Liberal Education

The Role of Faculty in the Transformation of AAC&U: A Personal Essay

During the first sixty years after the founding of the Association of American Colleges (AAC) in 1915,1 it was an association of institutions and their presidents; faculty members were conspicuous by their absence. The importance of faculty was recognized, however, from the outset, as AAC held many meetings with the American Association of University Professors to develop principles for “managing faculty, from initial appointments and long-term contracts to shared governance and disciplinary actions.”2 This collaboration resulted in the 1940 “Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” which came to define the basic contractual relationship between faculty members and their institutions as it gained more association endorsements and became the national norm. Subsequently, academic leaders on virtually all campuses, both administrators and faculty, trustees, and even politicians, became strong defenders of academic freedom and tenure, citing the principles contained in this seminal statement.

In 1976, the AAC membership took two key actions that changed the character of the association. First, reacting to a division between private and public members, it endorsed the creation of a new organization to advance the particular interests of private institutions, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and agreed to provide the assistance needed for it to become self-supporting. The second action was to approve a new, more focused mission for AAC: “The purpose of the Association shall be to enhance and promote humane and liberating learning and to strengthen institutions of higher education as settings for humane and liberating learning.” Importantly, this new mission was intended to apply equally to all kinds of colleges and universities—public and private, large and small, four-year and two-year.

Since the membership was then composed largely, though not exclusively, of private liberal arts colleges, however, many individual institutional members faced a difficult decision: Should they be members of two similar Washington associations? If not, which would it be—the one devoted to advancing their financial and other operational or public policy interests, or the one focused on liberal learning? The AAC board of directors anticipated an exodus of members, and directors held a series of meetings with member presidents around the country to promote continued membership. At AAC annual meetings during the late 1970s, when attendance dwindled to a few hundred, more than one friend asked me, “Will this be AAC’s last meeting?”

It was obvious that neither presidents nor academic officers could by themselves mount programs in support of liberal education. After all, these individuals do not design curricula, teach courses, or provide direct academic services to students. This is the job of the faculty. If AAC was to achieve its newly focused mission of advancing liberal education, it would have to speak directly to the faculty—and involve faculty members in its programs—far more than it had done previously. Over the decades that followed the 1976 turning point, AAC evolved a series of programs that engaged faculty members, typically in collaboration with academic administrators, for the benefit of the education of their students. The involvement of faculty transformed the association. Over time, AAC became a more broadly based and more academic organization—a national think tank for improving undergraduate education in all types of institutions. The remainder of this article is the story of that evolution. Because the full history of faculty involvement in the association cannot be recounted in an article of this length, I will highlight what I regard as some of the most significant developments.3

I arrived at AAC in 1975 to direct a project on faculty development and have been intimately involved in the four decades since, during which faculty have played increasingly important roles. For that reason, this article is more of a personal essay than an objective history. I knew the leaders personally and was a participant observer in the changes taking place within the association. Nobody could have envisioned the magnitude of these changes. Indeed, in 1976 the future of AAC looked bleak. But over time a new, more vibrant organization did emerge. The meaning of liberal education was unpacked and redefined to include broad general knowledge, intellectual skills, personal qualities, and the integration and application of learning to help solve real-world problems. Education was more closely tied to serious issues in students’ own lives, showing them the power of ideas. This expanded concept of liberal education was applied to a much more diverse student population. Each of these refinements involved an action agenda the association would embrace, all involving a central role for faculty. It was no coincidence that the refocused association was one in which faculty came to play a major, even crucial and leadership, role.

Major funded projects involving faculty

Over several decades, AAC formed relationships with funding agencies that saw the association as a vehicle for achieving their educational aspirations. Increasingly, the philanthropic community turned its attention to higher education and provided support for projects that included faculty members. There were many funded projects operated over the years, but for the most part they fell into two broad categories: diversity and quality.

