Magazine Feature

The Work of Moral Imagination

It’s time for higher education leaders to boldly reinvent liberal education

By Mary Dana Hinton

Fall 2022

As a teenager in Kittrell, North Carolina, I dreamed of going to college. When I met with my public high school guidance counselor to discuss my plans, rather than offering the tools I would need to succeed, she said that I should not be thinking about applying to college—that the military was the only option for a Black woman. I understood that she meant that because of my race, I was not entitled to a college education and the opportunities and freedoms it would afford me. Enlisting in the military, a noble endeavor, would equip me to serve in the armed forces, but I felt that attending a liberal arts college could lead to an almost limitless number of career paths.

I knew I had to own my ambitions and imagine my path forward to bring my dreams to fruition. For me, imagination has long been the innermost, intimate, and profound work of thinking about life through an unexplored lens. Imagination allows one to look at one’s circumstances and conceive something different—often something more than what the world presents as options; imagination beckons to your best self.

I persevered, went to college, and eventually earned a doctorate in religion. I didn’t do this by myself. I was fortunate to have people in my life—a mother, sponsors from the family she cleaned for, and deeply committed faculty members who mentored and cared for me. Today, I am the president of Hollins University, a women’s college in Hollins, Virginia. I did not achieve my place in life because I am smarter or better than others. I attained it because I was able to access a liberal education, an approach to undergraduate education that leads to the learning outcomes that are essential for work, citizenship, and life. That education unlocked opportunities for me and enabled new freedoms, challenging me to think more deeply about life. I learned to think about life in the context of the past; I learned to explore patterns; I gained the ability to make a persuasive case even in challenging circumstances.

My liberal education empowered me to imagine a different world and to envision truly inclusive communities of learning. Because I experienced situations in which I found myself an outsider in communities that purposely excluded me, I developed the singular aim of embracing others who were also excluded. I decided that I wanted to empower people who are marginalized by providing them with a liberal education so they, in turn, could empower and educate others.

There are still those who believe that a liberal education is only for those who breathe the most rarefied of air, that examining the big questions of life should be the domain solely of those for whom a liberal education is a legacy. I have heard far too many people say that “today’s students”—meaning students of color, low-income students, first-generation students, and, until the proliferation of coeducation, women—are better suited for professional or vocational training. All of us in higher education need to push back against that narrative. For example, when we talk about “shifting demography” on our campuses, we need to frame that as a gift and an opportunity, not as a liability with which we must contend. We need to remind ourselves of how our new demographics reconnect many of our institutions to their founding missions, even if today’s students look different than students of the past. Limiting learning and how we think about education and who has access to it is a failure of imagination. To shroud oneself in exclusion in the name of liberal education is to fundamentally misunderstand and misappropriate the very thing we claim to love.

A liberal education is for those who imagine freedom, who imagine something different, who imagine something more. In practice, a liberal education is a call to imagine for the sake of creating and transforming self, community, and the world around us.

As English philosopher Colin Wilson wrote, “Imagination should be used, not to escape reality, but to create it.” It is the curious imagination that finds cures for diseases. It is the wondering imagination that asks how we can re-envision learning and truly democratize excellent education. It is the unwavering imagination that chooses to break down barriers and develop structures of access and success. It is the willful imagination that refuses to be yoked to the past and courageously moves toward a self-determined future—a future in which anyone can access education.

For liberal education to thrive, leaders in higher education need to activate our moral imagination—the creative energy that enables us to understand, with compassion, other people’s struggles and that drives our desire to support meeting their needs. A moral imagination involves seeing, valuing, and supporting the potential of other human beings. A liberal education, through the freeing of minds, also calls us to apply what we learn to nurture others and to craft a more just world, summoning and feeding the moral imagination.

We’re currently in a time of great transition, some would say crisis, for liberal education and the moral imagination in the United States. Rising tuition fees, constrained resources, and increased suspicion of higher education and its aims have led many consumers to question its value relative to its cost. We are witnessing an erosion of trust in higher education, including decreased trust among students. More than four in ten bachelor’s degree holders under age forty-five, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve, do not think the benefits of their education exceed the costs. We must use the present moment as an inflection point and to the advantage of those we serve by boldly reimagining every aspect of a liberal education, including how to introduce it to students well before college matriculation. We need to start talking with students about applying to college when they are in late middle school or early high school, bringing greater focus to the K–12 student pipeline. We must pay more attention to the barriers underserved and low-income students face before they even set foot on a college campus. To end up with a more diverse college student body, we must become active partners for learning in K–12. This means concerning ourselves with everything from advocating for excellent teacher education to supporting college preparation in high schools. Prospective students must understand that college is not just about the first job they land; it’s about setting themselves up for a lifetime of leadership and success.

At Hollins, one way we work to support prospective college students is through our Hollins University Access Academy (HUAA). HUAA introduces higher-education opportunities to high school girls and mentors them in preparing for the college application process. In partnership with Roanoke City Public Schools, HUAA consists of monthly sessions hosted on the Hollins University campus during the spring semester of students’ sophomore year in high school. Through interactive workshops and panels with current Hollins students and admission staff, HUAA participants learn about campus life, develop a list of colleges to explore, access financial aid and scholarships, write a college application essay, and complete a practice college admission interview. The program’s goal is to cultivate participants’ interest in higher education, increase their likelihood of college application and attendance, and bolster their confidence in their ability to thrive in a college environment.

To further strengthen Hollins University’s prospective student pipeline, we are developing a planning grant to create a new program, Purpose and Power: Women Shaping History, for the Teagle Foundation’s Knowledge for Freedom (KFF) initiative. KFF brings underserved high school students from different local communities to reside on a college or university campus during the summer between their junior and senior years and participate in undergraduate-level coursework in the humanities.

