Measure of Human Scale (Photo credit: Richard Sennett)
Both aspects of humanness are important, but only the first is unique to small colleges.
Major research institutions almost invariably have enrollments in the thousands or tens of thousands.4 Simply as a result of their size, they are colder and more impersonal. Lectures in introductory courses will commonly have enrollments of several hundred, maybe even more than a thousand. Even more advanced courses may enroll a couple of hundred or more.5 Especially at large state universities, such large enrollments are unavoidable. The universities are obligated to provide opportunities to the states with which they are affiliated.6 Simply because Ohio State University enrolls more than 10 or 20 times the number of students enrolled in a small college, its scale is less human.
And because it enrolls so many students, it can't easily cater to the particular needs of individual students. It has to design generic programs that fit broad classes of students. The result is a degree of inflexibility that small colleges can avoid, but it's inflexibility that can't be avoided. To the extent you find flexibility like that of small colleges in major research institutions, it's at smaller units within - a small school or a department.
As for the respect and consideration with which people treat one another, again it's a matter of the scale. In my experience, people who know one another and who know that they're going to run into one another again tend to treat one another with respect.7 So in major research institutions, or at least those I've been a part of, there's generally a high degree of respect for colleagues within departments.8 But in dealings with the broader institution, many of the people a student or faculty member deals with are faceless bureaucrats whom they've never heard of and with whom they may never deal again. And of course, that faceless bureaucrat is usually a good, decent person dealing with some random faceless student or clueless faculty member. That lack of familiarity leads to a lack of trust, hence the rules and regulations and their inflexibility - and the too frequent tendency to assume the worst when something goes wrong.
There isn't a cure for the system. It's intrinsic in the scale. The cure is in ourselves, and it's in remembering that while we can't choose what the system will do to us, we can choose how to respond. We can remember that it's very likely that the person on the other end of the phone or the e-mail is a reasonable, intelligent person who's trying to do her/his job just as hard as we are and who gets just as frustrated by stupid systems as we do. We can treat others with respect and consideration, and the more we do it, the more we'll inspire others to follow our example. Change won't come quickly, and it will never make a campus of 40,000 students as friendly as one of 1000, but a little bit of civility will make a large amount of difference.
1The College of Idaho. At the time I graduated, the enrollment was about 700. Kiplinger recently ranked it #9 in its list of 10 top private colleges with the lowest sticker price.
3The University of California (to folks from Berkeley, there is only one) and Stanford. I also spent time at UC Davis as a gratis research associate.
4I say almost invariably because the California Institute of Technology has a small enrollment, a total of just over 2200 graduate and undergraduate students in 2011-2012.
5The evolutionary biology course I teach in the spring (when I'm not deaning) has a capacity of 160 because the room won't hold any more. Last time I taught it, we had a waiting list of over 100.
6The proportion of the budget provided by state funding at major public universities rarely exceeds 30 percent, and at some of the most prominent institutions state support accounts for less than 10 percent of the budget. That's why they're referred to as state affiliated rather than state supported.
7There are exceptions, of course. Some times familiarity breeds contempt, but more often it breeds respect.
8 It may be that because of the large egos often associated with those who are heavily committed to research that there's less respect for colleagues within departments at major research institutions than there is at small colleges. I don't have direct experience of that, but there are famous stories about disputes between Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin, on one hand, and Ed Wilson, on the other.