Liberal Education

Carol Geary Schneider, Liberal Education, and Social Justice

EDITOR’S NOTE: After twenty-nine years of service, Carol Geary Schneider retired from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) on June 30, 2016. Carol came to the association from the University of Chicago in 1987 and, as vice president, led several major AAC&U initiatives, including Engaging Cultural Legacies, Re-Forming Arts and Sciences Majors, and American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning. She was appointed president in 1998. As president, Carol presided over an especially successful and consequential period in the association’s hundred-year history. The membership doubled, from 678 in 1998 to more than 1,350 in 2016; inclusive excellence was elevated to a mission-level commitment; and a robust vision for liberal education in the twenty-first century was developed and promoted through several major initiatives. In 2005, anticipating AAC&U’s centennial in 2015, Carol led the creation of the wide-ranging Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative, which brings together several coordinated efforts to enact the association’s integrative vision for the renewal of undergraduate education and a vigorous public advocacy effort to build consensus on essential learning outcomes among educators, scholars, employers, accreditors, leaders of state systems, and members of the general public.

To mark Carol’s retirement, we invited four of her close collaborators to reflect on various aspects of her legacy for the association and, more broadly, for American higher education. The brief essays printed here begin to sketch the contours of that legacy, celebrating Carol’s ongoing work to ensure that liberal education is available to all students.


In her article in the fall 2014 issue of Liberal Education, an adaptation of her 2005 address marking the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), Carol Geary Schneider discussed the 1976 expansion of the focus of our association from exclusively colleges of arts and sciences to “all of the nation’s colleges and universities, large and small, public and private, two-year and four-year.”1 With this change, the board of directors stated that the future goal was for liberal education to “serve our entire nation as an instrument for shaping a future consistent with its highest ideals.”2

An extraordinary leader who understands the moment, and a visionary who understands the role of history, Carol points out that this expanded focus coincided with the incorporation of what she termed “our nation’s recently included students”:

adult students, students of color, first-generation students, international immigrant students, students from less advantaged families, students who were working full time and attending part time . . . . And so, starting in the 1970s, this association became a gathering place for everyone who believed that these recently included students needed and deserved the very best education we could provide—and for everyone who recognized that we would need to reexamine both the aims and the practices of liberal education if we wanted to meet that very high standard. We were guided by our commitment to liberal or liberating education. But we were also embarked on a search for new ways to make that kind of education available to an extraordinarily diverse generation of students.3

She reminds us that a generation of teacher-scholars (of which she was one in the 1980s) from institutions across the landscape of higher education “set off not just one movement for reform in undergraduate education, but literally dozens of them,” ultimately resulting in a new vision for liberal education.4 Now, eleven years later—and eighteen years after Carol assumed the presidency of AAC&U—the organization has an impressive record of initiatives and innovations advancing inclusive excellence in liberal education.

Arguably, those initiatives and innovations were spearheaded by two pioneering initiatives: the “chilly climate” work on gender equity, begun by the distinguished Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, director of the Project on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW) from 1971 to 1991, and the Engaging Cultural Legacies: Shaping Core Curricula in the Humanities project, led by Carol.

PSEW continued as the Program on the Status and Education of Women under the leadership of Caryn McTighe Musil until 2012, publishing the quarterly newsletter On Campus with Women and a number of important reports and monographs—including A Measure of Equity: Women’s Progress in Higher Education (2008)—and establishing both Campus Women Lead and the Women’s Leadership Project for Inclusive Excellence. Engaging Cultural Legacies: Shaping Core Curricula in the Humanities took on the huge, daunting, and still unfinished task of “designing curricula that broaden traditional notions of ‘our common cultural heritage’ to incorporate the plurality of cultures around the world and, increasingly, within the United States.” Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, sixty-three institutions participated in a collaborative dialogue “to engage the complexities of the contemporary world.”5 Many colleges and universities were already working on similar projects, and 250 of them applied to participate in the AAC&U project.

Engaging Cultural Legacies emphasized the importance of civic competencies to participation in a pluralistic democracy. Carol continued to build on that foundation, leading the development of programmatic work ranging from American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning to Liberal Education and America’s Promise—initiatives that take seriously the late Frank Wong’s observation that “contemporary debates about diversity” are part of “this country’s ongoing negotiations over the meaning, application, and inclusiveness of its democratic principles.”6

Two other projects set the standard for the faculty expertise needed to improve undergraduate education. The first, Preparing Future Faculty (1993–2000), was designed to help graduate students prepare for faculty roles. This partnership between AAC&U and the Council of Graduate Schools received generous support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Science Foundation, and the Atlantic Philanthropies. The second, Preparing Critical Faculty for the Future (2010–2016), was a leadership, curriculum, and pedagogy development project for women faculty of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields at historically black colleges and universities. This project, together with the recent incorporation of Project Kaleidoscope into AAC&U and the ongoing Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM project, has made AAC&U the place to go for improving undergraduate STEM education.

Under Carol’s leadership, AAC&U has continued to connect liberal education, diversity, democracy, and civic engagement to advance inclusive excellence in composition as well as substance. Carol deftly led AAC&U to advocate for diversity in public policy, partnering with the American Council on Education on the Affirmative Action Collaborative Research Project (1998–2000), which sought to identify the best ways to report and research the educational benefits of diverse student populations learning together, and with the Harvard Civil Rights Project (2000–2003) on both Achieving Diversity in Higher Education: How to Establish Educationally and Legally Sound Financial Aid and Admission Policies, a national training institute, and the preparation of an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court on campus diversity policies and their effects.

Recently, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carol asserted that “it’s never been more important that students have a big-picture education that prepares them to deal with complexity, and prepares them to take ethical responsibility and civic responsibility for what they’re learning.”7 Her commitment to inclusive excellence during her tenure has both led and brought together faculty, staff, and administrators who serve our changing, heterogeneous population in order to bring equity to assessment, student success, mentoring, and, in short, to educational practices that improve the educational opportunities and experiences of all students. With her leadership, AAC&U has assisted institutions to develop and assess diversity initiatives, infuse those initiatives into liberal education, and aspire to bring inclusive excellence to all levels and dimensions of higher education.

Because of her leadership and commitment to both liberal education and social justice, Carol has set AAC&U on a clearly defined course to meet the challenges and complexities of liberal education and social justice yet to come in this century. I am certain she will continue to do so beyond AAC&U, because it is just in her DNA.


1. Carol Geary Schneider, “Making Excellence Inclusive: Liberal Education and America’s Promise,” Liberal Education 100, no. 4 (2014), 48.

2. Association of American Colleges, “Report of the Board of Directors,” Liberal Education 62, no. 1 (1976): 289.

3. Schneider, “Making Excellence Inclusive,” 48.

4. Ibid., 49.

5. Carol Geary Schneider, foreword to Core Curriculum and Cultural Pluralism: A Guide for Campus Planners, by Betty Schmitz (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 1992), v–viii.

6. Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 1995), 1.

7. Dan Berrett, “Why a ‘Big-Picture Education’ Has Never Been More Important,” an interview with Carol Geary Schneider, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 12, 2016,

Johnnella E. Butler is professor of comparative women’s studies at Spelman College.

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