Diversity. The first major project of the post-1976 association that was designed to increase the number and diversity of students was the Project on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW), which was created and directed by Bernice “Bunny” Sandler in 1971. The context was that federal law, strengthened in 1972 by the passage of Title IX, disallowed both gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Colleges and universities were vulnerable to lawsuits if they failed to establish new policies to protect and support women, especially as students. Sandler, a lawyer, at first operated the project to aid the management of academic institutions by helping them establish policies that limited their risk. But it soon evolved more directly into the realm of faculty when PSEW published a series of papers on the “chilly climate” that women students faced, first in the classroom and later on campus. The papers rested on a configuration of observations that some teachers made disparaging remarks about women, in general, and about their intellectual abilities and academic seriousness, in particular; that in class men were often called on more frequently than women, and their comments seem to count for more; and that women were more often interrupted by peers and teachers than men were. These subtle and not-so-subtle behaviors, often not even recognized by teachers themselves and often done by both men and women teachers, constitute a more difficult learning environment for women. If colleges and universities were to become more welcoming places for women, who then were a growing minority among undergraduates, the faculty had to do their part by creating a better climate for their learning. In time, this work also provided important insights that influenced attention to the broader “climate for learning” for all students, especially students from groups that had traditionally been underserved by higher education.

Increasing access to higher education became a major focus of public policy after World War II. With the expansion of state-supported institutions and the build-out of the community college systems, higher education came to serve larger numbers of new students. These came in many varieties: first-generation students whose families knew little about the realities of college life, racial and ethnic minority students, women students, students with weak preparation for college, and adult students with a variety of family and work responsibilities. New scholarship was focusing on the lives of people in cultures outside the academic mainstream, and new programs of study were being created in women’s studies, African-American studies, Hispanic studies, Asian studies, and global studies. America was becoming more and more aware of the multiplicity of cultures and the need to expand the legitimacy of new research and publications about different peoples. There was a need for greater knowledge about diversity and more sophistication in dealing with diverse cultures throughout the academy. The faculty, especially, needed to learn more of the substance of multiple cultures and to develop more skill and sensitivity in teaching these subjects to their students.

AAC answered the call with a range of creative national-action projects. During the 1980s Carol Geary Schneider, then AAC vice president, observed the emergence of cultural complexity and multiplicity as organizing themes in new or newly revised core curricula. She secured a series of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, starting in 1989, for fifty-four “planning institutions” to work with eleven “resource institutions” in order to plan and implement new core courses through a project called Engaging Cultural Legacies: Shaping Core Curricula in the Humanities. These grants launched nearly two decades of AAC&U work on various aspects of diversity in the curriculum.

Beginning in 1992, Schneider subsequently worked with Caryn McTighe Musil, another AAC vice president, to engage hundreds of institutional teams focused on the professional development of faculty members. The teams attended summer institutes where they studied the “new scholarship,” expanded their knowledge of different cultures, and developed new courses or modules for inclusion of new material in their courses. During this decade of work with the family of projects called American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning, more—and more diverse—faculty became involved in the work of AAC.

At the beginning of the new century, the association’s Greater Expectations initiative, led by Andrea Leskes, made a significant advance by promoting social responsibility, which had become a key element of AAC’s work, as one of the core purposes of a twenty-first-century education. By connecting diversity to the basic principles of democracy and encouraging students to become more engaged in their local communities, all these efforts contributed to the emergence of service learning, community-based learning, internships, and similar opportunities to connect learning to practical problems.

Quality. A second major theme of national projects focused on improving the quality of undergraduate education. The need to improve the quality of undergraduate general education came to national attention in 1977 through the confluence of three separate events. First, the Carnegie Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching published Missions of the College Curriculum, declaring general education a “disaster area” that lacks purpose and coherence.4 Second, the US commissioner of education and his assistant, Ernest L. Boyer and Martin Kaplan, published Educating for Survival, arguing for common learning to strengthen the social bonds among citizens of the country and offering a specific example of a core curriculum.5 Third, the Harvard College Task Force on the Core Curriculum issued a report calling for a new course of undergraduate study.6 These three events coalesced to create national awareness that general education was in trouble and that it needed to become revitalized at institutions across the country.

