Inauguration Keynote Address

Remarks—Inauguration of Bobby Fong as the 15th President of Ursinus College

Dr. Daniel F. Sullivan, President Emeritus, St. Lawrence University
Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dr. Daniel F. Sullivan

Members of the Ursinus College community, I cannot begin to tell you what an honor it is for me on this wonderful day to be a part of Bobby Fong’s inauguration as your 15th president.  We have known each other for over 20 years, having first met in the summer of 1990 at Hope College in Michigan, where Bobby was Dean of Arts and Humanities and Professor of English.  As the relatively new president of Allegheny College, I was chair of the Steering Committee of Project Kaleidoscope, a national collaboration of liberal arts college presidents, deans and faculty under the leadership of the incomparable Jeanne Narum that was convened at the behest of the National Science Foundation and charged to outline a plan for the coming decade for undergraduate science and mathematics education in the liberal arts setting

Jim Gentile, then Hope’s Dean of Science and now President of the Research Corporation, was a key member of our group and our host for a critical meeting to agree on the final draft of our report—What Works: Building Natural Science Communities—which remains influential still today.  Jim was then and remains perhaps the most comprehensively intelligent voice for what works in undergraduate science and mathematics education anywhere in America, and both Bobby and I have been the beneficiaries of his evidence-based wisdom on that subject—very good news for Ursinus as planning for a new science building gathers speed.  Indeed, were it not for a pressing hip replacement, Jim would be standing before you now.  I am his substitute!

Project Kaleidoscope still thrives more than 20 years later, now within AAC&U (the Association of American Colleges and Universities), whose Board Bobby now chairs and where we have worked together for a decade.  With 1250 college and university members, AAC&U is the only national higher education membership organization whose mission is fostering liberal education.

Many of you know that I have a special relationship with Ursinus, having chaired the Middle States reaccreditation visiting teams for Ursinus’ 1999 and 2009 ten-year reaccreditations.  I have become very fond of this place.  It has become a recognized national leader in liberal education, committed to the kinds of high impact teaching practices that facilitate deep and long-lasting learning by students.  John Strassburger was a personal friend.  I want great things for Ursinus.  When I heard that we had lost John so tragically I thought:  “A giant has fallen at Ursinus.  Out of respect for John they better find an even bigger giant of liberal education to replace him.”  And in Bobby Fong you have—you really have.

The 21st Century is the Liberal Education Century

Because of Bobby’s national leadership this is good for America, but it is even better for Ursinus because the 21st century is the liberal education century.  More than ever before in our nation’s history there is alignment between the intended learning outcomes of liberal education and the learning necessary for just about anyone to succeed in work and life.

Saying this is to go against what has been the dominant narrative in America over several decades that what is needed for most students is a much greater emphasis on a narrowly practical, first-job oriented, pre-professional form of higher education.  Our federal and state political leaders and policy-makers, and indeed until relatively recently visible business leaders have pressed for greater focus in higher education on first-job preparation and less focus on development in our students of the higher-order learning necessary for real-world problem-solving at work and in life.

This has been a major mistake for America and for a very large fraction of the nation’s institutions of higher education that now must play “catch-up” to deliver the kind of learning we need in the 21st century.  Ursinus, on the other hand, is way ahead of the rest of American higher education on this and you have selected a president who knows how to work with an outstanding faculty to keep you ahead.

What kind of learning is needed, and what is the evidence for the alignment I claim exists?  In a 2010 Hart Research Associates survey conducted for AAC&U—“Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn”[i]—employers  made it clear that they want job candidates to have knowledge and competence in specific fields and they want them to have the intellectual and practical skills acquired in liberal education—inquiry and analysis; critical and creative thinking; integrative and reflective thinking; written and oral communication; quantitative literacy; information literacy; intercultural understanding; teamwork and problem solving—because these learning outcomes are the keys to success in any job, including the jobs that are even now just being invented in our rapidly changing economy.

