunities for faculty and staff development, off-campus study and celebration of the excellence achieved by its members. Through these activities, ACM seeks to strengthen its member colleges as leaders in liberal education and we believe in leadership by example.

ACM Strategic Action Priorities -- 2008-2013

Four areas of action emerge as vitally important for ACM during the next five years, given the aspirations set out in the ACM’s Mission Statement.

1.  Expand opportunities for professional interaction and development of faculty and administrative leaders.

Through five decades of collaboration, the ACM colleges have collectively constructed a powerful asset for their faculty and administrative leaders: a variety of forums and other opportunities for peers to discuss not only the direction of programs but, with great candor, the common challenges and emerging opportunities they face on their campuses.  This experience has shown that regular, ongoing engagement with peers from other campuses—especially when set in the context of multiple, overlapping relationships among the campuses—enriches the intellectual lives and professional capacity of faculty and administrative leaders alike.

Despite their value, these exchanges should be made more systematically available to strategically important groups from the campuses.  In many instances the exchanges should be inspired by more clear criteria and their results shared beyond the immediate participants.  Indeed, new media technologies that were not possible 50or even tenyears ago now offer ways to foster these connections among peers and to enhance the visibility of these efforts.

Consortial members should recall that while the collegiality and community that ACM fosters are often intangible, these are among its most valuable contributions to member colleges. The ACM should be assertive in finding timely ways to build on 50 years of collaboration, to strengthen the variety of forums where this community of exchange is nurtured. In particular, ACM has the potential to enhance the signature feature of member colleges—the quality of its faculty—by responding to shared needs, expanding networking opportunities, and nurturing scholarly achievement and curricular skills. 

This is an area ripe for growth.  To increase its efficacy in fostering professional exchanges among faculty and administrative leaders, ACM should:

1.1 Assess current offerings – recommend ways to improve overall impact.

1.2 Expand opportunities to networkcreate regular, ongoing and self-sustaining opportunities for peers to interact.

1.3 Form strategic partnerships – ally with other organizations where purposes coincide to extend consortial resources.

2. Review, revise, and strengthen Off-Campus Study programs.

Collaborating with its member colleges to provide off-campus study (OCS) programs for students has been at the core of ACM’s identity since the 1960s. Indeed, ACM helped to pioneer programs in this field.  Today, however, falling enrollments, insufficient differentiation from other programs, calendar conflicts and an arcane pricing structure threaten the continuation of that legacy. 

To regain leadership and foster exemplary liberal arts learning communities in off-campus studies, ACM should:

2.1 Clarify the identity and niche for ACM’s portfolio of OCS programs shape a readily identifiable portfolio of programs that draw upon the core missions, strengths, and needs of its member colleges.

2.2 Evaluate and update current OCS programs bring programs in line with a clear identity for its OCS portfolio.

2.3 Develop new program opportunities – make the ACM portfolio of programs more innovative, flexible, nimble and responsive. 

2.4 Re-evaluate the financial model for ACM programs – make programs affordable, competitive and sustainable to assure sound academic quality.

2.5 Recruit aggressively – update the ways to reach and recruit students for programs.

3.  Publicize ACM members’ leadership in liberal arts education by highlighting their accomplishments, especially those achieved through collaboration.

If the ACM is effective in enhancing its professional development and off-campus study activities as outlined above, the ACM colleges will be positioned well to exercise leadership in liberal education, as individual institutions and as a group.  Astutely disseminated, these accomplishments will not only enhance the excellence of member colleges and their reputation in the larger higher education community but will help make the case for the vitality of liberal education and shape its future direction.  ACM can pursue this end in several ways:

3.1 Document and disseminate to help member colleges lead -- as scholars know well, getting good data and analysis of results in the hands of key audiences is a reliable recipe for influence.

3.2 Commemorate 50 years of collaboration to focus on the future – take advantage of this unique opportunity to celebrate the kind of achievements that we think matter to ACM’s internal and external audiences.

4.  Enhance Organizational Effectiveness.

In order to accomplish the ambitious goals set out above, ACM must adapt its organizational structures to meet the new challenges of the 21st century. Unless the consortium—both as a collaboration of colleges and a central office staff in Chicago—meets the key organizational priorities below during the next five years, it will be difficult to accomplish and sustain the previous strategic priorities.

4.1 Establish clear priorities and processes to make choices focused on ACM’s mission as a consortium, ACM has many constituencies yet cannot be everything to everybody, nor should the consortium aim to do everything together all the time; ACM must be ready to drop activities when they become less compelling.     

4.2 Create a culture of accountability and assessment the good intentions of this plan will be meaningless without a robust program of accountability and assessment within the organization so a culture of assessment sensitive to the values and modes of the liberal arts education community must apply through all programs and activities.

4.3 Develop sustainable economic practices to support priority activities – with limited sources of revenue, from programs, members’ dues, and external grants ACM must steward is resources to work both to effectively as an organization and to maximize the trust that its partners and collaborators place in the consortium.


  • ACM Mission and Action Plan