Liberal Education

In Praise of Carol Geary Schneider

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.


I first got to know Carol Geary Schneider in the mid-1980s when, as a new dean at Hamline University, I received phone calls from her asking for advice. She was then at the University of Chicago and had received a grant to develop principles for adult education. We had met previously, when I was directing a multi-institutional project called General Education Models, and she was eager to learn how to work with diverse institutions in order to advance an educational agenda. I soon saw that she was smart, committed to improving higher education, and persistent in doing not just a good job but an excellent one.

When I left Hamline, Carol convinced Paula Brownlee, president of what was then called the Association of American Colleges (AAC), to invite me there in 1991. I worked closely with Carol and the rest of the staff until my retirement in 2003—and beyond. During Carol’s time at the association, I was fortunate to have been her friend and colleague, helping her lead the organization through nothing less than a transformation. In brief, over nearly three decades of service—first as vice president, beginning in 1987, and then as president, beginning in 1998—Carol put her mark on the association, most fundamentally by devising and advocating a clear educational vision.

Originally, AAC was an association of colleges and their presidents, and both liberal arts colleges and colleges of arts and sciences in larger institutions comprised its membership. While the mission of AAC was to promote “liberal and humane education,” that was always assumed to be linked inextricably with study in the disciplines of the liberal arts and sciences. Many activities during most of its history were intended to help strengthen the institutions that offered instruction in the “liberal arts.”

Like the consummate teacher that she was, Carol was interested in students, and she concentrated on what students needed to be liberally educated. She learned from early analyses offered by AAC reports like Integrity in the College Curriculum (1985), from views expressed by scholars in countless publications, and most of all from the learning goals set forth by hundreds of faculties at diverse colleges and universities. She integrated all these sources and spoke of an “emerging consensus” about what students should learn in college in order to possess the marks of a liberally educated person. These goals always included far more than acquiring a major or preparation for a career. Eventually these goals were refined and are known today as the AAC&U “Essential Learning Outcomes.”

As Norman Jones observed, “By centering on the student, rather than the institutional type, the delivery method, or the content area,” this new educational vision “reaffirms what has been obvious to most thoughtful observers: a broad liberal education is possible and necessary for all and should prepare graduates, simultaneously, for work, civic participation, and life.”1 It also allowed for the development of many projects that helped diverse colleges and universities cultivate these desired qualities, support faculty development, and learn to overcome resistance to change. These projects generated new learning about strategies to devise reformed curricula, new courses, student-faculty interactions, institutional supports, assessments, and academic cultures. The projects gained support from funding agencies, which allowed experimentation with innovations, enabled the hiring of an exceptional staff to lead them, and generated income for the association.

Carol’s acknowledged brilliance is perhaps best expressed in the several projects that she conceived and led. One of the keys to her success was the framing of projects in terms of larger societal goals—American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning, for example, and Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Another secret of her success was the ability to shape a practical project that had genuine potential to improve educational programs on campuses of all sorts. This “realistic idealism” was central to Carol’s leadership.

In addition, Carol always took a collaborative approach. Many scholars writing about higher education are solitary figures who make analyses, formulate solutions to problems, blame various forces resisting change (mostly the faculty), and lament the decline from some imagined “golden age.” But not Carol and her colleagues at AAC&U. These leaders have worked with faculty members and administrators on campuses to learn firsthand from practitioners about their problems, their suggestions for improvement, and their willingness to provide needed campus leadership.

Another quality of Carol’s leadership that can be seen throughout the projects she led is the ability to connect many disparate dots and exhibit the kind of integrative thinking she has long advocated. For example, she made significant contributions to two different strands of funded projects: those improving the quality of students’ education and those addressing the growing diversity of students. These two strands historically have been viewed in opposition. That is, efforts to improve the quality of education were seen to be undermined by the increasing diversity of students, including women, ethnic minorities, adults, and those for whom education had previously failed. But she saw that each of these kinds of “new” students brought different experiences, expectations, and ideas into the academy and fostered a sense of inclusion. Perhaps her crowning achievement was in 2012 when the board of directors approved a modification of association’s mission. The new statement reads, “The mission of AAC&U is to make liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education.”

Another talent, less well known, is Carol’s savvy in growing an educational association. Not only did she secure many millions of dollars from funding agencies, but she was able to use a portion of that funding to support a stronger staff and annual budget. The number of staff grew under her presidency, and over time the intellectual capital generated largely via projects also grew. AAC&U was learning how to make campus change and to improve the education of students. More and more campus leaders wanted to become members and to attend meetings, bringing colleagues as a “team.”