Further evidence of alignment is that employers put their compensation dollars into the jobs that require these kinds of higher education learning outcomes.  Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce economist and former AAC&U Board member Anthony Carnevale says this:

From a federal database analyzing qualifications for 1,100 different jobs, there is consistent evidence that the highest salaries apply to positions that call for intensive use of liberal education capabilities, including:  writing, inductive and deductive reasoning, judgment and decision-making, problem solving, social/interpersonal skills, mathematics, originality.[ii]

Indeed, the 220 jobs in the upper quintile with regard to these liberal education capabilities pay on average over double what the 220 jobs in the lowest quintile pay.

Employers also understand increasingly that a narrow, vocational education geared to particular jobs requires its recipients to be retrained for the next job at significant cost to the job-holder, employers, and taxpayers who fund federal and state job programs. This vocational training is not intended to and does not succeed at helping students become lifelong learners, motivated to teach themselves new things—though less expensive to provide, it depreciates.[iii] In contrast, students properly educated for the high-level thinking and skills needed in the 21st century—that is, educated in a way that inspires them to become intellectually curious lifelong learners—are constantly educating themselves in their current jobs and for their next jobs.  They are self-adaptors to changing environments, and the more general skills they have acquired transcend the particular settings in which they happen to work. This kind of education actually appreciates in value because its beneficiaries become more valuable in the marketplace with time—good for them and good for the rest of us who benefit from their improved productivity.

No one has estimated the enormous size of the depreciation cost borne by individuals educated narrowly and vocationally and by those who must then subsidize their retraining, but employers understand that it is there because they very much do understand the concept of depreciation.

The evidence is clear, in my view:  all colleges and universities, including two-year colleges, must give a much higher priority to the learning outcomes essential to a 21st century education, and to succeed at this they must also, to a much greater extent, structure teaching and learning in the ways that work, proven from experience and research.

What Works?

So what does work?  The increasing pressure on higher education over at least the last two decades to pay less attention to liberal education and more attention to a narrowly practical, first-job oriented, pre-professional form of higher education has also come with pressure to reduce the cost of higher education by substituting capital, in the form of on-line learning, for more labor-intensive teaching and learning environments that lead to high levels of student engagement.  And yet research shows that the essential learning outcomes for the 21st century I have been discussing are most fully achieved by students in colleges characterized by high levels of student engagement — when (paraphrasing the National Survey of Student Engagement Benchmarks of Effective Educational Practice) students are challenged academically; experience high levels of purposeful, active, and collaborative learning; enjoy quality interactions with faculty around their academic work; experience the enrichment of such opportunities as well designed internships, collaborative research with faculty members and study of other cultures (abroad or in the U.S.); and benefit from supportive campus environments.[iv]

High student-engagement learning environments are not only differentially successful at facilitating student learning of essential 21st century skills and knowledge; they are also efficient and cost-effective because campuses characterized by high levels of student engagement have much higher four-year graduation rates.[v]   Because students learn more in high student-engagement environments they leave college less often for academic reasons; because they so much  more often come to love learning in such environments they are motivated to remain in college to continue the enjoyment learning provides.  When students fail to graduate in four years their costs of attending college escalate dramatically because the costs of not being fully employed are added to the out-of-pocket costs of continued college attendance.  All other stakeholders—parents, employers, donors, states and the federal government—also feel the financial and productivity consequences.

Ursinus students are 50 percentage points more likely to graduate in four years than full-time, normal college-age students attending a public institution in America.  Only for students from families with the highest incomes is it less expensive to attend a public institution than to attend a private if you could have graduated in four years from the private but did not do so from the public.[vi]

Talking about the inefficiencies of low four-year college graduation rates always reminds me of this little story I learned way back when I lived in Minnesota and I just can’t resist telling it to you:  Ole and Sven were having coffee one day at the Chatterbox Café in St. Paul.  Sven says to Ole:  “I hear that Little Ole has gone off to the university.  What do you suppose he’ll be when he finishes up?”  “Oh,” says Ole, “I tink thirty-five or forty.”  It’s a good story, but the bad news is the way it conveys that Americans have begun to expect students not to graduate in four years from a four-year college.

