Liberal Education

Leadership for the Liberal Arts: Lessons from American Universities Abroad

The news from the United States is dismal: higher education in the liberal arts is in decline. Many institutions face waning overall enrollments, resulting in significant pressure to offer the professional programs students are said to prefer. Politicians are intent on ensuring that colleges generate job skills explicitly connected to the needs of the workforce.

Viewing the situation from a wider global perspective allows for optimism, however, as the liberal arts model continues to burgeon. From Nigeria to Vietnam, Saudi Arabia to Slovakia, Mexico to Kyrgyzstan, the presence of liberal arts institutions has been growing throughout the world. Thanks to American-labeled universities (e.g., American University in Beirut, Lebanon), homegrown and locally contextualized universities (e.g., Ashesi University, Ghana), and university colleges (e.g., Leiden University College, The Hague, the Netherlands)—many of which have opened over the past few decades—the liberal arts approach to higher education is not contracting, but expanding. Although professionally oriented degree programs and career- or research-focused institutions still maintain the lead in share of total student enrollments across the globe, an education that is rich in intellectual discovery continues to hold widespread appeal.

Regardless of any criticism of—or lack of enthusiasm for—the liberal arts model in the United States, educated Americans still understand the value of the model’s foundational concepts. They continue to perceive the university experience as an opportunity for self-discovery and see cocurricular and extracurricular activities as essential to the learning experience. Indeed, most university students throughout the United States are still required to take general education courses. But in countries where higher education is divided into well-ordered categories, such as preparation for trade, research, and civil service, leading a college or university that takes a comprehensive, holistic approach requires a different kind of work.

To better understand what it means to promote the liberal arts in countries without strong liberal arts traditions, we recently asked presidents, chancellors, and provosts of some of these distinctive universities to reflect on their own leadership practices. In what follows, we provide a glimpse of the challenges involved in leading liberal arts universities around the world, drawing lessons from our recent book, American Universities Abroad: The Leadership of Independent Transnational Higher Education Institutions.1

Contributing presidents, provosts, and deans wrote about the difficulties they often face in managing productive relations with their host governments. Some described the challenges inherent in maintaining educational quality during times of political uprising; others lamented the extra burden of holding outcomes-focused US accreditation in countries that also have traditions of inspection, which rely on simplistic (but often paperwork-intensive) checklists and numerous personal visits. At the same time, the leaders pointed to the positive learning experiences that come from engagement with anxious parents, they indicated that the political or social instabilities of their host countries can add to students’ educational experiences, and they wrote that their alumni are in high demand by local employers.

To synthesize their messages, we have drawn four lessons from the book. We believe that these lessons can also apply at liberal arts colleges and universities within the United States.

Lesson 1: Educate all stakeholders

A theme running through the experiences of leaders of global liberal arts universities is the need to assess and ensure an accurate understanding of the liberal arts model among all constituents, including those who lack tacit organizational-cultural knowledge. Regardless of whether they approve of the model, Americans tend to implicitly understand the purposes of certain features of a traditional liberal arts education, such as general education requirements, cocurricular activities, and residential campuses. Dissociated from similar native or instinctive traditions, many participants in institutions located outside of the United States are unaware of how these features connect to particular educational objectives. Thus, while the liberal arts model clearly appeals to a broad range of people in host countries, institutional leaders have found that they need to deliver constant reminders about their institutions’ aims, mission, and methods to faculty, staff, students, parents, employers, and host governments.

At institutions that lack grounding in the liberal arts model, mission drift may occur, particularly in response to local competition. Most presidents who wrote for our book referred to the balancing act of keeping enrollment levels high while adhering to their core educational missions. At an organizational level, discord can occur when the desire to ensure student satisfaction clashes with the understanding that intellectual discomfort is necessary to inspire personal growth. Most staff and faculty appreciate this intent. Yet when a parent asks, “Why am I paying so much tuition for a literature class when my child wants to major in business?,” staff and faculty who are not steeped in the values of the liberal arts make microlevel decisions that cumulatively move the institution in the direction of the local competition. For example, it may be tempting to respond to student complaints by slowly removing, one at a time, certain broad, foundational requirements, only to realize eventually that the core values of the liberal arts are no longer noticeably present at the institution.

At the American University in Cairo, we have worked closely with employers and families to demonstrate the value of our science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees as compared to those of other local private or national public institutions. We frequently emphasize the desire employers have for engineering graduates who not only are technically competent, but also are competent communicators of their knowledge, creative problem-solvers, and so forth. Egyptian families prioritize engineering and medical degrees, and at other institutions, students may take only those courses that directly relate to their degrees. These institutions claim that because their students focus for four years solely on the technical sides of engineering or medicine, their graduates are better engineers or doctors than ours. However, our graduates are hired first. Employers tell us they would prefer to hire engineers who still need to learn some specifics of engineering but who have the ability to think analytically, lead a team, and work creatively.

While quantitative data, such as job placement rates, is helpful in conveying the value of the degree, narratives (especially those representing student success stories) can be a more powerful means of communicating to families and students the value of our educational approach. Indeed, in the educational marketplace, the value of a liberal education is not intuitive. Higher education leaders need to communicate these messages to multiple audiences and in multiple ways.

Lesson 2: Cultivate community broadly

Around the globe, liberal arts institutions are often labeled as American (e.g., Lebanese American University, Lebanon; American University of Central Asia, Kyrgyz Republic). Yet even when they do not hold such labels (e.g., Effat University, Saudi Arabia; Ashesi University College, Ghana), the local community may perceive the institution as having international roots, primarily because many faculty members come from abroad.

