The Value and Values of a Liberal Education: A Report from the 2014 Annual Meeting of the AAC&U

Julia Brookins, March 2014

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) convened in Washington, DC, for its 2014 annual meeting from January 22 to 25. A national organization founded in 1915, the AAC&U is dedicated to strengthening undergraduate liberal education at individual institutions and in public life. It has more than 1,300 member institutions, representing a wide range of colleges and university types. The AAC&U annual meeting attracts leaders in higher education, including administrators, presidents, and faculty, as well as those engaged in higher-education strategy and policymaking from nonprofit organizations, state, and federal higher-education agencies.

This year’s meeting was an occasion for broad discussions about curricula and institutional planning, and for showcasing particular projects and case studies that reveal important trends. While a number of sessions addressed the conference theme, “Quality, E-Quality, and Opportunity: How Educational Innovations Will Make—or Break—America’s Global Future,” most also addressed public and institutional concerns about how to value higher education. Most meeting attendees will need to lead their institutions in the directions that will reinforce this value. How should universities ask the public to think about what an undergraduate education contributes to society? What kinds of economic arguments can they make, without undermining the case for the civic, personal, and intellectual purposes of liberal learning? What kinds of programs and tools can help to demonstrate these values, while still providing students with evidence of skills and learning that will benefit them in the workplace?

One of the underlying themes of the meeting was the question of faculty roles in institutional change. Johann Neem (Western Washington Univ.), who serves as president of his faculty senate, reflected, “It was important to learn that administrators are caught in the middle. On the one hand, they are responsible for leading their institutions; on the other hand, they find themselves in a fairly hostile policy environment and must be responsive to it for practical reasons.”

Daniel McInerney (Utah State Univ.) had the sense that history faculty members’ participation in collaborative projects at the AHA and elsewhere is helping to position members of the discipline “very well for critical conversations about higher education in the coming decade.” McInerney worried about perceptions of faculty roles as reflected in a survey of provosts, however. The survey asked chief academic officers what elements were most important to support their institutional assessment activities. “Recognition and reward for faculty and staff” was of the least importance to responding provosts, although “significant involvement of faculty in assessment” was in the top three. In another session, AHA executive director James Grossman argued that faculty need to be strong advocates for the development of institutional structures to reward and recognize curricular and assessment work.

For Tammy Proctor (Utah State Univ.), one of the highlights was a preconference workshop on undergraduate research that encompassed topics like articulating the reasons an institution should value undergraduate research, fitting undergraduate culture into institutional culture, how student work can help with fund-raising, and making certain that a faculty member’s mentorship of undergraduate research counts in workload and tenure and promotion decisions.

Discussions of assessment were everywhere. McInerney reported that he was encouraged to see people had begun paying close attention to the language of learning outcomes, in particular “how different audiences read and interpret such statements, and the importance of helping students develop a persuasive narrative of their educational experience.” He noted that people seemed to be giving up on the term “competencies” and favoring the higher expectations that go with “proficiencies.” Norman Jones (Utah State Univ.) pointed out that this shift required that student learning needed to go well beyond skills: “As we turn our conversations to ‘proficiencies,’ we need to make certain that knowledge and content are not neglected as critical factors.”

McInerney encouraged historians to become more involved with the AAC&U. He felt that historians would find that their particular disciplinary discussions—about learning, curricula, and student diversity—“all resonate strongly” with the ideas presented at this meeting, and suggested that historians could advocate more effectively for the discipline by taking their case to the influential AAC&U audience. McInerney concluded that it would be useful for faculty from all fields (especially history) to offer this audience reports on “the nature of discipline-based proficiencies, course exercises that thoughtfully develop these skills, and the academic abilities historians bring to (and expect from) general education courses.”

For his part, Neem was unsure whether more historians should become involved in the AAC&U. “The primary calling of the historian is history. At the same time, the history discipline depends deeply on the future direction taken by American universities. It is important that historians be constructive participants in this conversation. . . . The more historians can do to ensure that the university remains friendly and supportive of the liberal arts, the stronger both the history discipline and the university will be.”

Julia Brookins is the AHA’s special projects coordinator.

From “Liberal Arts Graduates and Employment: Setting the Record Straight,” available at www.aacu.org/leap/documents/nchems.pdf, and reprinted courtesy of the AAC&U.

Meeting Highlights for Historians

Historian Edward Ayers (Univ. of Richmond) gave a talk titled “The Future of Scholarship,” in which he discussed the need to recognize scholarship in all its forms; he also discussed the AHA’s new committee on the professional evaluation of digital scholarship by historians.

The AAC&U released its report “How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment: A Report on Earnings and Long-Term Career Paths,” showing that liberal arts majors do well in the labor market over the long term (see bit.ly/1fnIlu7).

College presidents and foundation leaders could attend a session on the Obama administration’s proposed college rating system. Speakers were to include David Bergeron (Center for American Progress), Jamienne Studley (U.S. Department of Education), Edward Ray (Oregon State Univ,), and Kenneth Ruscio (Washington and Lee Univ.).

A panel discussed the revised Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), the AAC&U’s project for faculty and administrators to map learning outcomes across their undergraduate programs. The DQP will be familiar to AHA members who are connected to the Tuning project. Tuning poses a central question: “When students complete a program of study in a discipline, what should they know, understand, and be able to do?” The DQP replaces one phrase in that question with another: “When students complete a post-secondary degree, what should they know, understand, and be able to do?”

Commentator E. J. Dionne gave an address at the opening plenary in which he focused on the broad public service provided by higher education and shared a long view of the “public” identity and commitment found throughout the American experience over several centuries.

Reacting to the Past, a project involving elaborately structured games for classroom use, sponsored a well-attended reception that introduced attendees from a variety of disciplines to this history-based pedagogy.


 

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