Inauguration Lecture

Nancy J. Cable, Ph.D."The Liberal Arts College: An Enduring Future"
Nancy J. Cable, Ph.D.
President, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
April 4, 2014

President Trachte, Chairman Lynn, Lycoming faculty colleagues, students, alumni and trustees, I am deeply honored to be with you this evening as you celebrate with joy the intersection of your past and your future as the Lycoming College family. It is a special joy to salute your choice of Dr. Trachte as your new president -- for he is a man of intelligence, dedication to liberal arts colleges, and he brings a deep abiding commitment to his leadership in higher education. I suspect you will be highly engaged with him, and well-led through the exciting years ahead of you as a college community.

It has been my privilege for the last 40 years to work in college and universities that actively cherish this notion of the liberal arts and sciences, the robust nature of the residential experience, and place a high value of faculty who dedicate their lives to a sort of sparkly brew of good teaching, disciplined research and care for students as learners and as persons. I learned about the fullness of a residential community by living in the residence halls in my first job as assistant dean and junior faculty member at Denison University and I grasped the joy of teaching and advising while a faculty member at Denison and University of Virginia. I was charged to lead student life matters, athletics and enrollment at a small Quaker college called Guilford and cut my teeth as a young Vice President interacting with the board and the faculty and my years as dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson allowed me a chance to serve as one among many national advocates for access and affordability for all and for racial, cultural and ethnic diversity as a fundamental aspect of our mission to educate the next generation of global leaders. Somehow, I had the lucky privilege of serving Bates College as its interim president, and together all these experiences shaped my view of what “makes” a liberal arts and sciences college special, distinctive in the world, and enduring as one of the treasured institutions in the world.

If President Trachte had asked me to give my remarks to you tonight in one sentence, I would have said the following: “Liberal arts colleges have a strong and enduring future because they have endured through the last nearly 300 years because their mission, purposes, vitality, and results are -- and have been for centuries -- so essential to crafting educated leaders to create the American and now global common good.”

Let’s take a moment to look backward in time. A mere 16 years after The Puritans landed at Plymouth, Harvard University was founded to educate young men (and at that time only the privileged white young men) in the original liberal arts and sciences; known then as the trivium (Latin, Greek, moral philosophy) and the quadrivium (astronomy, the natural world, chemistry, and rhetoric). Those courses, once completed, were the mark of an educated man.

Note the balance in the odd array of these courses ... some science (laboratory method would come later), some languages, and the philosophy, ethics and religion as the basis of a person’s understanding of the world. These courses then reflect what our courses now still wish to accomplish: a road map for an individual to understand their own intellect and values and to use that “education” to simultaneously create with others the common good for all of humankind. Some have called this the roots and wings of higher education’s purpose in the world order.

Roughly 100 years after Harvard’s founding (and Dartmouth and UPenn) there was an agrarian flourishing of American life, nearly every town in New England, the middle states, and the middle west crafted an academy much like Lycoming’s early shape as an academy and a seminary. Long ago I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a history of liberal arts colleges (notably, Marietta, Kenyon, Denison and Oberlin) that were the first four colleges in the whole Northwest Territory that stretched from the banks of the Ohio out beyond Wisconsin and southward to Missouri. Shortly after this flowering of colleges in the late 19th century, new forms of college and universities were founded - state universities, agricultural and mechanical colleges known for a long time as land grant institutions to serve the farming and early industrial sectors of cities and states. Historically black colleges and universities were organized to support the education of African American citizens in many towns and cities around the nation and later in the 1950s community colleges were born to meet the local needs of local citizens for local industries.

Throughout the adoption of these new forms of post-secondary education throughout the decades, the original liberal arts college has been a centerpiece of both stability and innovation. Take the 1880s when post-civil war society was spawning new industries, science was emerging as vital academic area, faculty members were called upon to have completed the German based Ph.D. degree that demonstrated deep intellectual and original work to create new knowledge, not simply convey existing knowledge. The colleges like Lycoming and Dartmouth and Davidson and Grinnell were rocked with dissension among faculty and president about whether this new-fangled notion of teaching science in a laboratory was really going to “take hold” and endure or not. History of our kind of colleges at that time is replete with vociferous debates about curriculum and pedagogy, often bringing colleges close to the point of closing their doors. Kenyon College in 1893 nearly went out of business as it was pressed by the Episcopal Church NOT to adopt any of these “misguided and pedestrian” ways of teaching.

Sound familiar? I would suggest to you that in the face of these historic debates about the future, over 100 years ago that colleges like Lycoming demonstrated resiliency, vitality, careful attention to threading the needle of continuity and change, and a loyal adherence to the central importance of the life of the mind and cultivation of character ... It is this that Lycoming is still doing so well... as are many colleges like you.

