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Looking Back at One Hundred Years of the Association of American Colleges and Universities: An Interview with Presidents John W. Chandler, Paula P. Brownlee, and Carol Geary Schneider
Editor's note: John W. Chandler was president of the association from 1985 to 1990, Paula P. Brownlee was president from 1990 to 1998, and Carol Geary Schneider has been president since 1998. This interview took place via email in the late summer and early fall of 2014. It was conducted by David Tritelli, editor of Liberal Education.
David Tritelli: When the Association of American Colleges (AAC) was founded in 1915, membership was limited to independent liberal arts colleges and colleges of liberal arts within universities. The total membership was 179. One hundred years later, membership has been expanded to include colleges and universities of all types and sizes—small and large, two-year and four-year, public and private, nonprofit and for-profit, "bricks-and-mortar" and online. In 1995, the name of the association was changed to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) in order to better reflect the full diversity of member institutions. Today, the total membership is 1,336—an increase of almost 650 percent over the century.
How have the addition of so many new members over time and the inclusion of new types of institutions changed the purpose and focus of the association? Have these developments simply expanded the reach of the association, or have they also resulted in a significant shift in direction away from the animating purposes of the founders?
John W. Chandler: The founding of AAC&U a century ago came in the wake of profound changes in the landscape of American higher education. After the achievement of national independence, the dominance of the Oxbridge model that began with the founding of Harvard in 1636 came under challenge, perhaps most forcefully by Thomas Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia. That challenge gathered powerful momentum in the latter half of the nineteenth century with such developments as the German research-based universities and their large influence in the United States, and by the land-grant university system that emphasized applied research and training in such practical fields as agriculture, engineering, and manufacturing.
This was also an era that produced a class of enormously wealthy industrialists, many of whom applied their wealth to the founding and support of institutions of higher learning. Prominent among this group were Johns Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Mellon. Not surprisingly, the leadership style of the bold industrial entrepreneurs helped give rise to powerful presidents of colleges and universities. One thinks of Charles Eliot, president of Harvard (1869–1901), who transformed a provincial New England college into a world-class university; William Rainey Harper, the founding president of the University of Chicago (1891–1901), whose large ambitions and dreams were realized through John D. Rockefeller's massive gifts; Coit Gilman, founding president of Johns Hopkins (1875–1901), who created a university with the central mission of creating new intellectual capital produced through investigative research; Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia (1902–1945), who brought unprecedented attention and wealth to his institution through his participation and connections in the most powerful political, cultural, and financial circles; and William Jewett Tucker, president of Dartmouth (1893–1909), whose leadership of a tiny (just three hundred students) New England college brought it into the front ranks of universities with doctoral programs and a panoply of professional schools.
It is not surprising that in such an environment some impatient and ambitious presidents were given to removing obstacles by autocratic means. Nicholas Murray Butler was notorious for firing faculty members with whom he disagreed. Thus, it is not surprising that the American Association of University Professors, higher education's advocate for academic freedom and due process that protects against arbitrary and autocratic personnel decisions, was founded in 1915 and so shares AAC&U's birthdate.
It was against this background of yeasty ferment in higher education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the heads of the nation's private colleges and universities founded the Association of American Colleges as essentially a president's club. It was a forum for exchanging views about what was going on and what the future might hold for higher education, in general, and for their institutions, in particular. At that time, private colleges enrolled the majority of undergraduates. Most colleges had been founded by religious groups and continued to be identified and defined in varying degrees by that history.
It is a tribute to the presidents who founded AAC and to the succession of those who have provided executive leadership to the association that they constantly enlarged the tent, recognizing that the enterprise of liberal learning has pertinence for many types of institutions, academic programs, societal goals, and personal growth and fulfillment. During my tenure at AAC, the Mellon Foundation generously supported and encouraged a project whereby AAC and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) collaborated in a survey designed to discover what kinds of courses were used to fulfill the humanities requirement for engineering degrees, and to recommend a new statement of that criterion. A similar project involved collaboration between AAC and the American Association of College Schools of Business. The great growth in the membership, programs, publications, and influence of AAC&U during the past twenty-five years reflects that public sector undergraduate enrollments now constitute about 80 percent of the total. Community college enrollments constitute the largest bloc.
The AAC&U tent is far larger than it was a century ago, and the population that inhabits the tent is far more diverse. Women now constitute approximately 60 percent of undergraduate enrollments, and far larger proportions of women are in the professoriate and in the executive leadership ranks in higher education. In 1971, AAC established the Project on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW), thus becoming the pioneering and leading national agent in addressing the issue of equal rights for women in higher education. During its first twenty years (1971–91), the director of PSEW was Bernice Resnick Sandler, who became known as the godmother of Title IX.
