Richard Liston–Phoenixville resident, former professional trombonist, young looking bald guy–was teaching computer science at Ursinus College, happily, in 2009 when his contract wasn’t renewed.
Pushing 50, and out of a job, he had a decision to make.
“I wasn’t dissatisfied there. I was doing what I thought was important...But at that point I said ‘What am I going to do next?’”
He took the question more seriously than most. While he was beginning to find a comfort zone in academia, something nagged at him: it just wasn’t fair. Increasingly, he found himself outraged by the cold shoulder so many, for reasons of age or income, got from the traditional university system.
“Harvard, Princeton, Amherst. I thought, why do only people with money have the opportunity to go to these places?”
So Liston decided to make a place for the students that no one else wanted. What he made was The Sphere College Project.
Part career-counseling service, part self-help group, part undergraduate seminar; the as yet unaccredited college marks an effort to extend higher education opportunities to area adults who are square-peg-in-round-hole fits in conventional four-year colleges.
In addition to individual tutorial sessions, he and his motley crew meet on Monday nights at to discuss everything from Galileo to Genesis to, more recently, grant writing.
“Right now, it’s a group of seven adults. And it’s one of the most diverse groups of people I’ve ever been a part of.”
Liston said the key to connecting with each member of such an idiosyncratic bunch is empathy–an area in which he is uniquely well-equipped.
“I can understand how people can see things differently. This is a group of people who are not unfamiliar with trauma. I can somehow relate to that. Without going into personal detail, I’m no stranger to trauma myself,” he said.
But while Sphere has had its , financially speaking, it's floundering.
“It’s in crisis. Well, no, not crisis. It’s the moment of truth,” Liston said.
“My situation is tied to this project," he went on. "We have no money. If I’m not able to keep putting money into it, it may well disintegrate.”
The founder has already invested $100,000 in the school–funds that came, according to a 2011 profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education, from his retirement account and a loan from his father.
And Liston's scheme to continue to finance the project is quixotic: he’s relying on a student who he describes as a “chronic paranoid schizophrenic” to lead fund drives–”Frank has hit it out of the ballpark [as a telemarketer], and I’m convinced he could make for an excellent fundraiser,” Liston said–and he also intends to launch a separate $50,000 capital campaign, the details of which he admits he’s still working out.
“I’m networking my way towards the TEDx crowd,” he said. “And I know people at Google.”
The school’s biggest roadblock to solvency though is its tuition scheme.
“How much does it cost? Whatever they can afford,” Liston says, the obvious problem being that most Sphere students can’t afford anything.
With its third-year approaching, it's unclear what will come of the experiment. This much is certain though: if it doesn't work, it won't be for lack of effort. Liston says his students are fully invested, and he'll continue to be too.
"They think that what we're doing is of such value, that they want to promote it and make it viable," he said. "They really believe in it."