ABOUT THE UNION INSTITUTE
By: Donald P. Ryan. Alumnus, 1988
I am occasionally asked about The Union Institute. Some are unfamiliar with the school and its programs, others wonder what my experience with it was like, and infrequently there are skeptics or those who are suspicious of a non-traditional educational institution. So, as a matter of explanation, I present here a few notes about The Union Institute. First, a little history:
The Union Institute has its origins in 1964 when a consortium of ten well-established colleges and universities (including Antioch, Sarah Lawrence, Goddard, Hofstra and Bard ) convened to address what was perceived as the increasing inadequacies and limitations of contemporary higher education. The issues of concern included over-specialization and educational narrowness, the lack of interdisciplinary inquiry, elitism, and the under-representation of certain groups including minorities and adults beyond the normal trajectory (e.g. high school immediately to college or college immediately to graduate school). There was also a desire to promote a strong sense of social awareness as to how education and one's own work impact society. In short, the consortium desired to experiment in progressively revamping and remolding modern higher education. The consortium would be known as the Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities (UECU).1
One of the prominent concepts developed was that of the University Without Walls (UWW), the idea that education/learning should not necessarily be anchored nor confined to a given anonymous classroom with four walls, but should take place in whatever environments are most appropriate for learning. (For example, during my program, I attended a "Computer Applications Across the Disciplines" seminar that was held in Silicon Valley, the center of relevant activity, where we were addressed by an impressive selection of local cutting-edge experts. As a result, the learning experience was superior than if it had been convened in an ordinary classroom at the Institute's campus in Cincinnati, and there are numerous other learning scenarios best served by going to the source or to an otherwise more conducive environment.
In 1969, UECU became a formal degree-granting institution incorporated in the State of Ohio and would develop both an undergraduate and a graduate (Ph.D.) program (a Master's was not in the mix back then.) The early learners [the passive word, "student," is eschewed by the school] were attracted by its revolutionary and non-conformist nature and many of its refreshing alternatives to traditional educational models. THE UNION WAS/IS AN EVOLVING INSTITUTION, in a constant state of reevaluation and change. For better or for worse, UECU was ultimately compelled to modify some of its ways in order to obtain regional academic accreditation - the formal stamp of legitimacy for any recognized academic institution of higher education.2 This occurred in 1985. The school eventually changed its name from the cumbersome UECU to the much more concise, "The Union Institute." (With its changing and growing programs, it is now known as The Union Institute and University and now offers distance and residential learning degree programs addressing working or other non-traditional learners.)
I entered the Ph.D. program of UECU in the mid-1980's. As noted above, UECU is an evolving institution. As such, the program I experienced, though conceptually similar, was very different than its present manifestation, as one might expect. The program I was involved with contained most of the components of a traditional program (including a supervisory committee, course work, a dissertation, etc.), but "the rules" were quite different. Here are some of the attractive aspects of my experience:
- the Ph.D. program was essentially an adaptable model into which one's discipline could be inserted. The result was a program that was personalized to the learner's interests. To use some of the Union's lingo, it was "person-centered" rather than conforming to a common prescriptive program for all. In my case, the field of Archaeology, I was happily able to address my three main areas of interest: General Archaeology, Egyptian Archaeology and History of Archaeology.
- the learners were given significant power and responsibility over their program as opposed to being at the constant whim of one's professors, a common narrative in many traditional programs. I was allowed to interview, and accept, my faculty members.
- the program was flexible. The "residency" requirements were fulfilled in relatively short doses (a concept that is now very common) in the form of interdisciplinary seminars that were often based on the UWW model. This allowed non-traditional learners (such as those who were professionals) to participate in the program. One could also present fulfillment of certain program elements in an open-minded, flexible environment. For example, in one of my areas of concentration (Egyptian archaeology), one of the essential requirements is a demonstration of at least reading competence in German and French. (Apart from English, that's what most of the modern literature in the field is written in). For German, I had already taken and passed a formal, graduate-level proficiency examination and was able to present my scores. But for French, I was able to present as evidence, a published academic journal article that I had written which was a review of a two volume Egyptological research publication written in French.
- apart from the seminars, and a rigorously-supervised dissertation,3 the Union had some of its own unique requirements including an internship, a series of learner-initiated and directed mini-seminars, personal and professional development activities, and mandatory social reflection (a "social impact statement"). I produced a formal dissertation that combined all three of my interests and my internship involved the creation and teaching of an interdisciplinary course. The latter was called "Viewing the Past" and looked at the ways different disciplines interpret the past, including philosophy, geology, paleontology, archaeology and history. It was taught for ambitious high school students in a program at Pacific Lutheran University called "Summer Scholars."
