Spring semester started with characteristic Ursinus enthusiasm. We enjoyed a stirring talk by Peter Salk, son of the inventor of the Salk polio vaccine, during an event sponsored by our Center for Science and the Common Good. We also were privileged to host the Rev. Richard Schellhase, Class of 1945, this year’s Davis Chair holder, who offered reflections on his commitment to ethics and values in his life.
In January I attended two national conferences with significance to higher education. These meetings allowed me to engage in some dynamic discussion on the challenges facing liberal arts colleges today, such as merit aid, allocation of resources, the role of athletics, intercollegiate partnerships, and enhancing the residential liberal arts experience.
At the Council for Independent Colleges Presidents Institute, appropriately titled, “Catalysts for the Common Good,” participants considered how college and university presidents can advance the public’s perception of the role of independent higher education in the national landscape. Cultural critic and Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, who praises Ursinus in his book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, was the keynote speaker. Andy (a Harvard College classmate of mine) continues to cite Ursinus as a model of undergraduate collegiate experience. I served on a panel on vocational exploration on campuses, discussing the role presidents can play in fostering student consideration of meaning and purpose in conjunction with professional aspirations and life-long pursuits. Ursinus, as I reported in an earlier Perspective, has a grant administered through CIC to encourage such student reflection.
I also attended the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, for which I serve as Chair of the Board. This organization of more than 1,250 institutions of higher education sent over 1,600 representatives to Atlanta to consider the quality, vitality and the public standing of liberal education. We discussed how to engage academic leaders in addressing globalization, demographic change, emerging technologies, and renegotiated political and economic relationships. In my remarks in the opening plenary, I noted:
Higher education is responding to calls to ensure access, affordability, and increased degree completion. But in our quest to make higher education available to the many, we must not lose sight of the quality of our degrees. Access should not be gained by easing the intellectual rigor of our credentials. In the next few days, we will hear about innovations, efficiencies, and disruptions that are embroiling higher education. Amid the tumult, we must not lose sight of the reason we are called to teach: that our students be equipped, in knowledge, in skill, and in judgment, not simply to make a living but to make lives of purpose, in which their flourishing is intertwined with the welfare of others. And it is not only individual flourishing and individual welfare that are at stake: the health of our civil society depends on quality liberal education for all.
In addition to chairing the conference, I participated in a wide-ranging discussion on building effective and sustainable business models for campus-based undergraduate education.
Both meetings addressed the future of liberal arts colleges at a time when pre-professional programs, economics, and technological advances have critics questioning the viability of faculty-driven, place-based campuses like Ursinus. Some higher education experts are asserting that emerging technologies, online learning, and the proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCS) will alter higher education as we know it, and that liberal arts colleges will be compelled to reinvent themselves.
It is my belief that technology should increase faculty effectiveness without diminishing faculty presence. While MOOCs may address some concerns over access and affordability, they are not panaceas. Packets of knowledge are not equivalent to an education. Learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative projects, undergraduate research, service learning, and internships all have been identified as high impact teaching practices which call for a “guide on the side,” rather than a “sage on the stage.” To this end, I authored an op-ed for Trusteeship Magazine, a publication of the Association of Governing Board of Universities and Colleges on this topic. Please read it here.
Presidential leadership must extend beyond our individual campuses, and my discussions with peers and academic leaders have been rewarding. The lessons learned will benefit Ursinus.
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