REIMAGINING THE LIBERAL ARTS:
CELEBRATE, REDEDICATE, ANTICIPATE
I will cherish the inauguration weekend and celebratory events for many years to come. My heartfelt thanks to the many people who worked so hard in planning the events and making them happen. I am especially grateful to Dr. Daniel Sullivan, President Emeritus of St. Lawrence University, who knows Ursinus well, having chaired the Middle States reaccreditation teams in 1999 and 2009. In his keynote address during Saturday’s inauguration ceremony, he spoke about the essential learning outcomes for the 21st century. Please read his address here.
As I said in my own address, which is reproduced below, an inauguration is less a celebration of an individual than the opening of the latest chapter in the history of the institution. As we proceed to write the latest chapter in the history of Ursinus, I invite each of you to join with me.
URSINUS COLLEGE PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION ADDRESS
April 21, 2012
Thank you for the privilege and opportunity to serve Ursinus College as its fifteenth president. I am grateful to the Ursinus Board of Trustees for entrusting me with this responsibility. Suzanne and I especially want to express our appreciation to the students, faculty, and staff of the College for their warm embrace this year. Sue broke her leg last month and danced last night balanced on one foot, but the notes, dinners, visits, and offers to walk Ursus the dog from members of the campus community only have been continuations of the constant kindnesses and hospitality we have experienced. The hand of hospitality has also been extended by the Collegeville and greater Philadelphia communities. From neighbors and borough officials, school boards and service organizations, EMTs and fire department, local businesses and foundations, your welcomes have fortified our sense of how Ursinus is a member of the larger polity. We aim in return to be a good corporate citizen. Thanks to all the delegates and alumni who have traveled to help celebrate this occasion. Special thanks to Dan Sullivan for your keynote: I am grateful for your knowledge both of Ursinus and of me. To my family and those heart’s companions from over the years, let me say that the president of Ursinus bears the marks of those, past and present, who have touched and shaped his life and helped bring him to this place today. Thank you, one and all.
An inauguration, however, is less a celebration of an individual than the opening of the latest chapter in the history of the institution. Colleges are long-lived. Former Hamilton College President Eugene Tobin, under whom I served as dean of the faculty, was fond of saying that three types of institutions have existed continuously from the European Middle Ages to modernity: universities, the Catholic Church, and insurance companies! Insurance companies take calculated risks on the odds of things going wrong. The Church is a bastion of faith. The university, and its peculiarly American expression, the liberal arts college, is the face of reason and human agency.
The constancy of universities and colleges stands in great contrast to the volatility of businesses. Jim Collins, the author of From Good to Great, noted that of the companies that appeared on the first Fortune 500 list in 1955, only 71 had a place on that list in 2008. That’s a turnover of over 85%. Collins identified some characteristics of those companies that have persisted, secrets, if you will, of enduring greatness. They include 1) “core values that have remained fixed for 100 years or more,” 2) “passion and dedication for the company and its culture,” and 3) “an institution with values … that makes a distinctive contribution while delivering exceptional results.”1
What we celebrate today is the beginning of another chapter in the story of Ursinus College, a story informed by foundational values that have inspired passion and dedication on the part of those who have imparted or partaken of a distinctive and exceptional educational experience. Fundamental to Ursinus is the academic seriousness with which it regards learning, teaching, and scholarship. It affirms the life of the mind, the ability to think critically and to communicate effectively, while providing opportunity for students to develop habits of the heart, the capacity to work cooperatively and act ethically. It is committed to a community of learning that strives for ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic diversity for the sake of enhancing the experience of students preparing to be citizens of the world.
Today, we remind ourselves of, and rededicate ourselves to, the principles and mission that undergird this place of learning. The most recent expression of these principles is found in the prologue to the draft strategic plan, the subject of a year-long process to identify institutional priorities for the next five to seven years. But strategic priorities must be set within the context of the foundational values of the College. The prologue is built upon three fundamental insights on what we do.