- the Union's model allowed me to put together an ideal Ph.D. supervisory committee which included not only Union faculty and peers, but required that I recruit at least two "adjunct" committee members with the idea that one's mentoring need not be confined to a single institution. In my case, I was able to put together a wonderful committee and was honored to work with Dr. Mark Papworth, an archaeologist with decades of field work and teaching and one of the co-founders of a major theoretical revolution in American archaeology, and Dr. David Lorton, a brilliant and open-minded Egyptologist who is now very distinguished by his many English translations of foreign scholarly works. My committee was amazingly supportive and encouraged excellence.
- and throughout, the program's notions of interdisciplinary synergy, creativity and social relevance were strongly espoused.
There were, though, a few drawbacks to my experience at the Union:
* The name is occasionally confused with other institutions: e.g. Union College -Schenectady, New York; Pacific Union College -Angwin, California; Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio.
* The school is not universally famous, but then again, neither are numerous other educational institutions across the nation.
* Those suspicious of things non-traditional have asked if The Union Institute was a "correspondence school" [an institution of one sort or another where one receives a degree by subscribing to lessons couriered through the mail...sort of like those art schools one can sign up for from advertisements in the back of magazines], or worse yet, a "diploma mill" [an unaccredited, often fraudulent operation that will produce a phony diploma, and even academic "transcripts" for a fee.] To the contrary, The Union Institute has been around since the early 60's and was awarded its formal accreditation 25 years ago which it maintains to this day. Ironically, as radical as the Union often appears, aspects of its core philosophy can be found in the classical Oxbridge tutorial system!
The Union Institue has numerous distinguished graduates and many are professors, artists, and community leaders. I have found that most people unfamiliar with the Union are accepting, if not impressed, when informed of its history and programs although a few will accept nothing other than a traditional educational model.4
Interestingly, over the years, many of the progressive elements with which The Union experimented have been mainstreamed including low-residency graduate programs, UWW, and distance learning that modern technology is increasingly facilitating] and are now being offered by many traditional universities.5 Ironically, as a progressive institution, TUI, seems now to be in a position where it must compete with traditional institutions that have adopted some of its innovations. But so be it. The Union will continue to evolve and endure and will very likely look different in 2030 than it does now as I write this in 2010, and as it was when I experienced it in the mid-1980's.6
The Union Institute won't appeal to everyone, but it serves well those who by philosophy, experience or circumstances are drawn to a non-traditional education. As my Ph.D. committee always emphasized, the degree is not the end, it's the beginning. Move on. Go forth and do great things.
1 A timeline of the history of The Union can be found here: The Union: History
2 The Union Institute is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission and is a member of the North Central Association.
3 In Union style, the Ph.D. dissertation was renamed the "Project Demonstrating Excellence". Although traditional written dissertations are the norm, that format is not necessarily always the best capstone mode for certain fields, including some of the arts.
4 Apart from the Union Institute, there are other legitimate and long-standing non-traditional graduate schools including The Saybrook Institute and The California Institute of Integral Studies.
5 Undergraduate and Master's degrees from traditional institutions via distance learning are becoming increasingly common as society adapts to new technologies and social realities. Although thus far much less common, some traditional universities (e.g. Boston University and Indiana State University) are offering doctoral degrees in specific fields with a low residency/on-line format. An interesting article that addresses such programs and their future can be found here: "Five Challenges and Solutions in Online Music Education."
[As a point of history, I recall from my time with The Union in the mid 1980's, some experimentation with on-line, real-time distance seminars. With the technology being relatively "primitive" compared to that available today [it was all text-based], the learners who participated contributed to the pioneering of a cyber-educated future that could only be imagined at the time.
6 The doctoral programs of The Union Institute is much different today than when I was involved. The programs offered in 2023 are described as follows: "Union offers two doctoral options – an Ed.D. and a Ph.D.
Union’s Ed.D. program has a choice of three majors: Applied Nutrition and Health Education, Educational Leadership (Pre-K – 12), or Higher Education Leadership. Union’s unique Ph.D. program has a choice of four concentrations: Ethical & Creative Leadership (ECL); Educational Studies (EDST); Humanities & Culture (HMS); Public Policy & Social Change (PPS). In addition, students can specialize in Martin Luther King Jr. legacy studies." Union Doctoral Programs