Since Carol became president in 1998, the AAC&U membership has grown significantly in size and diversity. She and her senior colleagues, including the board of directors, launched several initiatives to expand the membership. These included efforts to increase community college membership to reflect the increasing numbers of students enrolled in two-year institutions. State and regional systems became members, as larger numbers of institutions became parts of larger groupings. International affiliates and other organizational affiliates also became members. From 678 members in 1998, the membership grew to more than 1,350 today.

I recall that during the 1990s Carol and I would celebrate the achievements of the annual meeting, especially the intellectual and educational excitement, and lament that more academics were not involved. At that time, attendance at our annual meeting typically ranged from about 750 to nearly 1,000. Over the years, Carol and her colleagues took several steps to increase the meeting’s attractiveness, particularly to faculty members and other campus leaders. Specifically, they

  • added pre- or post-conference workshops to give participants hands-on experiences with a particular topic, such as using technology or creating learning communities;
  • planned a pre-conference symposium on some special topic to appeal to particular academic audiences—e.g., integrating the sciences, arts, and humanities;
  •  actively solicited proposals from faculty members, student affairs staff, and other campus leaders to increase the range of issues and session leaders;
  • encouraged teams of largely faculty members from institutions with financial incentives for additional attendees from the same institution;
  •  invited meetings of related organizations.

As a result of these various strategies, attendance finally topped the 1,000 mark in 2002, rose above 1,500 in 2008, and surpassed 2,000 for the first time in 2011. The average attendance for the five years between 2010 and 2014 was 1,921.

In the early 1990s, there were only two types of meetings offered by AAC—project-funded events that were closed to nonparticipants and the annual meeting. Carol and other leaders began to think about how to offer more meetings open to all. In 1991, AAC offered the first Institute on General Education in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Asheville. During its first twenty-five years, the institute drew 517 institutions—103 of which attended twice, suggesting satisfaction that this gathering produced significant benefits for participants and their campuses.

Carol and I considered creating a series of two-day “short courses” on specific topics related to curriculum, teaching, and learning. In discussing this idea with various deans and provosts, we learned that what they wanted from these meetings was an opportunity for their faculty to become familiar with the national reform agenda. In 1993, President Brownlee approved the first series of meetings on topics that would allow AAC to share what had been learned from its various projects. The first meetings were attended by a couple of dozen people, but they soon grew to between fifty and sixty. We learned as we went, and in the 2015–16 academic year the attendance at the four Network for Academic Renewal meetings was 2,800. These meetings increased the association’s impact on individuals and institutions and its standing in the academy.

Under Carol’s leadership, AAC&U expanded its publication of books and monographs on a range of educational topics. Liberal Education had always been the association’s flagship quarterly publication, and it progressively became a magazine of useful ideas. It published more articles about innovations in teaching, learning, and the curriculum, and the writing became more lively and engaging. Other quarterly periodicals were added to the portfolio, including Peer Review and Diversity Digest, (now Diversity & Democracy). As electronic communications became mainstream, the AAC&U website 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 academics on member campuses and beyond.

As it developed additional resources, the association began to address new audiences. For its entire history its primary audience had been campus leaders, first presidents and academic officers. Gradually it addressed faculty members, staff in teaching-learning centers, and student affairs staff. Eventually, AAC&U began to address public policy makers and the general public.

The natural result of the growth in the number and range of funded projects, staff, meetings, and communications was a growth in membership and finances. In all the years I worked with Carol, I never heard her talk about growing AAC&U for the sake of growth. It was always growth in order to provide more resources to institutions so they, in turn, could offer better education for students. But financial growth and strength grew out of that educational focus. It turned out that good education was good policy, and Carol had the knack for numbers and for growing an organization. The reality is that member dues never provided more than a fraction of the association’s income. But under Carol’s leadership, the revenue streams broadened. Today, the association is less dependent on external funds and better able to set its own agenda.

One of the goals of any professional should be to make his or her job a better one when she leaves than when she arrived. AAC&U is a much more valuable national resource today than it was before Carol Schneider.  


1. Norman Jones, “The Continuous Death and Resurrection of the Liberal Arts,” Liberal Education 101/102, no. 4/1 (2016): 51.

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

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the author’s name on the subject line.

Previous Issues