First, the world is complex. In order to understand it, our students need to master different ways of knowing. Creating knowledge in the sciences is different from creating meaning in literature; there are different methodologies for verifying insights in physics as opposed to psychology. It is insufficient in our College for a student only to learn a particular body of knowledge; the goal is to learn how to know.
Second, we must make choices based on evidence that is rarely complete. We exercise judgment when we decide what career to pursue or whom to marry. Lawyers seeking the argument that will sway a jury, doctors attempting a difficult diagnosis, managers considering how best to motivate their teams, and school board members deciding what program to support, all face questions the answers to which cannot be determined with mathematical precision. They must choose in the face of uncertainty and complexity. We believe that it is possible to learn to make better judgments and choices. We may not be able to anticipate what technical skills our graduates will need ten years from now. We do know that they will need to think well and hard about questions for which there are no pat answers and to benefit from the knowledge and experience of others as they do so.
Third, we need a measure of humility in our relations to others. To exercise and act on judgment, we must be able to understand and assess competing ideas. We must be able to revise long-held views and oppose conventional wisdom when given good reasons to do so. We must be able to live with uncertainty and ambiguity and to resist easy answers. This means that we have to understand and respect the perspectives of others; try to engage them especially at points where those perspectives differ from our own; and be open to revising our own sense of what is true and right. Consequently, we need courage to re-examine cherished beliefs, a commitment to work with others with whom we disagree, and the persistence and discipline to work through difficult problems.
Thus Ursinus expects its students to master different ways of knowing, to cultivate independent judgment, and humbly to understand and assess competing ideas. In my time here, I have been profoundly impressed by what this approach to the education of our students has produced. An Ursinus student doesn’t just present to a class but engages in a research project with a faculty mentor with the goal of publication or presentation to a conference. An Ursinus student doesn’t just show an awareness of the environment but sows the college’s organic garden and creates a new program to recycle dorm waste. An Ursinus student studying abroad doesn’t just seek immersion in a new culture but also completes an internship in international cities such as Madrid or Beijing. An Ursinus student who dances will not just settle for learning the steps but seek to choreograph a piece for performance.
The College provides its students with a rigorous, individualized education, where teachers know their students well and challenge them to think and work harder than they thought possible. Earlier this year, I received the following testimonial from an Ursinus alumna, now in graduate school:
I graduated Ursinus College in 2006 . . . At that time I knew I had attended the right college and I felt more intelligent and prepared upon entering the workforce. However, now I appreciate the school more than ever. The curriculum was difficult, really difficult. General Chemistry made me cry. A lot. I hated it sometimes but my professors gave me feedback, met with me regularly, tried to understand where I was struggling and provided me with tools to help me through the course. Any class I struggled with was handled this way. Not once did any of the professors let me off easy. They kept the coursework challenging. They didn’t curve grades. They made sure we were aware of their expectations and that we met them. For this, I am truly grateful.
Students work hard to manage their time and finances to earn a college education. They should be expected to work hard for the degree too. I have not felt this way since leaving Ursinus College. . . . I feel arrogant saying this as a graduate of UC, but it produces intelligent, driven individuals. At this point my only real complaint with Ursinus is that it set the bar too high and I don’t think that I’ll ever feel as accomplished academically as I did upon graduation in ’06.
The prologue to the strategic plan ends with a promise to prospective students and their families, which in turn obligates us as an education community:
We believe that parents and students will respond to the promise of transformation that occurs not through magic but through the student’s own hard work, supported by a faculty and staff prepared to guide them in that work, and by means of an educational program designed to develop the qualities of intellect and character necessary to live successfully and usefully.
In short, we should tell prospective students this: “Your success is our utmost concern. Every feature of the Ursinus program is devoted to that end. If you embrace the rigor and challenge of an Ursinus education, and choose to join our community, you will develop the qualities of intellect and character necessary to live a satisfying, successful, and useful life.”
Today, as we celebrate the latest chapter in the history of Ursinus, let us also rededicate ourselves to the promise of what an Ursinus education entails for present and future students.