Such perceptions can fuel existential threats to the university. In early 2017, Central European University, an American-accredited university in Budapest with course offerings concentrated at the graduate level, faced potential closure by a populist government intent on banning foreign universities. While the university still awaits a final resolution, it continues to educate students in Budapest and has intentionally deflected offers to pick up and move entirely to Vienna, Austria.

At a subsequent meeting of presidents of American international universities, attendees discussed how institutions around the world had guarded against similar pressures. For example, despite increasing anti-American sentiment in Egypt, the American University in Cairo had maintained its reputation with the government and in society in part because of its School of Continuing Education, which provides affordable English language instruction to tens of thousands of Egyptian students every year. Similarly, the American University of Nigeria has invested the time and resources of its faculty, staff, and students in feeding tens of thousands of local refugees, displaced by the insurgent group Boko Haram, each night. As a result, despite ever-present danger in the region, the university enjoys a level of peace and security that comes from public acceptance of its existence.

Both in the United States and abroad, liberal arts institutions are often perceived as places only for the elite and wealthy. But when these colleges and universities break down barriers between themselves and their communities and deploy their rich intellectual resources to address local problems, they can become accepted and beloved in their host countries, perceived as community educators and ambassadors of goodwill. Many leaders of global liberal arts institutions portrayed this aspect of leadership as essential to their work.

Lesson 3: Keep up with trends

The community of advocates, scholars, and leaders in liberal arts higher education is active and ambitious, envisioning and enacting change in areas ranging from advances in service learning to interdisciplinary degree structures. In the United States, it can be relatively easy to keep up with higher education trends, because most universities have nearby peer institutions with which they collaborate and communicate. An abundant supply of conferences and workshops, as well as graduate degree programs in higher education leadership, also support cross-institutional exchange. Outside the United States, however, where access to such resources is more limited, it is easy to fall behind in relation to models that are quickly evolving.

When the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts (BISLA) opened in 2006, founding rector Samuel Abrahám knew that a mission drift toward the region’s traditional educational approaches, which are based on lecture and memorization, was highly likely. Many of the faculty came from the host country, Slovakia, and he had few resources to provide them with extensive professional development in the evolving American liberal arts tradition. Knowing that the institution could not afford to establish a mentoring program in partnership with a US institution, Rector Abrahám chose instead to develop a culture of peer mediation within BISLA. He encouraged faculty members to support one another as they explored different methods of teaching and learning—ideas as simple as slowing down the curriculum to ensure that students have time to engage in discussion about the material, a practice that was strikingly different from the faculty’s traditional approach in their courses.

Another increasingly important tactic to ensure fidelity to the core values of liberal education and alignment with current trends is pursuing and maintaining accreditation with one of the regional accrediting bodies in the United States. John Cabot University in Rome has found that despite the difficulties of the accreditation process, the rigor needed to achieve accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools is worth pursuing. Regional US accreditation sets the university apart from institutions based on national models because it signals both internally and externally that the university values a distinct knowledge base for higher education rooted primarily in liberal arts traditions. Accreditation also gives the university an incentive to stay up-to-date on trends occurring in the United States.

Lesson 4: Implement for lasting impact

There is a risk to trying to keep up with trends in relative isolation from peer institutions in similar contexts: the danger of implementing light or cheap facsimiles of the trends. Institutions abroad may embrace ideas from the United States with little thought given to their local contexts and implications. This is a certain path to failure for programs that have the potential to be positive and effective. Although common threads will run throughout the wide variety of institutions around the globe, the approaches used in one place are not plug-and-play features that apply in all situations. Successful programs rise out of specific historic, social, and economic contexts. For programs, methods, and trends to have an impact, educational leaders must examine and evaluate the unique contexts of their own institutions.

One impressive example of success comes from Effat University in Saudi Arabia, a liberal arts college for women. Effat faculty have worked to ensure that their approach to education is grounded in Islamic traditions and teachings. While the institution’s practices may look quite different from those of liberal arts institutions in the United States, both approaches are formulated around core ideals of inquiry, self-expression, creativity, and debate. But at Effat University, these ideals find support in an underlying imperative: IQRA, the first word of the Quran, which means “read,” or gain understanding from as broad a level as possible. The university articulates clearly its values and interpretations of the Quran in light of its approach to broad-based education. President Haifa Reda Jamal Al-Lail reminds staff, faculty, students, and parents of the connections between the university model and their own faith values. This allows the university to maintain its fidelity to the liberal arts, despite pressures to move toward a more labor-oriented academic approach.

Leading the liberal arts across the globe

Unquestionably, leading a liberal arts institution in the United States is a tough and often thankless job. But in countries where the very concept of a liberal education is not understood—or worse, where the values associated with such education are completely disregarded— leadership requires a new level of skill. We see the presidents, provosts, and deans of liberal arts institutions around the world as ambassadors of a holistic view of learning, growth, and inquiry.

As criticism of liberal arts education in the United States continues, this type of education is increasingly popular globally, eagerly sought out due to its value in developing human capital. Too often, though, liberal arts institutions around the world are isolated from their peers, attempting to advance liberal arts education without even the level of public and private support available in the United States.

We urge American liberal arts institutions to consider reaching out to their counterparts around the world to explore potential partnerships or exchange programs. Such partnerships can be mutually beneficial, as there is much to learn from these institutions that have found unique ways to succeed against odds that are, in many cases, far more challenging than those in the United States.


1. Ted Purinton and Jennifer Skaggs, eds., American Universities Abroad: The Leadership of Independent Transnational Higher Education Institutions (Cairo, Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press, 2017).

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TED PURINTON is dean of the Bahrain Teachers College at the University of Bahrain and formerly the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the American University in Cairo. JENNIFER SKAGGS is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the American University in Cairo.

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