Liberal Education

President's Message: LEAP at the Five-Year Mark

The 2010 annual meeting brought us to the halfway point in our intended ten-year campaign to advance Liberal Education and America's Promise, or LEAP. (Launched at the 2005 annual meeting, the LEAP initiative will continue at least through AAC&U's centennial in 2015.) This milestone invites reflection on what we've accomplished to date, and our priorities for the next phase of work.

First, I want to underscore the point that LEAP emerged directly from AAC&U's mission, which is to keep the aims of liberal learning a vigorous and constant influence on institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education. The overarching goal of our association has been to work with our members and the broader community to provide a contemporary and compelling articulation of the "aims and outcomes of liberal learning," and to advance institutional and curricular practices that help all students—especially those historically underserved in higher education—achieve the intended aims and outcomes. As part of the LEAP initiative, AAC&U has also launched a coordinated effort to engage the broader public—including civic, policy, and business leaders—with the importance of liberal education outcomes in today's world. In doing so, we seek to create a more supportive environment within which our members can advance efforts to ensure that their students achieve a rich set of liberal learning outcomes essential for life, work, and citizenship in the twenty-first century.

I take pride and pleasure in the extent to which the LEAP vision has given a strong sense of direction to all of AAC&U's work, becoming a significant reference point for all our members and for our myriad projects, meetings, web resources, and publications. I also am deeply grateful to those who helped us frame this initiative and find ways to support it. While we are keenly aware that a great deal remains to be accomplished, we also have much to celebrate.

In particular, scores of member institutions have adapted, adopted, or co-opted the LEAP essential learning outcomes—and with good reason. After all, they emerged from extensive interaction and dialogue with our members: they came from you; they were designed to serve broad educational purposes calibrated to new and enduring institutional challenges; they are yours. The essential learning outcomes are truly at the core of our efforts to articulate what a liberal education really means in the twenty-first century, just as the high-impact practices highlighted and promoted through the LEAP initiative are increasingly at the heart of institutional and programmatic efforts to help students achieve key learning outcomes.

In a paper released at the 2005 annual meeting, I wrote about the "conspiracy of voluntary silence" that seemed to surround liberal education. Today, in contrast, state systems of higher education in California, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin are in partnership with AAC&U, and we are currently in active dialogue with leaders in a number of other states. In addition, some three hundred institutions, private and public, are currently part of the LEAP Campus Action Network, while more than ninety college and university presidents have joined the LEAP Presidents' Trust, a special leadership group committed to providing advocacy for the vision, values, and practices that connect higher education with the needs of the twenty-first century. As I wrote in the last issue of Liberal Education, many leaders still shy away from actually using the term "liberal education," so I am particularly grateful that the Trust is providing this much-needed leadership.

In the context of this momentum, we look forward to the next five years with much anticipation. One of our goals for the next phase of the LEAP initiative is to build institutional capacity to make liberal education and inclusive excellence pervasive commitments—embraced, promoted, and achieved. While many AAC&U members have endorsed the LEAP outcomes in their own articulations of institutional goals and student learning outcomes, not enough have made them central to faculty socialization and rewards, student guidance and orientation, or public outreach. Further, we recognize that disciplinary priorities strongly influence faculty commitments and that departments play a crucial role in helping students develop higher-level capabilities and a grounded sense of personal and social responsibility. Accordingly, we intend to focus in the next phase of LEAP on deepening partnerships with disciplinary and professional associations, with the goals of gaining scholarly endorsement of the LEAP vision for liberal learning and building disciplinary capacity to help faculty connect the vision with their teaching.

It continues to be our goal that more and more institutions develop campus cultures where all students—no matter their majors or their backgrounds—are routinely involved in active, high-effort, inquiry-based learning (including community-based learning). We need to develop greater clarity about what it takes to make active, high-effort learning standard, rather than optional. And we need to take shared responsibility for helping all students, including those from groups traditionally underserved by higher education, achieve the outcomes of a twenty-first-century liberal education—including, in particular, the outcomes related to personal and social responsibility, civic engagement, ethics, and intercultural and global learning.

When we launched LEAP five years ago, we could not have anticipated that President Obama would shine a spotlight on higher education by making it a national goal to increase college completion levels significantly by 2020, or that this effort would be supported by major initiatives of leading philanthropies and now the National Governors Association. AAC&U members—through our LEAP efforts locally, regionally, and nationally—have an even more important role to play in this environment. As a community, we must speak forcefully about broadening national goals beyond just increasing the numbers of college graduates: our nation must rise to the even tougher and more ambitious challenge of ensuring that those graduates achieve key liberal education outcomes at high levels.

Notwithstanding all the progress toward reinvigorating liberal education, at least within our colleges and universities and in some state systems and policy arenas, I cannot claim that we have expanded public understanding of what the outcomes of college really must be for the degree to have lasting value. And we also still have a long way to go in reconciling the world to the term "liberal education." But through the LEAP initiative, and the Greater Expectations work that preceded it, AAC&U clearly has found a way to help the higher education community both embrace and advance the core purposes of its own most powerful tradition for college learning. And, as we observe the five-year anniversary of LEAP, that is an accomplishment in which we can take pride.

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