Ursinus is already a beacon for liberal arts in the 21st century. But we also strive to teach students in ways that both develop classical qualities of a liberally educated individual and prepare that individual for the changing world to be encountered upon graduation. The priorities of the draft strategic plan grow out of our foundational values and commitments rooted in the liberal arts. At the same time, it also comprises a reimagining of the liberal arts for the 21st century. Beyond celebrating the latest chapter of the College, beyond rededicating ourselves to the foundational values and mission of Ursinus, we gather today to anticipate the shape of the education we will offer in preparing students for the world that awaits them. There are four themes that are embedded through the strategic planning priorities: interdisciplinarity, experiential education, commitment to service, and appreciation of difference. Let me touch on each in turn.
Beyond a common core curriculum, exemplified in the Common Intellectual Experience, and study in the major, Ursinus will seek additional ways of encouraging students to integrate knowledge across fields of learning. Already we have the student with the double major in Biology and Dance; the Politics and International Relations major with a minor in French. I think of the burgeoning enrollments in Neuroscience, the intersection of Biology and Psychology. As a liberal arts college, Ursinus cannot offer courses and majors in every field, but it can create programs and encourage individual study across disciplines. Not only are the frontiers of knowledge increasingly found at the interstices of disciplines, but the opportunities for technological and business innovation, the solutions to public policy problems, will be found by graduates accustomed to uniting disparate insights from a variety of authorities. One example is the pioneering work being done by Ursinus alumnus and trustee Joe DeSimone, whose use of nanotechnology to deliver cancer drugs to specific sites within the human body may supersede the present injection of caustic chemicals into the bloodstream. Experience in interdisciplinary thinking should mark our graduates.
But classroom instruction is only one dimension of education. Ursinus encourages applied learning. The Independent Learning Experience already requires each student to pursue an independent research or creative project, do an internship, study abroad, or student teach. This requirement embodies the pedagogical insight that experiential education reinforces the relevance and value of classroom learning. Longitudinal surveys of American college graduates find that such opportunities for hands-on learning are consistently ranked as the most valuable educational experience of their baccalaureate studies.
Experiential education has other benefits. Businesses use internships to evaluate students as potential employees. They give interns substantive responsibilities as sophomores and juniors, and they offer the best interns permanent positions to commence after graduation. Ursinus will look to partner with businesses in developing programs that integrate classroom study, experiential education, and career planning and placement. The College will strengthen its alumni data base to enable prospective student interns to network with employers around the country. Ursinus should be known for how it assists students in bridging from the campus to the world, from undergraduate study to post-baccalaureate opportunities.
Another dimension of experiential education is service learning and volunteerism, where community service is an avenue for the practice of citizenship. The habit of service should be inculcated before our students graduate. Surveys note a high correlation between service learning and subsequent participation in civic life. We need to expand opportunities for service learning and community advocacy in the curriculum. Student organizations should do annual philanthropic or service projects in the community.
This aspect of experiential education leads me to a third theme underlying the strategic plan: commitment to service. Classic liberal education presumed that students were to be trained for civic leadership. With the advent of the research university model, higher education concentrated increasingly on the inculcation of specific knowledge and skills. Character, like religion and ethics, became the private concern of the student.
But times change, and the time is ripe for the academy to bear responsibility again for educating students to respond to the moral and political dilemmas of our time. I believe teaching our students to negotiate issues of ethics and citizenship must be part and parcel of an Ursinus education. In part it is a matter of doing what the academy has always done: entertaining diverse viewpoints and perspectives, and modeling how a community can engage in civil dialogue. The ideal of the academy is to be able to represent fairly the viewpoint of those with whom one most disagrees. But dialogue, however necessary, is not sufficient. The unending conversation is what we must, at all costs, preserve in the academy, but our students need to be equipped for living, in most cases, beyond the academy, in a world where moral decisions, in all their contingency and uncertainty, must be made. I want our graduates to be people who honor and follow through on their word, who play by the rules but also know and respect the processes, political and social, by which they can change rules they deem unfair. I want our graduates to have the integrity to say “No” to practices that mislead and injure others, to have the moral compassion and empathy to address the misfortunes of others as if they were their own.