The larger and far more diverse membership of AAC&U has greatly amplified its voice as the preeminent organizational advocate for liberal learning. And the internal dialogue among its members has enriched and deepened the insights, conclusions, and recommendations it is able to offer its member institutions, government policy makers, and foundations.
Carol Geary Schneider: The association was founded in part to promote the interests of the college in an age when universities were expanding and community colleges had also been invented. As I read the early literature, it seems to me that the 1915 founders were juggling some four goals simultaneously: (1) defining what it means to be a viable college—e.g., a minimum of seven faculty members!—and helping institutions meet those standards; (2) determining what a liberal arts college should actually teach; (3) identifying ways to connect that learning with the lives of students and with democracy; and (4) reinforcing the moral ethos of colleges devoted to Christian virtue. (The founders were not self-conscious at that time, or so it seems, about including all faiths.)
The membership was initially limited to colleges of liberal arts and sciences, both free-standing and those in larger universities. There were some public institutions early on, but for the most part, we represented the independent liberal arts college.
Within a few years, AAC was reporting to its members on the teaching of specific disciplines; how many taught chemistry, for example. And for the better part of a century, we expressed views ranging from "concern" to hostility about the ever-threatening impulse to vocationalize college learning.
To my mind, the profound change in our direction came in the 1970s when we ceased federal representation for private institutions, and became very proactive about providing liberal education to what are now the nation's new majority students: diverse, often older, often working, often first generation, drawn from all socioeconomic segments. I believe this shift—and the outreach to community colleges that followed—forced us to think more deeply about what we meant by liberal learning and about what it should mean for students' lives beyond college.
I recall, and perhaps Paula does too, one of our board members saying fiercely: "So can't a person who majors in nursing be liberally educated?" And, of course, that's the key point. It's not our role to circle the wagons around a set of disciplines that count as "true liberal learning" but rather to ensure an empowering form of learning for our graduates. I believe we certainly do want our nurses, business managers, educators, health workers, and engineers to be liberally or broadly educated. But what does that mean, exactly?
Not too long thereafter, our board issued a statement—the 1998 statement on liberal learning—which says plainly that "liberal learning is not confined to particular fields of study. What matters in liberal education is substantial content, rigorous methodology and an active engagement with the societal, ethical, and practical implications of our learning. The spirit and value of liberal learning are equally relevant to all forms of higher education and to all students." The person who drafted that statement, Peter Stanley, had been president of Pomona, a classical liberal arts college. In many ways, everything I have done as president of AAC&U has been inspired by that vision, and by the importance of that vision for our students' hopes for the future.
Paula P. Brownlee: Carol draws upon the AAC&U board statement of 1998 as the inspiring vision for her work as president. I select two key words from that statement: "active engagement," which refers, of course, to students' learning. I believe it was the decade of the 1980s that saw us all gradually shift our focus from mostly faculty-centered teaching to encompass effective student-centered learning. AAC&U publications and various funded activities for members supported our institutional leaders, academic administrators, and faculties as they grappled with the implications of this shift. On some campuses, I personally noted faculty resistance to the very idea that "we the faculty" might no longer be the best focus of the teaching process.
As AAC&U moved through the 1980s and 1990s, the board and staff worked consciously to position the association in order to promote and instill the importance of liberal learning in multiple types of institutions. Our "voice" for liberal learning became more practically useful, and more forceful on campuses. Campus leadership teams came together at workshops and meetings in order to be helped to develop their teaching/learning practices as well as their curricula.
In the 1990s, within 1818 R Street, we moved from typewriters to personal computers that enabled rapid communications back and forth. We began using these then new and poorly understood technologies. We did not even realize what loomed another decade ahead—smart phones gripping a majority of adult and then young persons' eyes and ears. Today, I believe we have not yet scratched the surface of the impact of these ever-ready devices on student and faculty learning and teaching. At AAC&U, colleagues are still working to understand the implications of online courses on the integration of learning for students.
I love the notion of students' "active engagement" inspiring Carol's superb presidency. I ask her now, gently, "is undergraduate engagement powerful enough to last a lifetime and to inform that lifetime?" I suggest that we need stronger language evoking passion or enthusiasm. The student who has been motivated to become passionate about the liberal learning context of his or her developing specialization will not become entirely narrow, but will be continually engaged with the "societal, ethical, and practical implications of our learning." Such individuals will become our future faculty—to the great benefit of tomorrow's students.
Tritelli: The mission of the association has always centered on liberal education, a fact attested to by the slogan adopted for the centennial year: "celebrating one hundred years of leadership for liberal education." Yet, this may overstate the level of continuity that has persisted over the past century. From the curricular architecture designed to support it and the pedagogies used to promote it to the types of institution regarded as appropriate to its delivery and the kinds of students who have had access to it, liberal education has undergone significant changes since 1915.
