Diversity and Democracy

Presidential Leadership for Community-Engaged Signature Work

How are college and university presidents and other senior leaders addressing the challenge of rethinking liberal education for today’s world? How are they mobilizing their institutions to adapt and advance that vision? I recently asked these questions of five college presidents and a senior academic officer who are leading their institutions in ways that might suggest roadmaps for others as they work to integrate community-engaged learning across their own institutions.

The leaders I interviewed all work at small liberal arts–focused institutions: four private colleges with full-time undergraduate enrollments between 950 and 2,300 students, and two public institutions with full-time undergraduate enrollments between 4,450 and 6,650 students. While each institution is distinctive within its own context, all share common themes in their work and have similar approaches to framing, planning, and more fully incorporating community-based learning and civic engagement in their educational programs.

Rethinking Liberal Education Today

My initial interest was in how the leaders I interviewed frame the strategic opportunity to rethink teaching and learning within the contemporary context. While the details of their approaches differed, these leaders were generally in agreement with the “growing consensus that Liberal Education 2.0 needs to respond to the world that students are going to graduate into,” as Nancy Budwig, associate provost of Clark University, put it.

Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, presented the challenge as incremental and cumulative, asking how “we create another layer of curriculum that overlays the traditional liberal arts curriculum, which is the foundation,” resulting in a multifaceted approach “that prepares students to move into the real world. The problem-based curriculum is a more accurate representation of the world they will face.”

Richard Guarasci, president of Wagner College, believes that linking students’ educational experiences to issues of public importance will animate the curriculum while also preparing students to take their place in the world beyond the institution. He indicated that Wagner has “a community-defined curriculum, organized around a notion that the university and what we study are defined by the world around us.” He said, “If you come to Wagner College, our goal … is that you become a civic professional. You [will] learn at Wagner to serve the public through … your vocation,” whatever it happens to be.

Like most presidents of small colleges, Jake Schrum of Emory & Henry College has accepted the charge to increase his institution’s enrollment and endowment. When he arrived at the college three years ago and began searching for foundations upon which to build in pursuing these goals, others on campus pointed him repeatedly to the work of the college’s Appalachian Center for Civic Life and of Emory & Henry’s honors students and Bonner Scholars, who were already finding ways to connect and make sense of the subject matter in their majors through internships and community-engagement experiences. In this work, Schrum saw an approach that, when applied across the college, would represent “what the ampersand in Emory & Henry is all about…. freedom and civic responsibility (from Patrick Henry) linked to faith and learning (from Bishop John Emory).”

Elsa Núñez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University, also saw a vision for the university’s future within the concept of applied learning: “Strategically, we … had a niche as Connecticut’s only liberal arts public college. Ninety percent of our students are state residents, and 50 percent are the first in their families to go to college. Everybody who graduates has to have a good shot at graduate school or a job.” After asking “what kinds of experiences … these students need to have,” Eastern “defined [the sum of those experiences] precisely as a first-class liberal arts education that is practically applied through undergraduate research with faculty, service learning, internships, and community service.”

At The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), president R. Barbara Gitenstein draws inspiration from the school’s founding as the New Jersey State Normal School in 1855, concurrent with “an avant-garde teacher education movement whose impetus was owing something to your community.” The public purpose of a TCNJ education appears clearly in the school’s mission statement, which reads in part, “Grounded in the liberal arts, TCNJ’s personalized, collaborative, and rigorous education engages students at the highest level within and beyond the classroom” (TCNJ 2016). Indeed, each leader pointed to ways in which opportunities for real-world connections with the community were shaping his or her visions and strategies.

Collaborative, Visionary Leadership

At the center of each leader’s agenda was the goal of strengthening the links between students’ liberal education and each institution’s longstanding commitment to community and civic engagement. I asked these leaders how they translated their analyses of the education students need in preparation for the world that awaits them into their most recent strategic planning processes. Each emphasized the vital importance of promoting his or her own vision for the future while at the same time giving faculty a central role in developing the plans that would achieve that vision.

President Núñez explained, “My leadership has focused on the core values of the institution. The faculty came to the school for a reason. They wanted to educate students from modest or working-class backgrounds. So when I began to talk [about] being an elite institution without being elitist, those words began to capture the imagination of the faculty…. Sharing my values allowed them to understand me better. That opened up the conversation, so we’re all working for the same thing. Persuasion is all I have.”

President Rosenberg agreed, stating that “the role of the president in leading these processes is providing big-vision leadership and listening to others and adapting the vision to incorporate their ideas. We had a committee of twenty faculty, staff, and students. My role was to draft the initial skeleton of the plan and then the committee went through topic by topic. Some things were refined and other topics, such as urban sustainability, emerged.”

During Emory & Henry’s strategic planning process, President Schrum focused on the ampersand in the college’s name. To him, it represented the project-based approach he wanted to feature in the school’s strategic plan, linking theory with practice, academics with engagement. However, rather than require project-based learning in the curriculum, Schrum has “tried to … quietly … push the idea from the back.” In spring 2016, the college “organized the first Project Ampersand Day … where students had the chance to hear about the projects of other students. From there, [project-based learning] is going viral.”

Faculty were given major roles on strategic planning committees at each institution. In some cases, faculty also took on prominent leadership roles, while in others they co-led the central strategic planning committee alongside the president or provost. President Gitenstein took the additional step of including the college’s Board of Trustees in the process, which “ended up being fantastic. The board enriched the plan by making sure they situated [it in relation to] the history of the college so everyone had a sense of the trajectory moving forward while keeping in mind continuity with the past.”