And yet, in our pursuit for what binds us as a common humanity, we can’t forget that we cannot be human in general: we express our humanity in particular culturally-mediated ways. That’s why respect for difference is an essential outcome of an Ursinus education. Language is a quintessential human capacity, but no one speaks “language,” one speaks English, or Chinese, or Swahili. We must both affirm the claims of universal humanity and uphold a commitment to cultural diversity. We must affirm equal opportunity and valuing individuals according to their achievement, on the one hand, but we must also strive to give place and voice to different races and cultures, acknowledging that the very definitions of “success” and “happiness” are culturally mediated.
There is a necessary intellectual dimension to values: their study has a long and venerable history. But the study of values alone is insufficient to inspire. Wrote a young man on the eve of his execution by the Nazis, “I want you all to remember—that you must not dream yourselves back to the times before the war, but the dream of you all, young and old, must be to create an ideal of human decency, and not a narrow-minded and prejudiced one. That is the great gift our country hungers for.”2 Let us bring to campus great artists and scientists and thinkers and peacemakers who have contributed to the bounty of human achievement to inspire students and give them examples to emulate. Let us create programs and systems whereby our students discuss ethics, do public service, and consider how they might use their Ursinus education to be servant-leaders in the world. But let us also remember that our students are watching us, and the lessons we dare to teach, and the visions we dare to espouse, obligate us to try and live them as well.
As president of Ursinus College, I pledge this institution to the pursuit of academic excellence, but not simply for its own sake. I pledge that an Ursinus education will engender in students not only habits of mind but also, in de Tocqueville’s famous phrase, habits of the heart which will enable them not only to make a living but also to make lives that are personally fulfilling precisely because they are implicated in the well-being of others.
In the end, the four underlying themes of the strategic plan are themselves linked. Interdisciplinary learning prepares students to work at the cutting edge of innovation, and experiential education enables them to exercise their knowledge and skills in real-world situations while they are still undergraduates. The commitment to service readies them for civic responsibility, and an appreciation of difference empowers them to make a difference in a contingent world.
The greatest justification for the kind of education we do here is that it can change the world. And our greatest obligation to our students is to remind them that the work they do will make a difference for good, not just for themselves, but for us all. For this reason, our final gift to our students must be to teach them to hope. In a recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, John Horgan tells of assigning as a class text John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, in which the president urged the nation on a quest to end poverty, disease, tyranny, and war. Horgan asked his students whether the goals were reasonable aspirations or political rhetoric. To a one, they thought that Kennedy’s challenge was an exercise in rhetoric.
Horgan then proceeded to cite studies that found 1) the percentage of the world’s population living in “extreme poverty” is at historically low levels; 2) life spans have more than doubled in the past century; 3) two-thirds of the world’s population live under elected governments that recognize the rule of law and personal autonomy; and 4) between 2000 and 2010, war killed fewer people than in any decade of the previous century.3
However haltingly, progress has been made in addressing issues of poverty, disease, tyranny, and war. This is not to deny their persistence, nor that without continuing effort and vigilance we may see regression rather than improvement. We currently struggle, for example, with increasing threats of nuclear proliferation after hailing the end of the Cold War, and for all our efforts to date, environmental sustainability seems a distant goal. Nonetheless, believing that a problem is intractable breeds a fatalism that itself constitutes a barrier to finding solutions.
Ursinus College must be a repository of hope. We teach in the expectation that our students will graduate to lives that are professionally satisfying and personally fulfilling, that individually and cooperatively, they will contribute to the flourishing of the world. Let Ursinus, then, celebrate, anticipate, and rededicate itself to the equipping of our students in knowledge, in skill, in character, and in hope to work to make a brighter future marked by justice, prosperity, understanding, and compassion for all. This is the Ursinus I have come to serve. Thank you very much.