As Ron Liebowitz enters the twilight of his presidency, we asked him to reflect on the new challenges that leaders in higher education can expect to face, while examining where these challenges came from and how they can be confronted.
What challenges will future leaders of colleges and universities face that presidents of the last decade either didn’t face or faced only in
At the risk of annoying a whole lot of people, I will start with the issues of cost and relevance. I tried out this issue as a topic of conversation with my faculty colleagues almost three years ago, and let’s just say it was not the most popular topic I ever introduced for collegial dialogue. And I can understand why. Yet it is something that the private institutions, especially, cannot afford to ignore, as the cost of such an education is now around $250,000 for the four-year BA degree.
This figure becomes even more astounding when one learns that the annual cost (room, board, and tuition) of around $60,000 represents only about 70 percent of the actual cost of that education per student. Annual gifts and earnings from the endowment provide what amounts to a hidden “scholarship” of more than $20,000 to even those who pay the full price.
This leads to the question of relevance, whether a degree today ensures what it did for earlier generations…
Right. Our current students are entering a world vastly different than the one their parents and grandparents encountered when they graduated from college. And people want to know: is a liberal arts degree worth worth the investment. And this holds true for everyone, even those most able to afford this high cost.
As taboo as it might be to say aloud, when one is paying a quarter of a million dollars for an education, one of the things one inevitably considers is whether such an investment is relevant to one’s son’s or daughter’s future—whether the four years will help them acquire the knowledge, character, habits of the mind, and skills necessary to compete in a world that is very different from just a generation ago. More and more parents are beginning to notice that the education that worked for them 25 or 30 years ago will not suffice for this generation.
Of course inside the academy and at Middlebury we all know the value of a liberal arts education: it is, in the long term, second to none in preparing young adults for a fulfilling and productive life. Yet, the many defenses of a liberal arts education that are offered up more and more frequently, while convincing to those already committed, are not fully understood by the uninitiated. Unfortunately, this group represents an overwhelming majority of families with soon-to-be college-bound children.
What, then, is the solution, or a solution, to this information or curricular gap?
Well, we need to continue to extol the virtues of having generations of liberally educated graduates while, at the same time, building on what a liberal arts education has traditionally offered students. That is, the 21st-century version of the liberal arts, different from the 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century versions, should evolve as its predecessors have done and include components that require students to experiment, conceive, design, build, and engage in uncertainty. It needs to provide the opportunity for students to take all they learn from studying across multiple disciplines and through different modes of inquiry and apply their learning to real-world challenges, questions, and numerous unknowns. Students need the opportunity to take risks, experience failure, and learn lessons from such failure without fear of a bad grade or having to wait until their first job or endeavor after graduation.
The combination of intense specialization and technological innovation, spread so easily and rapidly over the past decade as the result of globalization, requires the liberal arts to evolve and become more dynamic. It needn’t become diluted or beholden solely to the trendy or the here and now. Rather, it needs to equip its students not only with the timeless virtues of the liberal arts of the past but also with the tools, perspectives, and experience necessary to adapt to our rapidly changing and competitive world.
The two Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competitions, the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) summer program, the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, MiddCORE, Middlebury FoodWorks, our faculty-student summer research program, and the annual Spring Student Symposium are all examples of programs that can define, complement, and transform a traditional liberal arts education. These programs provide opportunities for students to follow up their course work with experimentation, design work, problem solving, collaboration, and the experience of creating something new, or at least the setting out to do so. Failure is a common and inevitable part of each program. What one learns in the process is invaluable: students graduate possessing a combined breadth of knowledge and set of skills that are today so necessary to succeed in a highly competitive and increasingly specialized world.
And so why is this so different now from what presidents faced 10, 20, and 30 years ago?
As I mentioned previously, the world has changed dramatically since many of the faculty and the parents of our current students were themselves in college, and the rapid pace of change challenges our education systems, from kindergarten through higher education. It has become harder and harder to keep up and evolve with the times and what they demand from our graduates. It remains to be seen if colleges and universities, let alone K–12 schools, can blend the best of what I would call traditional pedagogies with what might be called new pedagogies that recognize the ways current and future generations of students will learn. We already see a large proportion of students shying away from text-based materials and gravitating almost naturally to digitized content. The attention span of the current generation of students is far shorter than it was 20 years ago, which translates for many into an inability to sit for 50 minutes and enjoy, let alone learn from, a lecture without texting or checking Facebook. Yet this should come as no surprise. At the same time, an expectation that faculty can and will adjust to these changes and do so seamlessly, while pursuing their research and professional obligations, is optimistic, at least in many of our disciplines.
Robust and generous faculty-development programs are essential if higher education as we know it is to thrive in this century. And a willingness on the part of faculty to engage in such professional development is equally—and perhaps more—essential.
While our faculty are incredibly committed to and excel at the human-intensive pedagogy that sits at the core of a residential liberal arts college education, the incentive for faculty to build upon that pedagogy and amend the curriculum accordingly to meet the needs of students is not quite apparent, or at least not obviously so. And therein lies the challenge for current and future presidents of colleges and universities: to articulate creatively a vision for the liberal arts and higher education that is both timeless and time sensitive, and that recognizes how what was valuable in the past can serve as the foundation for the future. It must be a vision that motivates and inspires faculty, and one whose new pedagogies must be based on a deep understanding of one’s students, align with how those students learn, and allow for the kind of dynamism in both the pedagogy and curriculum essential for the 21st century.