And more recent history, let’s select the 1960s and 70s, suggests that other challenges have pressed the colleges especially the private liberal arts colleges and universities. In those years, there was a clarion call for a broader definition of our mission to educate leaders for the common good. Students, in the room tonight are many of your dedicated board of trustee members, who work VERY hard to sustain and strengthen this great college. I noted on your web that many are alumni of the college, most from the 1970s when I would suggest our kinds of college faced again an unusually fierce question about our mission, purpose and curriculum. Fundamentally, in the 60s and 70s as US demographics and civil rights legislation brought issues of inequality into bolder relief, our colleges were found to be falling far short of the imperative educate a diverse student body, rich with a variety of perspectives and a tapestry of life experience. We had for too long been inattentive to diversity among students, and faculty, including the leadership of our colleges. Society puts us under the spotlight and asked us to do better. The pressures were great and attitudes needed to be changed, money made available for more aid in shaping each first year class and hiring our most able faculties. It did not happen quickly, but now—by almost every measure you can imagine -- liberal arts colleges are the leaders in blending high academic standards, attention to diverse racial, ethnic, cultural and religious background in our mission to educate future leaders, and in our ability to open our doors to a wider spectrum of students, but most importantly, of all the types of higher education liberal arts residential colleges according to the Lumina Foundation, are graduating the highest percentage of those who start and are the most generous with financial aid and lowest debt levels. We were pushed, we pushed each other at our colleges and we emerged with excellence, innovation and a deeper sense of abiding principles.

I can admit my bias for liberal arts and sciences colleges and an almost obstreperous defense of what we provide for this democracy and for this brave new world in which we find ourselves. I would suggest our kinds of colleges are the heartbeat of American higher education and the envy of the world.

Why? Well at the time of a change in leadership, especially with the arrival of your new president here at Lycoming, it is particularly apt for colleges to ask and answer that question.

Rebecca Chopp gives us several possible answers to this question. She is the distinguished president of Swarthmore College and has recently published (with a number of thought leaders in higher education) a small but mighty volume on “Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal Arts.” In it, she outlines masterfully four areas that literally make our kinds of colleges, with their residential programs, high academic standards, close faculty and student relationships, dedicated teaching mixed rigorous research for traditional age students, truly exceptional:

  1. The core focus of all we do is to develop critical thinking skills and the intersection of traditional disciplines and innovative, personalized teaching.
  2. We value in class (on the field, in the performing arts hall and in our residence halls) thoughtful and informed expression and debate (okay, even vehement disagreement) sometimes ... but civil expression and discourse is valued.
  3. We care -- and work on -- and think about-- and address -- the moral dimensions of our students’ lives and the development of personal character and responsibility in our events, classes, curriculum, out of class life, and in how we serve the world in our locale and greater globe.
  4. We actually use the knowledge we teach, learn and the new knowledge we craft to improve the world and its peoples, and processes.

All institutions do some of each of these things. Some do one or two of these things well and others do none of them well. The for-profit sector in higher education cares little about doing any of the four.

I would suggest and pardon my bias, that the liberal arts and sciences residential undergraduate colleges and universities like Lycoming College do it best of all!

To quote Thomas Jefferson (whose concept of the academical village has survived as a model for our work in liberal arts college) in 1823 when he opened the University of Virginia, “I look to the diffusion of light and education as a resource to be relied upon for ameliorating the conditions (problems of the times), for promoting the virtues, and advancing the happiness of man.”

But the historic sturdiness of private residential college must once again weather the new head winds of change. Let’s face into these breezes for just a minute - wince there are really pressing issues of concern and complaint surrounding us.

First economic pressures ... Costs of what we do have risen on average 280% in the last 20 years (it is cool comfort by the way that public institution costs gone up over 350% over the same two decades). It costs a lot to do what we do and we know it. This is driven by three key variables in play that all of us who care about this sector of higher education should know about and be able to interpret. Interestingly a study by a W and M professor Richard Feldman and his colleague pointed out that two other services have prices have paralleled the increase in private higher education (Harvard, Lycoming and others ... ) First is the cost of dentistry. If we think about it, it makes sense. Highly skilled labor requiring more and more training working with the individual patient ... a process that does not have the opportunity for the corporate efficiencies gained in business over the last 20 years. Expensive equipment, highly educated and trained persons working nearly one on one to get the job done ... not to mention the raft of legislative requirement and mandates that are expensive – that’s your dentist!

In higher ed, we are labor intensive too, with new tech to keep up with and plenty of federal and state legislation to drive some measure of our costs.

The current disparities in wealth and income in the US (Obama) are creating new versions of old critique: that we are too expensive and can’t guarantee a high paying job. But all of us know that eventually our graduates with some exceptions find their way to leadership roles in big and small ways in professional and in their avocational lives.

Second, and as a sector we are best at this: we provide financial aid to students (both need and merit) to create an educationally sound socioeconomically diverse student body ... represents a hallmark of the transfer of wealth and opportunity across socioeconomic classes in this country. We are intentionally and expensively educating diverse students together as a key pillar in our mission and the results include graduates who are more adept and educated in civil discourse, collaboration, seeking to understand differing points of view ... these are essential global needs for our world and to solve the pressing problems of humankind. Some have suggested that this use of financial aid to provide access and affordability is one of the largest and most successful social redistribution of wealth and opportunity in the world.