What exactly is liberal education, and how has it evolved over the past century? In what ways is the liberal education that AAC&U advocates today similar to the kind of education AAC was established to promote, and in what ways is it different? Finally, why has it been so important to retain the term, to identify the kind of undergraduate education to which the association is committed as "liberal education"—especially in the face of widespread confusion among the public over the meaning of this term?
Brownlee: In the mid-1970s, I was elected to the AAC Board of Directors as one of only two deans asked to join a board whose membership had until then been composed exclusively of presidents. Our board discussions were largely focused on making the "new" AAC's focus financially viable. This focus was on curricular reform and the advocacy of liberal education in both public and private colleges and universities; we had given up (to the newly established National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities) the powerful lobbying motive for private colleges to be AAC members.
By the early 1980s, widespread criticism of the state of US baccalaureate education led AAC President Mark Curtis and a "Select Committee" to conclude that "more time and effort had been spent in analyzing the weaknesses of American College education than in determining effective ways to overcome them." Thus, AAC led a new movement "to discover what measures for reform might be most appropriate." Integrity in the College Curriculum, published by AAC in 1985, summed up their forward-looking conclusions.
By 1990, John had led AAC to a very sturdy financial position around the clear mission of advocacy for liberal education being important in all types of higher educational institutions. With Carol, landmark reviews of undergraduate arts and sciences majors built on an AAC study of general education practices.
During the 1990s, the AAC/AAC&U board frequently discussed the meaning of the terms "liberal learning" and "liberal education" in the context of strategic planning for the association. We wanted to update the mission and seek board consensus around fundable new directions for the association. Even back then, we recognized the serious misunderstanding of the terms.
I recall participating in an AAC&U annual meeting session in the mid-1990s—titled something like "What Do I Understand 'Liberal Learning' to Be?"—at which presidents and foundation heads were invited to talk together about the intellectual foundations of our work. I remember that discussion as one of the most interesting and stimulating of my career. The conversation was lively and diverse, and people's understandings were quite varied.
Like Carol, I recall that board member's fierce question about whether a person who majors in nursing can be liberally educated. A year or two later, I was on a member campus—a regional public university—evaluating the work of the library and science departments. Nursing was among those departments, and I had the privilege of actually observing some of the teaching in action. At the end of my time there, I turned to the head of the department and her colleagues and said with newfound respect, "you are giving your students a first-rate liberal education, alongside all the pre-professional and professional skills they need." I saw the faculty members engaged in quite broad-ranging discussion and activities around students' actual clinical work with patients. They drew the students in to discuss some aspects of the sociology, psychology, and economics of the situations surrounding their patients' lives. This experience led to my thinking again about liberal education. Part of the definition is certainly setting a broad and capacious context for the students' studies.
Chandler: The enterprise of US higher education is obviously vastly larger today, a hundred years after the founding of AAC. Advances in all the disciplines commonly taught and studied in liberal arts institutions have transformed the content and methodologies of all those fields. The population of students, faculty, and administrators is far larger and more diverse. And yet, there are many continuities. When AAC was founded, there was much preoccupation with the packaging of the curricular content of liberal arts programs. Woodrow Wilson, as president of Princeton (1902–10), created a curricular organization of the liberal arts disciplines that was widely imitated and that would still be recognizable today. It provided for a major and for curricular divisions. It defined Princeton and lifted it into the front rank of liberal arts colleges. Still, Wilson had a difficult struggle persuading the faculty to approve it. He compared changing the curriculum to "moving a graveyard." With regard to the objective or purpose of a liberal arts education, Wilson spelled out the answer in a famous speech that he repeated all over the nation titled "Princeton in the Nation's Service." Civic virtue he presented as the main purpose of liberal learning. Harry Garfield, Wilson's friend and Princeton colleague who became president of Williams College (1908–34), also trumpeted civic virtue as the desired result of a liberal education, stressing that a liberal education should result in political activists devoted to social reform. This was compatible with, but also significantly different from, the aim of Mark Hopkins (president of Williams from 1836 to 1872), which was to produce Christians whose private piety would guide their behavior.
It may be impossible to define exactly what liberal learning and the liberal arts are. Bruce Kimball demonstrates in Orators and Philosophers that the definitions of the liberal arts and liberal learning vary over time according to the characteristics of particular eras and cultures. If we accept this argument, does that not suggest that the role and mission of AAC&U should be to widen the never-ending dialogue concerning the liberal arts to include natural allies of the academy? This means reaching out to employers who depend upon the graduates of our institutions, policy makers who represent the public interest, and philanthropic individuals and organizations that provide crucial financial support. AAC&U is already doing a commendable job in this area, and its impressive list of statements and reports supplies a repertoire of concepts and definitions on which to base and bound the discussion. Our aim should be develop a loud enough and clear enough voice and a large enough conversation that the larger public will listen in and join in, thus broadening the understanding and support of our enterprise.