From 1978 to 1981, while still housed at AAC and working for the Society for Values in Higher Education, I directed the Project on General Education Models, working with fourteen diverse institutions and their faculties to strengthen their general education programs. We forged a closer relationship with AAC to engage in two collaborative activities that responded to the rising chorus of requests for information about what faculty leadership groups could do on campus. We wrote a resource guide to the literature, issues, and illustrative programs, which AAC published and distributed.7 In addition, Arthur Levine, who had helped draft Missions of the College Curriculum for Carnegie, and I designed and conducted a popular series of four three-day workshops on general education for faculty members and administrators around the country. AAC cosponsored, marketed, and supported these workshops, which did much to establish the association’s position as a leader on general education. Even as liberal education was losing its appeal amid the growth of new professional and career majors, there was strong support for a broad general education for all students, regardless of major or intended career, and this area was to become a staple for AAC programs for decades to come.

In 1982, AAC developed its own project on educational quality called Redefining the Meaning and Purpose of Baccalaureate Degrees and led by Mark Curtis, then AAC president, and William O’Connell, then AAC executive vice president. Colleges and universities had relaxed curricular requirements as a result of the student protests during the 1960s and 1970s. Student protesters complained that many of their courses, especially required courses in the liberal arts and sciences, were irrelevant, impractical, and poorly taught. The protesters cited the fact that most general education courses were introductions to various disciplines and were taught in large lecture courses to passive students by teaching assistants or low-ranking faculty. When institutions responded to student demands, college degrees in many places were standardized at 120 hours of study that involved both a major and a distribution of courses in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, turning the curriculum into a veritable marketplace. As a result, students received an incoherent, fragmented educational experience of courses often taken for their convenience rather than for their educational value.

The final report of this project, Integrity in the College Curriculum, was published in 1985, taking its place as one of the several national reports on higher education issued at about that same time, all offering proposals for enhancing the quality of undergraduate education. Drafted by three faculty members of a blue-ribbon advisory committee, the report became an instant bestseller and received front-page coverage in the New York Times.8 It framed a broad agenda for change, called for, among other things, the revival of the responsibility of the “faculty as a whole for the curriculum as a whole,” and outlined a “minimum required curriculum.”9 Over the course of the next decade, this framework led to more than two dozen funded projects, involving several hundred institutions and thousands of faculty members in efforts to put the report’s recommendations into practice.

Quality issues also arose in another arena: the academic major. During the 1980s, critics expressed concern about the growth in the amount of time that majors consumed in the curriculum and the overemphasis on specialization. AAC commissioned a study of graduating students’ transcripts, and Robert Zemsky found a lack of structure and coherent purpose in many departmental curricula.10 Moreover, work by the AAC staff and representatives of fifty-four departments at eighteen institutions who reviewed each other’s curricula found a disturbing pattern: departments lacked specific goals for student learning, there was an absence of clear structure, and students experienced fragmented learning. AAC partnered with twelve disciplinary societies across the broad areas of the humanities, sciences, and social sciences to review academic majors in their fields. From 1988 to 1991, project participants analyzed issues in majors and developed guidelines for major programs in several popular fields of specialization. The findings were presented in a three-volume report.11 The authors of the first volume argued that the major should serve as a “home” for learning: “a community of peers with whom students can undertake collaborative inquiries and a faculty charged to care about students’ intellectual and personal explorations as well as their maturation.”12 In other language, each major should be a “learning community” in which each student can find both support and challenge.

