The president of Ursinus College, John Strassburger, is one of the liberal-arts college presidents I most admire. Although I live only an hour away from Collegeville, I had never heard of either the town or the college until about a decade ago, but the more I have learned about Ursinus, the more I admire what the college has been accomplishing for liberal undergraduate education.
Strassburger has just contributed an elegant, concise, and well-argued essay on the Ursinus experience to this week’s Chronicle Commentary section: “For the Liberal Arts, Rhetoric Is Not Enough.” He describes the slough of despond that many smaller liberal-arts colleges went through not so many years ago when they were advised to abandon their liberal-arts instructional core in favor of preprofessional programs in nursing, business, and whatever. But Strassburger and a few other leaders of these colleges realized that simply spouting the time-honored slogans of liberality in education would not be enough to sustain the appeal of their institutions in an increasingly competitive and bloody-minded admissions environment. The challenge was to reframe and restructure undergraduate liberal education in a way that was both compelling to dedicated faculty members and appealing to 16-year-old applicants (and their parents).
The first step at Ursinus was to eliminate programs that did not contribute centrally to the goals of liberal education. These included “pragmatic programs” such as an accounting track and certification in athletics training, an ineffective summer school and “a heavily business-oriented evening program.” The second phase was to put in place a series of new programs: undergraduate research fellowships for seniors, the now-famous two-semester freshman “Common Intellectual Experience,” the “Independent Learning Experience” (undergrad research, study abroad, academic internships), and a common freshman housing program. The idea was to take student intellect and cognition seriously, to mount programs “that demonstrably produce autonomous learners and responsible adults.” Systematic assessment is built into the Ursinus model, and, thus far, the assessments are encouraging. And Ursinus has attracted real interest from applicants — enrollment has increased, SAT scores have risen substantially, and applications have increased by a factor of four. It is not so easy to produce “autonomous learners and responsible adults,” but Ursinus is demonstrating that it is possible.
How easy would it be to do something analagous elsewhere? The answer, I fear, is “not very.” Ursinus enjoys enlightened leadership from its administration and (a key factor) its trustees. It has had a solid buy-in from its faculty, upon whose shoulders a very heavy burden of planning and teaching has fallen. And it has been able to generate the resources to support its daring initiative. Even the best liberal-arts colleges would have difficulty in changing course as dramatically as Ursinus has done, but I can imagine comparable (though probably less ambitious) efforts along these lines.
But it is hard for me to imagine anything comparable in universities, for a whole host of reasons: faculty dedication to research and limited investment in undergraduate education; administrative commitment to research and to “big everything,” and, in general, the difficulty of changing the course of the Queen Mary. But of course what is hardest to imagine in the research university context is developing the sort of educational consensus and commitment that the Ursinus administration and faculty have demonstrated. Thorough reform of this sort requires the sort of institutionwide consensus and collaboration that seldom emerges in large institutions.
We have had all too much feel-good rhetoric about liberal education. Please read Strassburger’s essay if you are interested in seeing how an institution has thought through its educational mission, dramatically revised its curriculum and approach to student affairs, and put in place a genuine experiment in making liberal education happen. I would love to see a wide range of attempts, not to replicate Ursinus, but to imagine comparable efforts to institutionalize liberal education in very different contexts. Some of this might even work in universities!