Third, technology is challenging our way of pricing close faculty student learning and collaboration. Not unlike the invasion of the laboratory method and the idea if class discussion versus rote recitation that our colleges found disruptive to the status quo, we are once again being asked to stay grounded in academic quality and the life of the mind, while adopting innovative new pedagogy and technological tools. It is rocking our world and our budgets, but we must find a way to harness the threads that use technology to extend and revitalize what we can teach and learn.

Fourth, the ever present burr under our saddle of demographic changes are pointing the way toward major changes in who will come to our colleges and how we can continue to excel in our work by serving students and parents who are even more diverse than the ones we are serving now. By 2050, the Hispanic and Asian populations of college going age will have doubled. All of our efforts to attend to diversity of cultures on our campuses will then (or before then) become a strategic necessity. We must be ready. And the Northeast states will continue to decline in overall population and still become more diverse so we have an opportunity to begin now to build toward that eventual reality.

Finally, public skepticism about what we do and why we do it is stronger than we would think is fair or merited. Questions about costs, athletic programs, student debt, ethical inquires among other questions, nip at our heels in ways we want to ignore. David Scoby, president of New College, noted recently about private higher education that “The crisis of legitimacy has fueled an atmosphere of distrust and created skepticism about the public (and the individuals)’s social and familial investment in higher education.”

But let’s be careful in any assumption that “everyone” thinks the same way. The data suggest other ways of seeing this rampant public skepticism. For the second year in a row, applications to private liberal arts colleges have increased and the percent of those applying to college who apply only to liberal arts colleges has increased annually since 2010 and several colleges -- seemingly visionary now -- that had moved to test optional are seeing overwhelmingly large student applicants. In addition, data shows that while state universities get plenty of applications from international students, especially from Asia and the Baltic states of Europe, the vast majority of international applicants have 2 or more private residential colleges on the app list. Further, I learned from several professional trips to China Thailand, and Singapore, that college counselors in those areas frequently put the Ivies on a student’s list, but now more frequently are suggesting the Bates, Davidson, Colgate’s, Lycoming’s and Pomona’s of the world as “high value” options, where early academic success, personal attention from faculty, and exceptional grad school and professional school admission rates are compellingly strong.

So, how we can thrive as these headwinds blow seemingly against us? Well a variety of my colleagues in higher education have some ideas to consider:

Bill Bowen, Denison University grad and former president of Princeton, suggests that first among these ideas should be an intentional focused effort to “make hiring and retaining ‘exceptional’ faculty among the highest priorities of the college.” Find and keep productive, hardworking superb teachers who are student centered, research active and globally aware. They truly are the heartbeat of the institution.

Second, Rebecca Chopp urges us to “craft and sustain a comprehensive well-aligned learning environment that blends and builds upon the diverse, vibrant, easy and hard learning that happens in every nook and cranny of the campus -- residence halls, field and courts, classrooms, labs, fitness facilities and student coffee houses.” Your new president is a nationally recognized leader in this. The creative work he did over many years at F and M has borne fruit in ways that were so strong and scalable that some other colleges have followed suit.

Third, let’s stay committed to doing less better. Gone are the days when we provide something for everyone ... those days were created by the huge funding of the GI Bill post WWII, ended sometime in the 70s but those funds are gone and NOW and we must keep right sizing our programs, only doing that which is rich intellectual work and tied to our mission to support student intellectual and character development. Don’t shoot the messenger, on this one, but adding a new program should bring the discipline of laying another program down just as we have all had to do with our own family budgets. Even Harvard is doing this, despite its wealth and resources.

There’s another perhaps more subtle benefit to this ... we might regain time for reflection again, Rosovsky the great academic affairs dean at Harvard lamented the lost art of reflection in the academic world nearly 30 years ago, perhaps doing less better allows us to step away from the often Frantic nature of our lives.

Finally, sustain a principled community that prizes the spirit of open debate, fair-minded disagreement where the ability to compromise (frankly a vital skill I would like to think we teach our students) prevails as the norm for the common good.

So who calls upon us to abide these possible changes in the midst of current headwinds? Really now ... who cares that we thrive? Who deserves our best effort to sustain academic quality, teach well, for students to make the extra effort to take advantage of this great college, to lead the college with care and humility, and to ensure that our work at this very special college of the liberal arts and sciences?

Whatever our current role at the college, here are mention of a few of our stakeholders: current students, prospective students, faculty and faculty of the future, alumni who are walking/ talking examples of what a Lycoming education stands for, parents who pay, and parents whose future will be brighter because of generous financial aid, your Williamsport local community, public policy people who work hard on behalf of our kinds of colleges, and of course, the world. In fact, perhaps we can consider that our sector of American higher education owes the world our very best effort, results, and vision.

Walter Cronon wrote a compelling essay relevant to this moment in the college’s history; it is entitled “Qualities of the Liberally Educated Person.” He writes, “One of the most important things that tempers the exercise of power and shapes right actions surely the recognition that no one ever acts alone. A liberally educated person understands that they belong to a community whose prosperity and well-being are crucial to their own and they help that community flourish of themselves to make the success of others possible.”

So, at this historic moment of celebration, stand tall upon your rich history of academic quality, innovation, and deep sense of community. Also stand steadfastly open to the power of your future. Congratulations President Trachte and very best wishes to all of you!

Thank you.