Assessment and accountability represent another aspect of the quality theme. Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE), an ongoing project directed by Terrel Rhodes that started in 2007, responds to public skepticism about whether students are learning what they need for the contemporary world. The goal of this multifaceted project is to develop authentic assessments of sixteen of the learning outcomes identified by the association as “essential,” and to do it in a way that focuses on student learning and its improvement. This has meant that the work is done by the faculty and for the faculty. The first step was to recruit teams of faculty members from a variety of institutions to develop and test VALUE rubrics, templates that are transparent enough that groups of faculty from different disciplines can agree on the extent to which students have achieved various outcomes. Eventually, over a hundred institutions arranged for faculty teams to test the VALUE rubrics with their colleagues and students. The rubrics allow faculty members to determine how well their students are progressing. They also are helpful for students, who are better able to understand what they are expected to learn—and, thus, to focus their efforts on desired outcomes. Since the VALUE rubrics were released in 2009, they have been utilized by tens of thousands of teachers and their students in institutions across the country as well as abroad. The VALUE rubrics also now are being used in a large multi-state initiative involving more than sixty institutions in large public systems in several states.

Combining equity and quality. Inevitably, the equity and quality agendas merged. The quality agenda was based on the definition of a well-educated student expressed through both general education and the major. Many efforts were made to provide greater access to a high-quality education; yet critics charged that, in their eagerness to provide greater access to diverse kinds of students, educational leaders had lowered standards and “dumbed down” the content of the curriculum. In response, the association’s Greater Expectations project articulated the importance of both access and quality. This joining of quality and equity proclaimed that diverse ideas, life experiences, and perspectives enriched education for all students. Eventually, the board of directors approved a revision of the mission statement, incorporating the phrase “inclusive excellence” into the association’s vision for all of higher education.

The ongoing Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, which was started in 2005, builds on many previous projects on both equity and quality, utilizes nearly all of the association’s resources, pulls together all that has been learned about improving undergraduate education, and addresses several target audiences, including campus leaders, teaching faculty, state systems, business and civic leaders, and national policymakers. Through the LEAP initiative, the association has identified what it calls “essential learning outcomes” for students, summarized a set of “principles of excellence” that include challenging standards and flexible guidance for an era of reform and renewal, publicized “high-impact practices” shown by educational research to be more powerful than traditional classroom lectures as means for students to learn the essentials, emphasized “authentic assessments” that test whether students can apply their learning to “complex problems and real-world challenges,” and promoted “inclusive excellence” to ensure that all students receive the benefits of an engaged liberal education—whatever their major field of study.

LEAP operates on several levels simultaneously. The initiative’s Campus Action Network includes 340 diverse colleges and universities, as well as ten state systems and other groups of institutions. It offers summer institutes during which campus teams consisting primarily of faculty develop plans and strategies to improve their educational programs. It has commissioned research on employers, who affirm the importance of the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes. It also includes a significant public advocacy component, involving partnerships with employers and business leaders, and a President’s Trust that involves scores of campus executives who have signed on to support this initiative and who seek to engage the public in support of a contemporary liberal education for all students.

Two other groups of projects also built on the combination of quality and equity. Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) was a series of projects (1993–2003) that sought to improve the preparation of doctoral students desiring to become college professors. A collaboration with the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), PFF developed clusters of institutions that brought the “producers” of PhDs (graduate research universities, represented by CGS) together with the “consumers” (the several diverse types of primarily undergraduate institutions that hire new PhDs, represented by AAC). The clusters created PFF courses to give an overview of the academic profession, mentoring in teaching, and personal experience of teaching in diverse institutions. Over four thousand doctoral students benefitted—as have thousands more since the formal collaboration ended in 2003—helping to cement the association’s influence with new generations of faculty members. Since 2006, AAC&U has administered the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award, which recognizes graduate students who show exemplary promise as future leaders of higher education, who demonstrate a commitment to developing academic and civic responsibility in themselves and others, and whose work reflects a strong emphasis on teaching and learning.