Each leader, regardless of his or her formal role in the strategic planning process, said that providing encouragement and leadership opportunities was not enough to promote institutional change. They also had to provide resources, such as opportunities to learn from those engaged in similar work on other campuses. For example, President Guarasci offered funding to support faculty attendance at national meetings and to bring to campus speakers who were using the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) framework and high-impact practices advocated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), as well as additional support from Wagner’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research. President Rosenberg created $2,500 faculty incentive grants using his discretionary fund and put faculty in charge of determining who received these awards. Thanks to these efforts, the number of courses with a community-engagement focus rose from twelve to seventy.

At Clark University, Nancy Budwig has offered support for faculty and staff who are responding to the new institution-wide requirement that all students, beginning with those in this year’s incoming class, will have to complete a capstone before graduation. While Clark is beginning from a position of strength—90 percent of seniors report engaging in at least two high-impact practices, and 90 percent complete traditional capstones in their majors—“we are seeking to bring faculty and staff who provide these two kinds of experiences together in ‘exemplar groups’ to work on questions of how to build the infrastructure and more tightly link capstone seminars to signature work and student learning outcomes as we work to achieve the new requirement.” Budwig notes that Clark is seeking to promote “a mindset change: how can we get faculty and staff to see the synergy of capstones, community engagement, and high-impact practices as we work towards integrated liberal learning?”

Experimenting with New Pathways

The direction that arose out of each institution’s strategic plan speaks directly to the aspiration articulated through AAC&U’s LEAP Challenge: that every student will participate in a capstone or signature integrative learning experience before graduation. The idea that college should prepare students for active roles in the real world appears within these institutions’ strategic plans in clear and compelling language that supports, in particular, community-engaged capstones or signature work.

President Guarasci commented that “the faculty came to the conclusion during their two-year strategic planning process that students have to own their own work.” Wagner’s next immediate step is a revision of its general education requirements to prioritize this kind of ownership while further deepening the institution’s partnership with the Port Richmond neighborhood through sustained, multiyear projects connected to academic departments. Among the infrastructure supporting such long-term commitments is a four-year scholarship for local students who will become Bonner Leaders.

At Macalester College, the strategic plan points toward community-engaged signature work with two goals in particular, stating that Macalester will “become a leader in the offering of what might be called issue- or problem-focused academic programs, similar in nature to some of the concentrations that have been created during the past decade” and that it will “strengthen the connections between a liberal arts education and vocation by making more obvious and accessible the paths from the student experience at Macalester to eventual careers” (Macalester College 2015). Through the creative energy of faculty and in response to the overwhelming interest of students, Macalester has created a number of problem- or issue-based concentrations, including community and global health (the most popular, with more than seventy students) and food justice. Such efforts represent intentional developmental pathways through undergraduate education that may culminate in community-engaged signature work.

One strategic priority at TCNJ calls for every student to participate in five signature experiences: Personalized, Collaborative, and Rigorous Education; Undergraduate Research, Mentored Internships, and Field Experiences; Community-Engaged Learning; Global Engagement; and Leadership Development. President Gitenstein noted that “we’re doing well meeting our enrollment and retention goals, which suggests that what we’re offering is what [students] want. The [signature experience] programs are attracting students who wouldn’t have come [to TCNJ] in the past, and [these students] are getting jobs when they graduate.” TCNJ’s Center for Community Engaged Learning and Research, the administrative home for the college’s community engagement activities and Bonner Program, matches student learning goals with community partner goals.

At Eastern Connecticut State University, one objective of the strategic plan directs attention to three specific community issues: early childhood social and cognitive development programs, coordinated engagement programs for Windham Public School students, and health and wellness programs for Windham Public School students and their families. This objective states that “Eastern students will develop leadership and civic engagement values and skills through an integrative learning approach that allows students to make connections between learning in the traditional classroom and applied experiences on and beyond campus. These experiences will transform Eastern students as they transform their communities” (ECSU 2013, 10). President Núñez explained, “It is very important to get students to do multiple experiences and help them find the core of their passion. Our Center for Community Engagement is able to help move students around to agencies that match their passion, and career services works on advising. We then look at the service-learning courses aligned to their interest…. The challenge now is to get faculty to offer courses that are sequential.” Eastern’s psychology department is pioneering such a model, in which students engage in service-learning projects that align with the curriculum and lead to a culminating capstone.

From Majors to Projects

The leaders I interviewed seemed pleased about the visions that had taken form in their institutions’ strategic plans, about the encouraging signs of faculty buy-in, and about students’ responses to their work. And yet, all acknowledged that their institutions are still in the early stages of building four-year pathways for integrated community-engaged learning that are clear and navigable for all students. The ultimate goal for many institutions may be suggested in the words of President Schrum, who says of Emory & Henry College, “[Now] when I see students on campus, I ask them not about their major, but [about] what project [they] are working on."


ECSU (Eastern Connecticut State University). 2013. Strategic Plan 2013. http://www.easternct.edu/president/files/2014/07/StratPlan6-3-2013.pdf.

Macalester College. 2015. “Strategic Plan.” http://www.macalester.edu/president/strategicplan2014/.

TCNJ (The College of New Jersey). “TCNJ 2021: Bolder, Better, Brighter.” https://academicaffairs.tcnj.edu/strategic-plan-2021/.

Robert Hackett is president of the Bonner Foundation.

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