Schneider: I take it as a given that liberal education is always being remade to better connect with the needs and realities of a changing world. As a historian and as someone entrusted with concern for the past, present, and future of liberal learning, I have made it my goal to distinguish between what I see as the enduring goals of liberal learning, on the one hand, and the contemporary translations of those goals into educationally generative practices, on the other. The enduring goals, to my mind, are the following: fostering the broad knowledge—of history, culture, science, and society—one needs to navigate and provide leadership in the wider world; developing the powers of the mind to make reasoned judgments about complex and difficult questions; and cultivating a sense of ethical and societal responsibility—obligations to self and others.
AAC was founded in a period of transition concerning views of the curriculum and its organization. The classical approach to liberal education, with its emphasis on languages and texts, had already been overthrown. But AAC's first report on the structure of the curriculum, which came in 1916, did not incorporate the concept of a college major, which was still an emerging idea following leadership initially from Johns Hopkins and then, far more influentially, from Princeton and Harvard in the first decade of the twentieth century.
AAC's founding approach to liberal education assumed a shared curriculum, with what is best described as "general learning" across a range of studies in the arts and sciences, including Bible study. Soon thereafter, however, we fell into line with the curricular organization traditionally described as breadth and depth. When we published Integrity in the College Curriculum in 1985, we began to upend that "broad learning first, specialized learning second" approach. Specifically, we advocated for a set of "goals across the curriculum" influencing learning in all fields of study. But the ideas expressed in 1985 were very general. Later, building on Integrity, we ran a major initiative exploring the purposes of study-in-depth or the major. The report issued from that study, The Challenge of Connecting Learning (1990), was, I believe, our first iteration of a "spiral design" for liberal learning. Specifically, we argued that advanced study should prepare students to connect different parts of their learning. It should teach students to make connections between their majors and other disciplines, and between their studies and the world beyond the academy.
Today, we are working energetically through our Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) initiative to break out of that "broad learning first, specialized learning second" set of constraints. This is very challenging, because most students today study in public institutions. Many states have written the distribution design for broad learning or general education into their regulatory systems. In fact, some states are working right now to cap broad learning at thirty hours, finished in the first two years of college, with institutions specifically prohibited from adding general learning requirements at the advanced level.
AAC&U's goal, however, is to teach students to connect and apply their learning, so that general learning helps students create richer contexts and contours for specialized learning. This virtually requires upper-level "rules of the road" that expect students to work on problems that require for their completion the integration of knowledge from different domains and skills practiced across the curriculum.
Through LEAP, we have developed a flexible but guiding framework for twenty-first-century liberal learning that includes four intersecting strands: (1) broad learning across the liberal arts and sciences, from first to final year; (2) strong intellectual and practical skills, practiced at deliberately higher levels across all areas of study; (3) examined commitments to ethical, civic, and intercultural responsibility, pursued in relation to general and specialized studies; and (4) what I call the twenty-first-century liberal art, which is the demonstrated ability to integrate and apply knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to unscripted problems and new settings.
To put it differently, we're arguing that breadth and depth should be woven together with skills and responsibilities, across the entire educational experience—from cornerstone to capstone, from first to final year. We already were working on these ideas when John was leaving and Paula was arriving: they were initially outlined in The Challenge of Connecting Learning, which made a strong argument for integrating broad and specialized study at an advanced level. Today many members are using this approach.
Tritelli: Over the past several decades, the association has provided strong leadership with respect to diversity in higher education. In 2012, in response to the developing understanding of the educational benefits of diversity and the emerging recognition of a dialectical relationship between inclusion and excellence, the AAC&U Board of Directors adopted a revised mission statement that formally elevates diversity and inclusion to a mission-level priority: "The mission of the Association of American Colleges and Universities is to make liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education."
What exactly is "inclusive excellence," and how is it related to liberal education? How do you understand the history behind this important change to the association's mission? And how do you expect this newly refocused mission to influence the future work of the association?
Chandler: It is relevant to note that the liberal arts remained in robust condition following World War II, buoyed by the enrollment surge of war veterans supported by the GI Bill of Rights and by an expanding economy that eagerly awaited new college graduates. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 brought that era to a jarring halt. A series of aftershocks kept the economy in turmoil for eight years. During that period, there was a sizable outflow of enrollments from the liberal arts and into professional and pre-professional undergraduate programs. Many liberal arts colleges became hybrid institutions that offered both liberal arts and professional programs. AAC&U wisely recognized and adjusted to this change and continued to serve the needs of those institutions in their revised missions.
Over the years, perhaps influenced too much by Cardinal Newman's Idea of a University, the AAC&U mindset has shifted from a kind of awkward embarrassment about recognizing any utility in liberal learning to proclamation of its long-term benefits in enhancing career advancement and civic influence. That is precisely the right message for these times—and all times. To amplify and sharpen that message will require the strengthening of alliances that AAC&U has been building very effectively in recent years.