In 2010, AAC&U merged with Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), a premier organization focused on the improvement of teaching and learning in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Founded in 1989, PKAL has operated primarily as a grassroots organization run by scientists for scientists. It has operated largely through an extensive group of regional networks that include more than seven thousand faculty members and administrators committed to cutting-edge education in STEM disciplines. It identifies the most effective science-based practices in teaching and learning and promotes the use of them by colleagues. PKAL has enriched the work of AAC&U by bringing natural scientists, mathematicians, and technologists centrally into the organization’s ongoing work.

Through these and many other projects, faculty members and academic administrators have created a great deal of intellectual capital to strengthen the education of American undergraduate students and to strengthen the institutions in which they study.

Summer institutes for teams of faculty

As valuable as the projects have been for faculty at selected institutions, they are not sufficient to change institutional practices. Several members of the AAC board and staff had experience with the longer workshops conducted by the Danforth Foundation and the Lilly Endowment in which faculty teams worked for a week or more to develop plans to improve the quality of education on their own campuses, and they urged AAC to develop similar programs.

Starting in 1991, the Asheville Institute on General Education was held in partnership with the University of North Carolina at Asheville. It was thought important to locate the institute on a campus in order to signal its academic importance as well as to reduce expenses. The teams were to consist primarily of faculty members and to include an academic administrator to support the work of the team. The Asheville Institute ran through 2003, when it was expanded and renamed the AAC&U Institute on General Education and began rotating to different campus locations; “and Assessment” was added to the title of the institute in 2009. In 2015, this institute held its twenty-fifth session, becoming AAC&U’s longest-running institute.

In addition to the Institute on General Education and Assessment, AAC&U currently offers two other annual team-based institutes: the Institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success and the Institute on Integrative Learning and the Departments. The PKAL Summer Leadership Institute is offered for individual STEM faculty three times each year.

Network for Academic Renewal conferences

When I returned to AAC in 1991 after several years in campus administration to direct the project Strong Foundations for General Education, AAC operated a panoply of impressive national projects that involved faculty members, a new summer institute on general education, and, of course, the annual meeting. But it offered no other occasions between annual meetings that were open to academics. The projects had meetings that were closed to nonparticipants; the summer institute could accommodate only a few institutions on a single topic; and relatively few faculty members attended the annual meeting.

Carol Schneider and I were concerned that the overall AAC program focused too heavily on national projects that typically enjoyed no more than three years of funding, and when the funding ended, so too did the program. Ironically, the end of a project was precisely the time when many campus leaders knew the most about its topic. That was when model programs had been developed on campuses and judged successful. It was also when several individuals had learned how to secure faculty approval and institutional support for their innovations and were capable of serving as consultants to other institutions. We asked ourselves whether there was a way to bring these resources together and make them available to other academics on a self-supporting basis. Would institutions pay for faculty leaders to attend short “state of the field” conferences on various educational topics? When I asked several provosts and deans what they would like to see in a new series of such “short courses,” the most common response was that they wanted opportunities for their faculty to participate in the national conversation about academic reform and renewal. And, yes, they said they would support travel for their faculty to attend such meetings. Armed with this information, Schneider and I asked AAC’s then president, Paula Brownlee, to support the creation of a series of these open-to-all weekend conferences, and she agreed.

In 1993, the first Network for Academic Renewal conferences were offered and drew small groups of participants. The first conference was on general education and included only a couple of dozen individuals. Other early conferences focused on academic leadership, new approaches to teaching and learning, and strengthening academic majors drew larger numbers of participants. Attendance continued to grow to a total of more than 2,700 in 2013–14. During the last decade, total attendance was more than 20,000, or an average of 2,000 annually. Furthermore, Network conferences have, indeed, drawn large numbers of faculty members as planners, presenters, and participants. And whereas the annual meeting typically draws a minority of participants from the faculty, the Network conferences draws primarily faculty members, in the neighborhood of 50 to 70 percent, depending on the topic.