For Hollins’ inaugural program, if the grant is awarded, a cohort of young women who attend a high school in nearby Roanoke Valley will come to our campus during the summer of 2023 for an intensive two-week seminar focused on the framing question “How have views on women’s agency and gender equality (d)evolved throughout the ages, and how do those views impact young women’s lives today?” The seminar will explore questions about freedom and agency with an emphasis on the lives of women. After this immersive experience, participants will receive ongoing support during the college application process, including education about types of college applications, admissions policies, and submission for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Participants will continue to build meaningful relationships with Hollins’ university faculty and students, and they will be able to request letters of recommendation from Hollins’ KFF faculty.

Data from the Columbia University pilot program Freedom and Citizenship (F&C, the blueprint for KFF) demonstrate that participating in the program boosts college readiness, admissions prospects, and graduation rates. From 2009 to 2022, 100 percent of F&C graduates were admitted to college, with 98 percent enrolling in college within six months of finishing high school. Eighty-five percent of F&C graduates completed a bachelor’s degree in four years, and 97 percent earned a degree within six years. A quarter of those students went on to pursue advanced degrees. To date, twenty colleges and universities are part of the KFF initiative, and three hundred high school students participated in different KFF programs in summer 2021.

While we, as leaders in higher education, do the work of reimagining liberal education and partnering with our communities, we also need to fearlessly commit to removing all systemic barriers to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on our campuses. Too often, DEI is a matter of voluntary participation when it should instead be a fully integrated part of college life. We must look at all aspects of our missions, visions, and institutional cultures through a DEI lens and deeply embed it into every aspect of our colleges and universities.

To start to accomplish this, we need to intentionally create spaces for community members to come together and openly discuss how to create equitable and just college communities. For example, for the past two years, Hollins has held an annual program called Leading Equity, Diversity, and Justice (Leading EDJ). This conference invites prominent local and national figures to join our students and faculty in exploring topics such as inclusive friendships, residential segregation, and contemporary struggles for racial equity and justice and how they shape our learning spaces and experiences. These kinds of events pave the way for the concrete actions and changes necessary for advancing diversity.

Higher education needs to take a holistic approach in the work toward inclusive excellence. Equity needs to be part of each and every policy, even when it does not seem relevant. For instance, many colleges have the policy that students must pay outstanding bills before they can register for classes. As a result, low-income students—who are more likely to struggle to pay bills on time and be late signing up for classes that fill up quickly—are systematically excluded from having the same range of class choices as their peers.

As another practical example, we must also revise the student employment process. Over the past twenty-five years, more than 70 percent of all college students worked while enrolled, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, but not all student jobs are equal. To get enough hours, a low-income student is more likely to work in a dining hall than in what might be described as a more desirable job in an academic office. Hollins’ data show that students of color work off campus at much higher rates than White students, sometimes at night or overnight shifts. Taking on these types of positions can affect students’ class participation, as well as their overall well-being. We need to exercise greater flexibility in deciding who gets to choose on-campus jobs first and ensure more on-campus jobs provide sufficient hours and income to meet the needs of low-income students.

Indeed, making college more affordable is another piece of supporting DEI efforts and reimagining liberal education. For example, in addition to experiencing inequities in the K–12 system in the United States, Black and Hispanic students encounter additional barriers throughout the admissions process. For a variety of reasons, including that they are often the first in their family to attend college, these students’ families and support systems are less likely to have experience with the nuts and bolts of applying to college and obtaining financial aid. The published costs of education can be overwhelming to even think about, causing some students to self-select out before they learn about available financial supports that could enable them to attend college. These students may also struggle to afford the expense of visiting and applying to several institutions.

As part of our commitment to making college financially accessible, in 2021 Hollins launched a scholarship that enables low-income young women living within a forty-mile radius of the university to earn a college degree with zero tuition debt. The cost of tuition is fully covered for all four years for recipients, including any tuition increases. Hollins does not require these students to live on campus, though one-third have chosen to do so. We named the program Hollins Opportunity for Promise through Education (HOPE) because the scholarship offers recipients the opportunity to turn their hope for a liberal education into a reality. We have done this with a modest endowment and deep care for the local community. For the current year, we had anticipated offering only seven HOPE scholarships, but thirty-one students said yes to HOPE. I could not be prouder.

Whether it is engaging high school students in the lives of our institutions or helping to ensure the success of our current students, much of DEI work is about creating a sense of belonging on our campuses. Belonging is an outcome of high-quality DEI work, yet college presidents often describe issues related to DEI as crises to manage. They’re not. They’re opportunities to lead. We must stop viewing equity as something we manage. It’s our core mission, and college students themselves play a key role in realizing it. Each student brings a reservoir of resilience, insight, and talent to campus. We ask them to share that generously as both leaders and learners. As learners, they need to challenge themselves and others, think creatively, and take their education seriously. I want them to see their own strength and vibrancy. If we trust in our students, we will all emerge stronger.

When something challenging happens on campus, I invite our students to participate in difficult dialogues. I listen to what they have to say. These are hard conversations, but we need to have them. Our students have great courage, and we’re responsible for taking their concerns seriously. In turn, I ask them to use their voices and speak up when they witness inequities.

Overall, we need to do the work of a liberal education creatively, with multiple perspectives at play, always remembering the human experience of all those we encounter. The essence of a liberal education—the freeing of minds—also demands liberating and nurturing our imagination. We must commit ourselves to working collaboratively, to being vulnerable to—and with—one another, to learning and leading, and to privileging a hopeful imagination over fear.

Illustrations by Matt Chase


  • Mary Dana Hinton

    Mary Dana Hinton

    Mary Dana Hinton is the president of Hollins University and chair of the American Association of Colleges and Universities Board of Directors.