It should come as no surprise that when nearly 2,000 people in the business of professional intellectualism get together for a few days, they do a lot of deep thinking about their place in the world.
At this year's annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), much of that thinking had a dark tint to it, even if the conclusions were optimistic. Speakers in panel after panel resoundingly confirmed their work's value to the world — that work being providing a liberal education.
At the conference, titled perhaps defiantly, "Reclaiming the Narrative on the Value of Higher Education," the question up for debate was whether the world at-large saw value in a liberal education, and if not, what could be done to shift their thinking.
Answers ranged from taking the world "liberal" out of the term to changing what is taught, and how, in order to meet student needs. Common threads observed by Education Dive show an industry that is beginning to realize it needs to take on its critics more directly.
At the conference's opening plenary, AAC&U President Lynn Pasquerella invoked the "post-truth" era in which higher ed operates today, as well as a focus on ROI that reduces college to an exchange of tuition for employment.
She also referenced increasingly negative public attitudes toward higher education and their degradation over time, especially among Republicans. In addressing those attitudes and engaging the public, "words matter," Pasquerella said.
To Brandon Busteed, president of Kaplan University Partners, the words college leaders use to talk about what they do need to change. Specifically, Busteed, also speaking at the plenary, said it is time to drop the "liberal arts" label as a matter of branding.
"If you took the best marketing minds in the world, locked them in a room and said, ‘Please emerge with the worst possible words to use to attract students to higher education,'" they would come back with the term liberal arts, he said.
Busteed broke the term's meaning down. To the extent that people understand the possible definitions of the words themselves, they defer to their general use, he said, citing a survey of students' parents. That means "liberal," like it or not, has a contemporary political connotation that affects how people perceive its meaning. Many people also tie the term "arts" to the visual and other fine arts, he said, although liberal arts disciplines thread through science, business and other fields of study.
"We know we have a problem with the term (liberal arts). The problem is in our own communities. We've spent so much time defending the term that we're not talking about we're doing."
Vice president for communications, Brown University
Not everyone agrees that higher ed should rebrand its offerings as something other than "liberal." Cass Cliatt, vice president for communications at Brown University, said in a separate panel that she heard from one dean who "took exception" to calling the liberal arts anything other than that and would therefore hold on with her "bare knuckles" to the term.
In Cliatt's view, however, trying to educate the public on what the term "liberal" means in the context of higher ed could be a wasted effort. "We know we have a problem with the term. The problem is in our own communities," she said. "We've spent so much time defending the term that we're not talking about we're doing."
To her, more important than terminology is showing people the positive outcomes of students receiving a liberal education.
Mission is critical
Speakers also took a hard look at the essential functions of colleges and universities and what they mean in a contemporary context. Frederick Lawrence, CEO of Phi Beta Kappa, addressed the essential nature of the university, and who, if anybody, owns it.
He noted the college structure is not unlike that of a corporation, with a board that has a fiduciary responsibility and managers and staff that operate it. But there is no question who owns a corporation and who it is responsible to — the shareholders, in both cases — Lawrence said. That question is much harder to answer for universities.
To do so, he referenced an 1819 Supreme Court ruling in a case involving Dartmouth University, in which Chief Justice John Marshall, in determining who exactly had standing in the case, described the university as an "artificial, immortal being." If such a thing can have an earthly form, the closest thing to Lawrence's mind was a university's mission, which boils down to the production of knowledge.
Defending that mission today means advocating for academic freedom and free inquiry, as well as for the liberal arts and sciences as a public good.
Structural change requires 'champions'
Julia Chinyere Oparah, provost and dean of faculty at Mills College, said during a session that reorienting faculty and staff around a shared mission was key to making often painful adjustments as the college worked to close a $9 million budget deficit.
The college made several changes. It reduced tuition by 36%, streamlined its curriculum and revised about two-thirds of its programs to make them more accessible to transfer students and reduce the number of under-enrolled classes. It also reorganized its academic structure, reinvested in areas of student need and forged partnerships with nearby colleges. Doing all of that took a massive cultural shift within the institution and required new thinking about its mission of educating students in the 21st century.
Tammeil Gilkerson, president of Laney College, which is part of California's Peralta Community College District, acknowledged the difficulties in corralling multiple institutions around a change-making enterprise. She referred to the Peralta district's partnership with Mills to develop a joint admissions pathway for students. It was accomplished, but it "needed champions," she said.
At another panel, administrators discussed how a shared leadership model can help institutions tackle problems that affect several divisions by identifying an issue and distributing the responsibility and power to solve it across them.
Cynthia Bauerle, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at James Madison University, said the model has been shown to make people feel better about their work and help organizations perform better financially and operationally.
Higher ed is nervous about Trumpism
The president's name wasn't spoken often, but it doesn't take a doctorate in rhetoric to read the subtext of phrases like "our current moment" in a conference replete with references to trolls, post-truth, anti-intellectualism, illiberalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and other motifs associated with the movement President Donald Trump has come to represent.
That uneasiness, expressed both overtly and subtly throughout the conference, ran much deeper than the political leanings of college leaders. It cut to the sector's most deeply held values, even its reason for existence.
Pasquerella spoke of higher ed's historical mission of "educating for democracy" and its conflict with what many see as the post-truth era, defined by a widespread skepticism or even denial of authoritative data and disdain for experts. Other panels dealt with how to approach global education amid calls for "America First" foreign policy, and how to address campus conflicts over controversial speakers in light of several contentious campus visits from right-wing provocateurs.
There were also generous helpings of a much older anxiety, that of higher education being limited to professional training. Even here, though, the president came up. At the opening plenary, Pasquerella referenced Trump's comments early last year that "vocational" school was a better term than community college. "A lot of people don't know what a community college means or represents," Trump said.
Discussing those comments, Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, told a story of nurses from different backgrounds encountering a cadaver for the first time in their training and coming to the experience with their own cultural ideas of death, which might also diverge from those of a patient's family. Sensitive situations like those are "why we train nurses in liberal education," Patel said.