Message from Carol Geary Schneider to the AAC&U Community

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Dear AAC&U Colleagues,

In July, AAC&U will welcome Lynn Pasquerella as our new president, and I will open the next chapter of my life and work. I’m writing now to say thank you for your constant support, to share my thoughts on where we are now in the campaign to reinvigorate liberal education and make excellence inclusive, and to let you know how to stay in touch. 

First, my deepest thanks. It has been an extraordinary privilege to serve since 1998 as your president. I will always be grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to learn from—and help illuminate—the dedication and inventiveness that characterize AAC&U member institutions across all sectors—public and private, two-year and four-year, broad-access and selective.   

What an incredible period of shared learning this has been! 

Trained as a historian interested in the intersections between ideas and institutional practices, I found myself (initially as an AAC&U vice president and then as AAC&U president) thrust into a veritable treasure trove of your ideas and your institutional initiatives—in general education, re-forming majors, diversity and global learning, STEM reform, civic learning and engagement, assessment, inclusive excellence, and above all, your efforts to help diverse and underserved students achieve a coherent and empowering education, whatever their majors and whatever their collegiate institutions. 

Probing the intentions behind these myriad curricular, cocurricular, and pedagogical innovations through “deep dives” with campus leaders, faculty, and research scholars, my staff colleagues and I came to see that the established college curriculum—“breadth” followed by “depth”—was in the midst of far-reaching and much-needed reformation.

Setting Greater Expectations, Making the LEAP to Inclusive Excellence

Inspiringly, AAC&U members have been—for the entirety of my term as your president—collectively reinventing the meaning, scope, design, and inclusiveness of a twenty-first-century liberal education. 

Moving inquiry learning to the center, you are seeking—we believe—to create a more intentional, integrative, and public-spirited version of college learning, one that prizes engagement with the challenges of the wider world. You are foregrounding hands-on learning and working to connect college learning with significant questions and real-world contexts.

And, in making these changes, you have enlarged the scope and ambition of the liberal education project—moving it from “exclusionary excellence” toward a new commitment to “inclusive excellence.”

I have worked hard with you, and on your behalf, to simultaneously illuminate, promote, and actually advance these new approaches to liberal education—approaches that include all college students, not just those attending residential institutions or those majoring in liberal arts and sciences disciplines.

For over two decades, my colleagues and I have asked with you: What are we trying to achieve? How do we help students actually acquire the most world-enhancing forms of liberal learning? What does the evidence tell us about “what works”? How can we use that evidence intelligently and responsibly?

The result of this search for new clarity has been LEAP: Liberal Education and America’s Promise. In dialogue with you, LEAP has provided a clear framework for what we actually mean by a high-quality liberal education and inclusive excellence. Keyed to a complex and interdependent world, that framework for inclusive excellence includes

  • a clear and compelling description of the big goals, or Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs), of a twenty-first-century liberal education—developed across, and essential to, both the liberal arts and sciences and career-related fields of study;
  • Principles of Excellence that can be used to guide educational practice across programs, institutions, and systems;
  • a strong and evidence-informed focus on high-impact practices (HIPs) that enable students to practice and demonstrate the intended forms of learning;
  • the LEAP Challenge “call” for all students to prepare for, and successfully create, cross-disciplinary Signature Work that is focused on questions that matter, to the students and to society, and that shows their achievement of liberal learning outcomes;
  • the VALUE strategy for assessment, which uses faculty-developed VALUE rubrics to probe students’ authentic work—e.g., projects, papers, e-portfolios—for evidence of their progress. 

I am proud of the work we have done to make excellence inclusive through LEAP. I’m equally proud of VALUE’s pioneering work to assess students’ learning through rubric-based review of their authentic work—writing, research, projects, and more. And I’m excited that LEAP’s influence has been amplified through AAC&U’s involvement in the development and road testing of the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). 

Together, we have created tools for reinvigorating college learning that simply did not exist even a decade ago. And you are using them—ELOs, HIPs, VALUE rubrics, the DQP, Guided Learning Pathways—to advance desperately needed educational change for today’s students. 

Closing the Deep Divide Between Aspiration and Achievement

Yet with all that said, I spent a good chunk of my life studying early modern Puritanism, an endeavor that produced, among other things, my own decidedly Puritan conscience. (Yes, it was in studying the Reformation that I first gained useful insights into reforming “college”—and also about how to proceed with integrity and creativity in a church or higher education system that has been only very partially reformed.)

With that Puritan conscience on full alert, I am acutely aware of the huge disconnect between our community’s aspiration to make excellence inclusive and the actual state of educational practice. 

US higher education has a very long way to go before we can say that all or most college students are really getting that combination of big-picture learning, depth in areas of interest, strong cross-cutting skills, examined commitments to self and others, and applied integrative learning that LEAP—channeling our members’ goals—has articulated.

So how do we close the gap between these shared aspirations for an empowering education and students’ actual learning experiences, which remain too often fragmented and superficial rather than integrated and deep? I will share my own thoughts on the work that lies ahead in the next issue of Liberal Education. 

But, in brief, it is clear that it will take an educational community—supported by a vigorous, smart, and creative AAC&U—to help overcome the reality that deep inequities stand in the way of underserved students’ successfully gaining access to the most empowering forms of college learning.

AAC&U can headline the grand direction for “making excellence inclusive,” but it is you, our colleagues, who necessarily do the hard work—across institutions and within programs—of recalibrating and strengthening day-to-day educational practices. And, to say the obvious, you are doing this against whip-strong headwinds, with policy poised to prefer and reward narrow college learning just when our nation is desperate for big-picture learning and new levels of trained intelligence and social imagination.

To my great pleasure, I know that my successor, Lynn Pasquerella, has already led the kind of educational reinvention at Mount Holyoke College that AAC&U both prizes and celebrates. Fresh from the front lines on connecting liberal arts education with students’ career hopes, she will bring her own creativity and dedication to her new leadership role. 

I warmly hope that AAC&U’s campaign—on campus and with our publics—to make liberal education inclusive rather than exclusive will not only gain ground during Lynn’s term, but actually win the day.

Nothing would make me happier than to see headlines across the land: “Liberal Education Now Recognized as Essential, Not Optional for Low-Income, First-Generation Students” and “Determined Leaders from All Higher Education Sectors Resolve to Make the LEAP to Quality Liberal Learning for All College Students, Across All Majors, with Underserved Students Now First in Line.” And while I am dreaming on Lynn’s behalf, how about this: “Policy Leaders Collectively Apologize to the Nation for Promoting Meager Curricula and Dismally Reductive Metrics in Their Efforts to ‘Rate’ College Quality.”

Are these just impossible dreams? Our best hope, I strongly suspect, is that determined leaders will resolve to “make the LEAP.” For over one hundred years, AAC&U has benefited from determined leaders. I know that tradition will continue!

Staying in Touch

And, as you go forward, I will be doing what I can to help—now from a new perch, as AAC&U president emerita and, after October 1, as a “fellow” with an organization also strongly committed to bringing quality and equity together. (We’ll write more about that next fall.)

In addition, I will have my own website:

The website will be a location for the writing, speaking, and advocacy I expect to do when I return from a three-month break as well as for many of my articles, presentations, and op-eds from my time as president of AAC&U.

I hope you will use the website to stay in touch. 

And I equally hope you will give our new president, Lynn Pasquerella, that same unstinting guidance and support you have so generously given me.

With affection and gratitude,

Carol Geary Schneider