It will take courage for institutional leaders and faculty, in the face of the continuing first-job-focus and substitution of on-line learning for student engagement narratives to commit to a greater focus on liberal education and to the faculty-intensive learning environments—often supplemented by sophisticated technology support for teaching and learning—that we know work most efficiently to make a 21st century education possible.  Because I have examined Ursinus carefully twice in the last 13 years, I am absolutely certain that the necessary courage exists here.  More than any college I have encountered, this college knows what it is about and where it wants to go.  To give just one example, I said this in my 2009 report of the Middle States Visiting Team:

Established as a result of faculty discussions precipitated by the 1999 self-study process, the Common Intellectual Experience (CIE) will see its tenth anniversary next year.  As is the case with other Ursinus innovations, getting it to succeed has required a fierce, focused determination on the part of faculty and college leadership.  Ursinus has a culture that says “we want to do the things that most impact the liberal learning achievement of students that other colleges, less focused and determined, have failed to do and sustain.”

I love the spirit here.  I love how Ursinus is so perfectly positioned to deliver more of what our students and the nation need right now.  And I love that you have found a new president who knows how to work with trustees, faculty, staff and students to do what needs to be done at a very, very high level.  Bravo Ursinus!  Thank you.


[i] “Raising the Bar:  Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn” (Hart Research Associates, 2010).

[ii] Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, analysis prepared for Association of American Colleges and Universities Presidents’ Trust, “The Economic Value of Liberal Education,” 2010.

[iii] See Inside Higher Ed’s October 18, 2011 “Quick Takes” summary of a new NBER Working Paper:  “The skills students learn from a vocational education may ease their transition into the labor market, according to a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. However, those initial labor-market advantages fade as workers age. The study found that individuals with a general education are more likely to be employed at age 50 than are those with a vocational education. A general education was particularly helpful in countries that experienced faster economic growth and larger technological change.”  The NBER paper is:  Eric A. Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann, and Lei Zhang, “General Education, Vocational Education, and Labor Market Outcomes Over the Life-Cycle,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 17504, October, 2011.

[iv] Ernest T. Pascarella, Tricia A. Seifert, and Charles Blaich, “How Effective are the NSSE Benchmarks in Predicting Important Educational Outcomes?” Change,  January/February, 2010.

[v] NSSE, “Predicting Retention and Degree Progress.”  This report is part of NSSE’s Psychometric Portfolio, available on-line at:  http://nsse.iub.edu/pdf/psychometric_portfolio/Validity_RetentionAndDegreeProgress.pdf.  And see also my “There Has Never Been a Better Time to Compete Successfully Against the Publics,” last month’s paper in this series, and my “Worried?  I’m Terrified,” Inside Higher Ed, October 31, 2011.

[vi] Daniel F. Sullivan, “The Hidden Costs of Low Four-Year Graduation Rates,” Liberal Education (Association of American Colleges and Universities, Fall, 2010), 24-31.

2 thoughts on “Inauguration Keynote Address

  1. I much appreciaed Dr. Sullivan’s address, along with Prfesident Fong’s. Both speak to the plus sides of Liberal Arts, words that need to be spoken on behalf of the benefits of Liberfal Arts education and the institutions that foster such.
    I was struck by the comment from a graduate in 2006 because, I, too, have appreciated the high standards demanded by the faculty during my own four years at Ursinus. All too often in recent years I have heard students (from freshmen to Ph. D.) and teachers talk about the downsides of over-large assignments of reading. Somehow, such outlooks have seemed, to me, to dovetail with what genuine “education” is supposed to b e: developing expanding minds that will encompass a wide range of thought, long-standing and current. I often reflect on the differences between assignments given by professors at Ursinus and those often designed by faculty in many present-day situations–and am VERY glad that I “grew up educationally by means of the Ursinus methods.” Those have remained my own touchstones during a long career in higher education, and, I trust, my own students, from freshmen to Ph. D., have benefitted therefrom. What I received from Ursinus was indeed an education in “Humane Letters,” and I cherish that benefit. The inaugural addresses reminded me of many aspects of the rewards gained and carried with me for a LONG time.

  2. Dear Dr. Sullivan, April 26, 2012
    To a loyal member of the Ursinus College class of 1953,
    still serving as Representative for a class of less than 100,
    your keynote tribute at the Inauguration of our new President, Bobby Fong, stirred many memories and images from the 63 years of a proud association with my alma mater.
    THANK YOU!
    M a r n a F e l d t, 1953
    5-d Auburn Court, Red Bank, NJ 07701

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