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Haverford and Swarthmore Presidents Explore Change and Opportunity at Liberal Arts Colleges

Why does college cost so much? Is the future of higher education online? Why is the liberal arts experience of today so different from what students experienced even just five or 10 years ago? A new book edited by the presidents of Swarthmore and Haverford Colleges has answers.

Remaking College: Innovation in the Liberal Arts (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) is adapted from a symposium, "The Future of the Liberal Arts in America and its Leadership Role in Education Around the World," organized by Rebecca Chopp (Swarthmore) and Daniel Weiss (Haverford) at Lafayette College in 2012.  The event was attended by some 230 presidents, provosts, and others from around the United States and the United Kingdom.

From transformative technology to the revolution in interdisciplinary study, the collection of essays from leaders in American higher education shows why liberal arts education is at the forefront of so many emerging trends in higher education as its authors argue that no approach better prepares students for life after graduation, no matter which path they follow.

What inspired you to produce this book?

Dan Weiss: Rebecca and I have spent a great deal of time together over the past decade thinking about and working with these issues, and we both thought the time was propitious to think about them in a deliberate way, to think about the way the higher education environment is changing. So we invited our colleagues to reflect and learn—and raise—the visibility of liberal arts colleges at this time of change.

Rebecca Chopp: Dan and I are each in our second presidencies. Watching the national and international scene evolve has made us increasingly aware that we—those in liberal arts education—really need to speak out and encourage other college presidents to speak out. We have something exciting to offer the United States and the world, and I think our good friends at the Mellon Foundation, which sponsored the symposium, shared our perspective that these small colleges, though serving a minority of students, have something distinct to offer higher education in this country and the world.

The book is a collection of talks that were given at the symposium. How did you pick the authors, and how did they wind up with their topics?

RC: Of all the presidents and thought leaders we approached, only one said no, and that was because he couldn’t make the deadline. This enthusiastic response really confirmed our idea that there was a tremendous hunger and interest in the topic. It was a combination of knowing a bit about what was going on at the other schools and knowing some of the other presidents and thought leaders and their backgrounds and interests. Kevin Guthrie (of ITHAKA, a consulting firm) was a natural because of his expertise; Catharine Hill (Vassar College) and Jill Tiefenthaler (Colorado College) made sense given their interest in economics and higher education. At the same time, exciting things were happening with respect to partnerships at Smith and Macalester colleges, among others.

DW: We were seeking a combination of voices that would make for a lively exchange and provide interesting takes on the issues. For example, there are several essays about technology. Guthrie talks about how everything is changing, whereas Adam Falk (Williams College) said, 'Not so fast!' We considered what roles we could give them that would ensure a lively conversation.

Let's talk about three themes in the book: cost, and what to do about it; technology, and how it applies to an individualized mentorship-based approach like that of liberal arts colleges; and environment, with respect to its role in shaping what is much more than just an academic experience. How are they addressed?

RC: I'll start with the residential component and what that provides. An extremely powerful part of the conference was the way that we all emphasized, in one way or another, the importance of residential education. So many used the language of what I call intentional communities, and the concept has spread like wildfire.

There's a sense that the residential community is a distinctive feature of the liberal arts experience. It creates phenomenal alumni loyalty, which translates into support for our students; and it provides an environment in which living and learning occur seamlessly and simultaneously. A residential educational experience has always been powerful, but in the 21st century, it may be even more important because our cultural problems and our global problems are in some ways rooted in our struggles with how to live in diverse communities. The word "intentional" in front of communities really means that we can help set the context for young people to dream and build new communities. I'm not sure there are many other places in our culture where that’s happening.

As for cost, that's an interesting chapter. One of my takeaways is that it's important to talk about accuracy. Mere numbers—tuition amounts—don’t reflect the true reality of the degree to which endowment supports every student, nor the degree to which financial aid offsets the cost. We need to do a better job of talking about the value that we add and the importance of the investment, and what students and families get out of it over a lifetime. In a clear manner, the conversation helped to demystify the complex nature of the discussion of financial issues in higher education by offering a different lens through which to view it.

DW: That's a good answer for many reasons. We wanted to make clear that, as much as the public might desire otherwise, these issues are complex, and for us to develop solutions we need to understand what the problems are. Sometimes they aren’t what many think.

As for technology, the opportunity for us—and the challenge—is to recognize that technology is going to be a game changer in the system of higher education. But different settings will require different solutions and/or tools. We’ll need to be able to adapt. It’s up to us to figure out how technology can make us better and, maybe, more cost effective. No question these tools are effective and we need to harness that power in ways that are meaningful. MOOCs? Flipped classes? We need a more thoughtful discussion of what technology is—and isn’t—as it relates to the liberal arts experience.

