From molecular biologist to college president: Landmark College's Peter Eden
Landmark College, since its inception 32 years ago, has existed entirely to serve students with learning disabilities. The small Vermont college — boasting an enrollment of only about 450 students — offers short-term credentialing programs, as well as associate degree programs and baccalaureate programs, but it is the web-based programs being developed at the college which will have the broadest reach with students across the country who have learning disabilities.
We sat down with Landmark President Peter Eden to talk about the importance of the work he is doing at the helm of this institution, his background in molecular biology and love for hot rods.
So tell us about Landmark College.
"Right now we carry $3 million in grant funding [via our research center], so this little small college has a powerful capacity for research and development.
One of our big accomplishments is around professional development. We knew to reach [faculty], we had to provide some web-based programs.
The other online program we’re developing is our undergraduate courses delivered online by a Landmark College professor.
Students with [learning disabilities, they might be particularly challenged when learning in an online environment… We build in universal design principles … [to accommodate their learning disabilities].
These are young learners who, like a lot of young high school juniors or seniors are eager to begin to earn college credit … because they have learning disabilities, they often are meant with an environment that is not supportive of the way they learn or the way they operate.
I think that’s got a big upside, given the hundreds of LD-focused high schools … we can reach a lot of students and give them the confidence and credit to allow them to transfer into college.
When you’ve got the confidence, you’re a lot more likely to make a run at college. This online program gives them the confidence and the ability to think bigger than just high school. It’s a lot like what we would provide to our first-year students, and they do deal with metacognition — learning how you learn — and other approaches, so they understand their strengths and how they learn," said Eden.
What are some of the adjustments that need to be made to accommodate such a specific student population?
"The real challenge for us is neurodiversity and learning disabilities such as dyslexia or ADHD. Some tactics are universal design for learning principles at play — using content in a number of modalities … and providing the opportunity for the students to produce materials in various ways. So you account for the variation in the ways students naturally [work, which] helps the instructor motivate and facilitate the learning from different types of learning."
Tell me about you and how you ended up at Landmark College.
"My background is in molecular biology, and I worked in the biotech industry. It was of course fascinating and very illuminating … however I always wished I were a professor and worked on a campus.
So I made a complete switch. In that first academic appointment I had, I was a department chair, which was an administrative role. … It turned out that I enjoyed developing programs so much that I never imagined how much I’d enjoy the administrative part of higher ed, which is being in a position to build programs and help students. From there, I became a dean, and I still taught a little bit, but I didn’t do research anymore. … From there, I was ready for a bigger challenge, and then Landmark College came along.
I think everybody saw an opportunity here to help this college metamorphose into a baccalaureate institution with a STEM program, athletics and study abroad.
For me, it was an interesting opportunity to join a very young college that had not been formed — and you don’t get those chances very often."
How do you consider the needs of a specialized student population?
"It’s the career readiness that might be one of the biggest issues for students with [learning disabilities]. They’re often typically above average intelligence; it’s not passing calculus that is the challenge, it is building the soft skills that employers are looking for.
But in many, many ways, this is a forward-thinking, entrepreneurial enterprise that is developing students who are largely ignored in society, and that is those with an LD."
What do you see as being your purpose in higher ed?
"There are so many college students with LD, diagnosed or not, and they sometimes do well other places which may have some programs, but many of them don’t do well. They are often at risk of not getting through college, and we provide an opportunity for students with tremendous potential that don’t do well in a traditional environment.
We have thousands and thousands of smart young people who could not get a college degree because of a learning difficulty, and that robs society of a number of skilled researchers.
We’re here to change the way the public thinks about education. To have the public think in different ways about the ways that we are educating our students. At the end of the day, what we do is provide an opportunity for young people who do not do well in a traditional one-size-fits-all higher ed model, we give them an opportunity to show us their strengths and their potential.
Especially since they say innovation happens at the edges, and these students often approach problems in different ways, they solve problems in different ways … and this is very, very healthy for our society."
What do you see as your personal purpose?
"My purpose in higher ed, I think is to help. To help create new programs and experiences that will give students the skills and confidence and credentials they need to move forward and explore their potential in any field. I’ve never wanted to just take tickets for the train.
I’ve really enjoyed working in a place and a space that was a pioneer. If I could help move this whole phenomenon forward to help students succeed, then that’s pretty fulfilling."
What are you watching or doing when you’re not working?
"When I’m not thinking or working, I’m watching my young children fight with each other. Particularly my two boys. I also really like coaching their hockey leagues for the boys, and spending time with my young daughter.
I’m currently reading a book called Look me in the eye by John Elder Robison — it’s about his journey, he calls himself an aspergian — his strengths and challenges.
He was a sound and engineering leader for the band KISS, and he also worked in the toy industry.
It’s fascinating the world, the ASD population is just — the previous stigma associated with autism is starting to lift in society right now. … Of course the same is true with dyslexia and ADHD.
Other than that, I also used to restore old cars from the 60s, that was a hobby of mine, and it still is, when I have the time."
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