Participation in annual meeting programs and various commissions and committees is one obvious way of building such alliances, and it is pleasing to observe the increasing presence of representatives from business, foundations, and government agencies. Perhaps the time has arrived when the AAC&U Board of Directors should reflect those alliances.
Among the institutions long known as the bastions of liberal learning, enrollments in STEM disciplines are growing rapidly at the expense of the humanities. Once again, AAC&U is in the vanguard of the effort to understand and guide this trend. AAC&U is appropriately engaging the STEM trend with an ecumenical and inclusive spirit.
For the past several years, there has been a special focus on college-attendance patterns among high-ability students from the ranks of those in the bottom two economic quintiles of the American population. Research findings point to some commendable records among premier colleges and universities, but the general picture reveals underrepresentation of this population in those institutions. Higher education has long played a central role as a vehicle of social mobility in America, and AAC&U has had a history of promoting and encouraging it in this role.
As I think of what "inclusive excellence" means for AAC&U in an operational and policy sense, those are the thoughts and reflections that come to mind.
Brownlee: I attended my first AAC annual meeting in 1971. I was a brand-new academic dean, with no prior experience of academic administration or curricular reform. I still remember sitting near the back of a plenary session and noticing the uniformity of the audience: a vast sea of grey-haired men with a scattering of nuns, many still in habits. There were very few minority men or women.
At the same time, my public university was struggling for the first time to discern how to retain and move a large influx of underprepared minority students successfully through their college careers. Additionally, the undergraduate colleges of this university were single sex, and their process of becoming coeducational was another educational challenge. I do not believe any of us at that time gave a thought to such a bold idea as "inclusive education." As a faculty member, I struggled to offer individual minority students the support they needed to get through. It was an individual task and a daunting one. We had so much to learn, and little help was available.
By 1990, however, US higher education was in a very different place, and AAC was in the forefront of winning grants—from, for example, the Ford Foundation and FIPSE among others—in order to fund projects to further study and practice what it meant truly to engage students and faculty of color in reformed curricula as well as in engaging classroom activities. I point particularly to our American Commitments initiative, which over time spawned a constellation of ground-breaking projects and publications.
So, what is inclusive excellence? Mine can be only a very partial answer—linked, however, to liberal education. Earlier, I referred to an annual meeting discussion that probed our understanding of liberal education. One especially thought-provoking part of that discussion, which was new to me at the time and has remained with me since, concerned a suggestion that the inclusion of "discourse" is essential to becoming liberally educated. Today, discourse through AAC&U includes a rich diversity of participants with varied points of view and cultural backgrounds. The benefits of such discourse are fully realized only by the inclusion of multiple voices, all heard with attentiveness and respect.
Schneider: Our understanding of "inclusive excellence" is a work in progress. Both John and Paula contributed to its unfolding, in different ways, by their early commitments to include all students, not just some students, in the most powerful forms of learning, and by their support of AAC&U's fairly passionate engagement with questions about what it means to prepare students to take responsibility for the integrity and future of a diverse and still highly stratified society.
Today, the most succinct answer I can give to this question of definition is the following: inclusive excellence encompasses both the substance of a high-quality liberal education and the commitment to provide that kind of horizon-expanding education to all students, with special attention to those from groups that have historically been underserved across our educational system. To be excellent, education must engage diverse cultures, communities, histories, and values; it must build the skills needed to learn with and from people different from oneself; and it must help students explore their specific responsibilities within the diverse democracy they inhabit and the complex world whose future they will influence. In other words, an education that ignores diversity is not "excellent" at all. It is an insufficient education because it leaves students poorly prepared for the world they actually inhabit.
But, similarly, an educational system is neither excellent nor even adequate when it routinely steers some students—especially the affluent and the highly talented—toward an empowering education, while simultaneously steering low-income learners and students of color toward more blinkered and instrumental forms of learning. Unhappily, our current educational system is stratified in exactly this way, at all levels.
Tritelli: Initially, as has already been noted, AAC was effectively an association of and for presidents. The founding constitution stipulated that "every institution recognized as a member of this Association shall be entitled to representation in each meeting of the Association through the President or Chief Executive Officer of the institution." At the same time college presidents were founding AAC, faculty members were forming their own association: the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was also founded in 1915. Soon, beginning in 1925, the two associations came together in fruitful partnership to work out the shared principles set forth in the highly influential statement known to the profession as "The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure." AAC and the AAUP continued to refine the statement, jointly issuing interpretive comments in 1969 and, in 1990, adopting changes to make the language gender neutral. Meanwhile, representation and active involvement in AAC expanded beyond presidents to include the full range of administrators, faculty, and staff at member institutions.