RC: The section on technology represents so well how liberal arts colleges go about thinking about these difficult and challenging opportunities and issues. On the one hand, the Guthrie essay sorts this out, arguing that it's not just about "MOOCs or no MOOCs." There are further, broader upper-level issues. On the other hand, you have the wonderful articles by Adam Falk and Dan Porterfield (Franklin & Marshall College), which say of course we'll have this conversation, but we’re always going to put the students first. It’s all measured by how students are affected. At the end of the day, there is something about learning that is about human formation and the learning context of the community. Those are the guiding lights, the anchors that shape the conversation around technology. We know exciting things are happening, and we know the questions to which we need answers: Will they help the students? Will they further this intentional flourishing that characterizes liberal arts education?

Brian Rosenberg (Macalester College) and Carol Christ (Smith College) talk about breaking down barriers. In what ways are the institutions themselves receptive to this, and in what ways is there more work to be done?

RC: In some ways, it is easier for faculty and staff to partner with outside interests than it is to break down silos within. Brian Rosenberg talks about this with respect to Macalester's global health community program. Jane McAuliffe (Bryn Mawr College) is concerned with global relationships. Carol Christ (Smith College) talks about the Five College system. Dan and I can talk about Tri-Co. All of these are very important to faculty, students, and staff. Problem-based learning drives the relationships, and we want to serve our students who learn by, say, going into a prison and working with inmates, or experiencing team teaching between schools. And yet we are all small-scale institutions, and it is hard, and we are struggling with how to move into an era of intense interdisciplinarity. Department-based organization of our schools means justifying every line item and every penny in terms of enrollment. There's a structural tension in our schools, and that may be more difficult within than across schools.

DW: It has to do with institutional culture, how we make decisions, how we navigate waters of change. Brian Rosenberg raised the issue of faculty resistance. Bill Bowen (Princeton, The Andrew Mellon Foundation), who also contributed an essay, is starting a project on how governance systems can change to foster innovative decision-making in shorter cycles. If we don’t figure that out, we risk putting institutional vitality at risk. Overcoming resistance requires courage.

Anything you'd care to add?

RC: The model for knowledge and learning at these small schools is a very full and wholesome model. It’s almost counterrevolutionary because most schools are moving toward narrower and narrower types of knowledge and not requiring broad-based knowledge. We live in the 21st century, where knowledge is about continuing innovation, it’s about collaboration, and it’s about working in diverse teams. However, the dominant model of education in this country is going in the opposite direction—back to the industrial world, back to specific training for specific jobs. The liberal arts setting is one of the few places you can obtain broad-based knowledge. And if you look at employer preferences and alumni satisfaction and what they want and need, it matches the experience and production of knowledge in our schools.

DW: The history of liberal arts education is a history of change, innovation, and adaptability. The sort of experience liberal arts students get today, while grounded in the same values and emphasis on process, is not like that of their parents, grandparents, or even their older siblings. Yet what hasn’t changed, what’s been constant, is the extent to which our student experience is all about change, all about flexible thinking. You have 32 credits, more or less, and need to think differently in each class. There’s no better career prep than that. And as Rebecca points out, that’s what employers want, and it’s what alumni say they value most about their education.

The book is available now in both print and digital editions.  Presidential contributors to Remaking College include:

  • William G. Bowen (Princeton University and The Andrew G. Mellon Foundation) More to Hope Than to Fear: The Future of the Liberal Arts College
  • Carol Christ (Smith College) The College Without Walls: Partnerships at Home and Abroad
  • Joanne V. Creighton (Haverford College, Mount Holyoke College) Orchestrating Shared Governance
  • Ronald Crutcher (Wheaton College) The Intercultural Connection: Students and the Liberal Arts
  • Adam Falk (Williams College) Technology in Education: Revolution of Evolution
  • Catharine Hill (Vassar College) and Jill Tiefenthaler (Colorado College) Economics and Affordability
  • Jane McAuliffe (Bryn Mawr College) The Networked College – Local, Global, Virtual
  • John McCardell, Jr. (Sewanee: The University of the South) "Glowing against the Gray, Sober against the Fire"
  • David Oxtoby (Pomona College) Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges in Teaching
  • Daniel Porterfield (Franklin & Marshall College) Technology, Learning, and Campus Culture
  • Brian Rosenberg (Macalester College) The Liberal Arts College Unbound


The Climbing Stone, by Peter Rockwell '58, is located outside Magill Library.

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