Liberal Education

Celebrating Ninety Years of Leadership for Liberal Education

This association is ninety years old--but it is far from aged. Rather, it is rejuvenated by the wonderful, successive generations of its members: its institutional presidents, deans, and faculty members. It is guided by its strong board and now led by its current president, Carol Schneider, and her staff. Together, the association's strong purpose and mission have bonded all of us through ninety years.

The history of these ninety years has not traced a smooth trajectory. I myself have been involved with this association for thirty-one of those ninety years.

In 1974, I started as a dark-haired, brash new dean. (I point to my now white hair!) At my first annual meeting then, I sat near the back of the opening plenary session and gazed at the rows of elderly men, suited, gray-haired, and noted the mere sprinkling of women, lay and religious. But as the meeting continued through the days, I was amazed. I had entered a new world full of the wonder of rich intellectual exchanges, of expanding ideas, and all centered on undergraduate education--so different from my experience at my large public research university.

In 1976, I started a three-year term on the board--the first time that two or three deans could stand for election to join all the presidents. That was the tense period during which the association, then the Association of American Colleges (AAC), nearly went under. The old association had been split in two, with the part that became the National Association for Independent Colleges and Universities moving off with all the government and public relations responsibilities, and the "new" and apparently diminished AAC retaining curriculum issues. Many on the board felt that AAC was retaining too slender a portfolio and that we would lose membership precipitously. Membership did decline along with revenues. They were difficult years, but AAC survived the 1970s.

During the 1980s, AAC projects of value to member institutions burgeoned; Integrity in the College Curriculum was a landmark publication leading the way to previously undreamt of explorations. Partnerships with business education and engineering led to expanded thinking about general education and liberal learning. These years saw too the groundbreaking growth of the Project on the Status and Education of Women. The successful Presidential Search and Consultation Service instituted by Fred Ness, former president of AAC, was spun off and continues to serve most effectively as Academic Search.

By 1990, AAC was ready to celebrate its seventy-fifth birthday. President John Chandler's distinguished leadership and a strong board had brought some stability to the rocky finances of the early 1980s. Institutional memberships were six hundred. Young Carol Schneider was the executive vice president, and she was already brilliantly identifying the need to develop knowledge and practice on educating diverse students in our nation's classrooms. American Commitments was launched on an ever-expanding course. In the early 1990s, the media trumpeted that "the culture wars" were "raging" while the code words "multiculturism" and "political correctness" were used as weapons. However, at AAC we did not ask whether to address diverse cultures as part of liberal learning, but how and to what educational ends. The far-ranging results speak to the effectiveness of this work.

During the 1990s, many foundations were laid, including Preparing Future Faculty, a project involving hundreds of graduate students at research universities; dialogues with Japan and China for faculty and student international learning; and our early probing of the use of information technology in its beginning applications to student learning.

All of this is, I hope, interesting; but it is prelude only to the exciting work of today: AAC&U's acting with courage and vision for the best learning of our future students.

I am so proud of today's AAC&U. I left everyday involvement with AAC&U seven years ago, but I am prouder year by year of what you, our members, do in partnership in this association. To the president, Carol Schneider, and to all her colleagues and to our members: I salute your wonderful work and thank you from my heart.

Paula P. Brownlee was president of AAC&U from 1990 to 1998.

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