Today, the principles enshrined in the 1940 Statement are under assault as never before. Consider tenure. According to the statement, "Tenure is a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom of teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability. Freedom and economic security, hence, tenure, are indispensable to the success of an institution in fulfilling its obligations to its students and to society." Despite AAC&U's lead role in formulating this principle and its formal endorsement of it, it is clear that large segments of the association's membership are no longer committed to tenure. By 2009, according to a recent report of the AAUP, "75.6 percent of US faculty appointments were off the tenure track and 60.5 percent of US faculty appointments were part-time appointments off the tenure track, including graduate-student-employee appointments. . . . Though many people inside and outside of higher education think of tenure-track appointments as the norm, in reality tenure-track faculty are a dwindling minority on American campuses: while in 1975, tenure-track faculty accounted for 45.1 percent of the instructional staff, by 2009 they accounted for only 24.4 percent."
What does the dramatic erosion of tenure—and the corresponding decline of academic freedom and shared governance—portend for American higher education? Why have colleges and universities abandoned their longstanding commitment to the principles articulated in the 1940 Statement? How do the changes in the status and composition of the faculty affect student learning, liberal education, and the public good? As an association historically invested in and publicly committed to these principles, how should AAC&U respond?
Brownlee: These issues are very important indeed, and those data reflect my own perception of the profile of today's overall professoriate—largely part time and therefore contingent, anxious, and grappling with huge technological change and changes in students' preferred modes of learning. Should AAC&U partner again with the AAUP to address the viability of tenure today, and if not, how can the "freedom and economic security" of the professoriate be safeguarded?
Let me try first of all to place my sub-question in the larger context of national workforce issues. Over the past thirty to forty years, working Americans have experienced the removal or transformation of thousands of stable, solid workplaces along with the stable jobs that these workers have assumed would always be there. Such employees include "white-collar" supervisors as well as the more numerous "blue-collar" workers. There are professions where such shrinkage has not been so marked, including K–12 education, medical care at all levels, and, so far, higher education.
In the former workplaces, although an equivalent of tenure was not utilized, the jobs were there and few workers were dismissed unless for poor performance. "Downsizing" was uncommon. Furthermore, unions safeguarded the rights of many workers.
For those employees who were retained by their employers, the workplace demands changed radically, requiring new skills in technology, computer-aided manufacture, and working with greater speed. I suspect that many were not retained, though I have not seen any information on this. Some community colleges, at least, tried to help with retraining, and I believe there has been some federal and state funding to assist individuals.
The context I outline can be related to some of the circumstances within higher education. Some educators believe that traditional methods will continue to suit today's and tomorrow's students very well. Beyond the challenge of changing practice to ensure quality education for diverse students lies the insistent call by political and media representatives for drastic reduction in the cost of educating students of widely varied abilities and backgrounds.
This is the new background against which we must consider the institution of tenure. The need for academic freedom remains paramount. It may be the expectation of economic security that is now difficult to argue in these times. Why do faculty members need assurance of lifelong employment in one institution, more than those other professions?
As a former academic administrator at different colleges and a university, I do see the importance of collective courage, enhanced by tenure, given to the collective faculty. Administrations sometimes do take egregious actions, and it takes courageous action to counter that power. On the other hand, great changes must be undertaken now, equally courageously, to examine and execute best teaching and learning practice in very different times. Sometimes deans and presidents need to have leadership power to get these changes under way.
As I think about AAC&U's role in grappling with the question of tenure, I can imagine the staff and then the board taking up the discussion first. Where would AAC&U's membership stand on this contentious question? If AAC&U should take it up publicly, should it do so with a partner—the AAUP, for example—and would it be really tricky now that AAC&U is no longer a presidents' association only? I suspect more faculty members are now actively involved in AAC&U's work than deans and presidents put together.
Even if the board decided the question was too important and central to AAC&U's mission to ignore, there is always the question of funding. Are there funding sources worth the time and trouble to pursue? Again, the question is so contentious in an anxious time for faculty that it would be very difficult (but also very courageous) for AAC&U to tackle.
Chandler: I agree with Paula that protection of academic freedom trumps protection of tenure. The academy is in a very weak position regarding job security. Given workplace conditions in most other areas of the economy, where almost everyone is vulnerable to the threat of becoming obsolete, it is difficult to make a special case for faculty members.
My take is that it would be desirable for the AAC&U board to initiate a discussion of these matters and decide whether a blue-ribbon commission is needed. I'd be leery—at least at this point—of partnering with the AAUP or any other group. I judge that the AAUP doesn't enjoy the standing it once had.
Adjuncts are going to be around for the indefinite future. I'd like to see AAC&U reach out to them. I judge that in that large, amorphous group there are many very able and effective people who would find validation in AAC&U and contribute importantly to its programs.
Threats to academic freedom seem to be increasing from both inside and outside the academy. The increasingly pluralistic demography of the academy is a celebratory development. It also carries the risk of muzzling discussion of issues that are uncomfortable for some members of the community. The creation and maintenance of civility, openness, and honesty becomes more challenging under such conditions.