Communication vehicles among members

The annual meeting has been the staple of AAC&U programming, and leaders have taken several steps to increase its attractiveness, particularly to faculty members. A timely and relevant theme is now regularly chosen to be of interest to a broad academic audience, pre- or post-conference workshops give participants hands-on experiences with a particular topic, and a pre-conference symposium is held on some special topic that appeals to particular academic audiences. Proposals from faculty members and other campus leaders are actively solicited to increase the range of issues and session leaders.

All these steps have helped build the numbers of faculty members attending the meeting and have increased the overall attendance significantly. In 2002, the total attendance exceeded 1,000 for the first time; in 2008, it exceeded 1,500, and in 2011, it rose above 2,000. As the annual meeting grew, more sessions were needed, and more faculty leaders were chosen, which (being on the program) allowed them to receive financial support from their institutions for their travel expenses. Meetings of related organizations, many of which involve significant numbers of faculty members, were encouraged. On average, between 30 and 40 percent of attendees are faculty members, reaching deep into the pool of faculty members in their various guises—such as assistant deans, directors of general education or writing, staff of teaching-learning centers, as well as teaching faculty.

A growing publication list of books and monographs was published on a range of educational topics. Liberal Education had been the flagship quarterly publication, and it progressively published more articles about teaching, learning, and the curriculum and recruited faculty to do more of the writing. Other quarterly periodicals were added to the portfolio including Peer Review and Diversity & Democracy. As electronic communications became mainstream, the AAC&U web site became a major means of communication, blogs were published, and an electronic newsletter was added to the mix. In all, AAC&U became a rich resource of information about liberal education for large numbers of faculty members on member campuses and beyond.


I will end this journey through various highlights of the past four decades of faculty involvement as I began, with a personal observation about the annual meeting. Whereas in the 1970s individuals asked me whether there would be another one, now I hear participants—faculty members and others—comment that this is a “must attend” national conference. I believe that AAC&U has become a major national resource for the professional development of faculty members. Whereas involvement in their disciplinary societies allows faculty members to keep up with the latest research and to make their own contributions, AAC&U provides opportunities for faculty members to broaden their knowledge and perspectives, especially by interacting with a variety of campus administrators, faculty from other fields, system officials, policymakers, philanthropists, and national educational leaders. In this way, they learn to become not only better teachers but also more effective leaders and more complete professionals.

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1. The name of the association was changed to the “Association of American Colleges and Universities” (AAC&U) in 1995.

2. Linda Eisenmann, “‘Making Better Colleges’: AAC’s Century of Change and Commitment,” Liberal Education 101, no. 1/2 (2015): 32

3. This history is more extensively described in Jerry G. Gaff, “The History of Faculty Roles in AAC&U: A Personal Essay” (unpublished manuscript, December 29, 2014), Microsoft Word file.

4. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Missions of the College Curriculum: A Contemporary Review with Suggestions (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1977), 11.

5. Ernest L. Boyer and Martin Kaplan, Educating for Survival (New Rochelle, NY: Change Magazine Press, 1977).

6. Harvard Task Force, Report on the Core Curriculum (Cambridge, MA: Office of the Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University).

7. Project on General Education Models, General Education: Issues and Resources (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges, 1980).

8. Edward B. Fiske, “3-Year Survey Finds College Curriculums in U.S. in ‘Disarray,’” New York Times, February 11, 1985, 11/us/3-year-survey-finds-college-curriculums-in-us-in-disarray.html.

9. Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report to the Academic Community, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges, 1990), 9, 15.

10. Robert Zemsky, Structure and Coherence (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges, 1989).

11. The report, Liberal Learning and the Arts and Sciences Major, was published in three volumes: The Challenge of Connecting Learning (vol. 1, 1991), Reports from the Field (vol. 2, 1991), and Program Review and Educational Quality in the Major (vol. 3, 1992).

12. Association of American Colleges, Liberal Learning and the Arts and Sciences Major, vol. 1, The Challenge of Connected Learning (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges, 1991), 4.

Jerry G. Gaff is senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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