Schneider: I believe that our future advocacy for faculty leadership and standing will need to be tied to a contemporary understanding of the role faculty play in fostering students' development as thoughtful people, knowledgeable citizens, and creative contributors to work and the economy. Our work on academic freedom was tied to an early-twentieth-century conception of how knowledge and learning were best advanced as well as to the dangers that a scholarly faculty faced at the time. A new approach would need to take into account the changing demography of students, the changing role of the academy in society, and the reality of the digital revolution.
The first step, however, is to persuade influential philanthropies that there actually is a faculty problem. They are the ones who would need to pay for a commission, and at the moment they are just starting to flag "the faculty question."
We made a strong statement on these issues with our 2013 strategic plan: "The continued increase in contingent faculty appointments is an 'elephant in the room' for American higher education, threatening the future of scholarly community and putting at grave risk AAC&U's commitment to high-quality liberal education and inclusive excellence for all." Clearly, faculty are fundamental to everything AAC&U cares about. But our support for their role and standing needs always to be grounded in a vision of what and how students learn.
AAC&U currently is cosponsoring the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, which is based at the University of Southern California. The Delphi Project is exploring new models for faculty work that respond constructively to the changing economic climate, while staying firmly focused on the importance of economic stability, academic freedom, and engaged scholarly community for the faculty of the future. The Delphi Project is preparing AAC&U and higher education to tackle the contingency challenges with fuller knowledge of the issues, the options, and the implications for higher education's mission. Another group working on the needs of contingent faculty, the New Faculty Majority, is headed by a former AAC&U staff member and continuing colleague. These partnerships will be important to our work with faculty needs and roles as we go forward.
Tritelli: Higher education is a distinctively dynamic enterprise, one that is in a constant state of reform. Many reforms are driven by internal pressures; for example, the inexorable expansion of knowledge and the increasing diversity of the student body both have led to curricular and pedagogical reforms. The impetus for reform also comes from the need to prepare each new generation of students to take their place in a constantly changing world—as citizens of a democracy, as participants in a globalizing economy, and as human beings seeking after lives of fulfillment and purpose. Over its long history, AAC&U has served as an incubator of change, promoting and supporting the development of best practices and promising innovations on member campuses. Through countless initiatives and projects, in collaboration with philanthropy, and through conferences and publications, the association has been at the forefront of educational reform.
As you reflect on your tenure as president, what accomplishments or areas of work do you feel best about? As the association begins its second century of work, what are some of the issues on the horizon that are likely to drive change in higher education, and what advice would you give future presidents of AAC&U concerning how to approach them?
Chandler: When I agreed to become president of AAC after retiring from Williams, the momentum from the Integrity report was still apparent. That report was a wonderful climax to Mark Curtis's presidency. I soon learned, however, that there were serious issues relating to the future of AAC and its financial stability. Board discussions relating to future directions for AAC and some personnel decisions relating to that question seemed to me unwise. It was not surprising to learn that there were staff morale problems and confusion in the ranks regarding the future. The board approved a list of program and project proposals that I presented, and I set about raising money from various foundations to support those enterprises. The project in which we worked with ABET to ensure that the liberal arts content of engineering curricula would be more intentionally determined received considerable attention. So did our project in which we worked with a large list of disciplinary organizations in developing model major programs in the various disciplines. Although the program never became as large as I'd hoped, it was exciting to create a network of linkages between major research universities and nearby liberal arts colleges whereby PhD candidates had supervised apprenticeships in teaching undergraduates.
All those experiences and others indicated to me that the AAC staff included considerable creative talent and energy. It was a pleasure to watch those individuals grow and contribute as I gave them larger responsibilities. Bringing Carol from the University of Chicago as vice president was the most fruitful personnel move I made. She freed me up so that I could visit campuses to address various groups of faculty, governing boards, and others. Becoming acquainted with numerous campuses and various cultures was a valuable learning opportunity that suggested more effective ways of relating to and serving our member institutions.
In summary, then, I believe my challenge was to provide momentum, focus, and financial stability. Paula and Carol have made their own valuable contributions to the work of AAC&U as they met new challenges. AAC&U, in my view, has had a good thirty-year stretch as it closes out its first century, and it is poised to reach greater heights as it enters its second century.
Brownlee: During the decade of the 1990s, we worked purposefully to expand our membership base to encompass good representation of institutions with every Carnegie classification. After a year or two of occasionally divisive debate in the board, members finally agreed to a name change for the association: AAC became AAC&U. We had discovered in our new work on the international front that many countries associated "colleges" with only secondary schools. The new name solved this problem for them. Membership grew, and participation in the annual meeting and the expanding number of conferences and workshops grew also. We were encouraging campus team participation; faculty became part of every team. We recognized the importance of presidential leadership of effective liberal education programs at the campus level, and worked hard to retain and grow their diminishing participation in our annual meetings.
It was near the beginning of the 1990s that we launched our first effort at strategic planning for AAC&U. I feel very good about this effort, partly because it fully engaged our staff leadership and board in what became productive, collaborative activity. Furthermore, this early effort launched a succession of such endeavors. Each would be pertinent to its time and challenges, and under Carol, this continues, and has enabled AAC&U to grow from strength to strength and adapt its vision and work to current times. Our mission remained unaltered and was the bedrock of our work.
I feel good about the funded programs and the annual meetings offered in the 1990s. Among the programs, of course American Commitments and new work in international arenas (including Russia, Japan and China, and later South Africa and India, among others) expanded our association's relevance to thousands of member colleagues. The Preparing Future Faculty work was groundbreaking in partnering graduate students at notable major universities with internships on smaller campuses devoted to liberal learning. From all accounts there were countless eye-opening experiences in being mentored additionally by faculty members at such institutions. We heard that some of these students subsequently sought academic careers in community and liberal arts colleges. I suspect that the need for this kind of program continues today. A small partnership with the Wye Faculty Seminar helped more faculty members live a liberal learning experience themselves, and continues with the Aspen Institute today. Informal work with Project Kaleidoscope brought more STEM work into partnership with AAC&U and led, after many more years, to actual incorporation of that wonderful project into AAC&U with Carol's leadership.
In the 1990s, print publications continued as the order of the day. New ones were launched—Peer Review and Diversity and Democracy—while Liberal Education was well received by our readership as it too, changed with the times. Monographs emerged from the many funded projects, and some of these have been mentioned in previous responses. I keep these periodicals and monographs on my shelves to this day, referring to them as needed.
In concluding, I should mention my continuing pride in the quality of work for which AAC and AAC&U have continuously stood. In my time, it was always gratifying to hear campus leaders exclaim that our board meetings included intellectual challenge as well as the necessary financial and administrative business. Our annual meetings were presented with intellectual vigor and were admired for provoking new thinking about the academic enterprise. Campuses competed energetically to be included in the annual general education and diversity workshops. This century-old association is as young and vigorous now as it was, I imagine, shortly after its founding.
Schneider: I inherited an opportunity to lead an age of synthesis at AAC&U. The LEAP framework for learning draws on an extraordinarily broad vein of creative reinvention across all parts of higher education—institutions large and small, public and private, two year and four year. As one foundation leader said to me, the LEAP framework of Essential Learning Outcomes and the emphasis on high-impact practices (such as service learning, research, writing-intensive courses, learning communities, etc.) has moved the liberal arts beyond "pious aspiration" and given it a much needed specificity.
Listening to all the rhetoric about accountability that was flourishing when I took office, we said: Fine. Let's make ourselves accountable for whether students are actually achieving the outcomes our members say they consider important.
Moreover, against the extraordinary pressure in higher education to focus only on completion (signified by credit accumulation) and education for careers, we have relentlessly argued that quality is what makes completion worthwhile, while making the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes a reference point for the meaning of quality.
And, not least, we have insisted fiercely that education goes beyond job preparation and absolutely must include the learning needed for responsible, informed, participatory citizenship. Starting in the late 1980s, AAC&U began to explore in detail the connections between diversity and democracy as a crucial frame for articulating the kinds of learning needed to contribute to the success of a diverse and still inequitable democracy. We articulated those goals through the work accomplished in the 1990s and beyond in our major initiative, American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning. The insights drawn from that work strongly influenced the content of our larger framework for liberal education, the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes. They also influenced our decision to enlarge our mission in order to clarify that excellence requires attention not only to what is taught, but also to ensuring broad and diverse participation in the most powerful forms of college learning.
Starting in 2010, we worked under the aegis of the US Department of Education to study where higher education is now in terms of its approach to civic learning and where it should go next. I am very proud of the resulting core text, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future. I also am very pleased that, following the release of Crucible at the White House in January 2012, Caryn McTighe Musil, the prime author of Crucible, agreed to lead a coalition of thirteen associations and organizations that share our commitment to making civic learning pervasive and expected, rather than available but optional in higher education. This, to my mind, exemplifies AAC&U's willingness to take on issues that are not at the top of the conventional wisdom list, and to fight for their importance until they become the new wisdom.
My advice to future presidents is to immerse themselves in studying how we have related the enduring goals of liberal learning both to the needs of a changing society and to the needs of diverse students. I would also encourage presidents not to assume that the conventional wisdom ought to govern their priorities. Especially today, the conventional wisdom is promoting a view of education that is extraordinarily instrumental, narrow, value-free and, in my own judgment, ultimately dangerous both to democracy and to economic creativity. The "courage to question" should be AAC&U's guiding maxim.
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David Tritelli is the editor of Liberal Education.