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Global Horizons College: A Proposal for the Practical and Reflective Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

December 6, 2011 Comments off

Global Horizons College:

A Proposal for the Practical and Reflective Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

Six months ago, when I started this blog, I wrote about the identity of the Bothell campus. Now, as we get closer to the February date of the Innovation Forum, and as we open up this blog to guest authors, I’d like to take a look at the future. Someone once said—could it have been Professor Yogi Berra?—that predictions are notoriously unreliable, especially with regard to the future. So I won’t try. But acknowledging that we can’t predict the future doesn’t mean we can’t prepare for it. And one of the best ways to prepare for it is to foster innovation and adaptability.

The first step is to take a good look at ourselves. What are the trends and patterns that led to the University of Washington as we know it today, especially as it grew from a regional university in the 1950s to a world-class research university in the 1960s and 1970s? The second step is to look at how universities over the centuries have managed to innovate in response to new challenges. They did so, in part, by starting new colleges, which leads me to propose the founding of a new, global liberal arts college for Washington state as we confront our own new set of challenges at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

In terms of the first step—namely a quick look at the past and present of the University of Washington itself—I think it is fair to say that the University is facing an array of challenges and opportunities whose nature and scale have not been seen since Charles Odegaard became president in 1958. Faced with the task of educating the first tidal wave of the post-war baby boom generation and simultaneously of absorbing massive amounts of federal funding in scientific and medical research unleashed by Sputnik, Odegaard saw immediately (as did Clark Kerr in California) that the success of the University was intimately linked to the success of other educational institutions in the state. By aligning the mission of the UW with the complementary needs of a new, statewide system of community colleges, four-year regional, and research universities, Odegaard shaped the University into its present form. For the last several decades, the system worked well as long as there was a steady increase in tax revenue roughly proportional to the population growth of the state.

Now, however, our overall circumstances are dramatically different on at least three levels: state, national, and global. On the state level, we face a financial crisis even as our pool of potential students grows in number, diversity, and degree of under-preparedness. On the national level, education is increasingly seen not as a public good but a private benefit, tending to limit access to education and undermine our ability to compete in a knowledge-intensive global economy. On the global level, human technology has given rise to a global commons that is a triumph of the human intellect and a major step forward in human progress. But it has also created formidable issues, such as environmental degradation, climate change, human trafficking, and disease, among many others, all of which will require a whole new set of global institutional structures and processes to deal with successfully. The university, as the preeminent steward of the human intellect that created this world of rapid technological change, has a deep responsibility to step up its commitment to understanding and resolving these issues. When all is said and done, the University of Washington is the flagship institution of the Pacific Northwest and one of the greatest universities in the world. As such it is the natural leader of a larger community profoundly in need of intellectual understanding and guidance. We can no longer afford to be an island of excellence in a sea of underachievement.

Which leads me to my second step. The university, as an institution, has survived longer than any other organization in Western civilization. Given the wrenching changes that have swept across Europe in the last thousand years, that is a remarkable achievement. How did it do it? One of the reasons, it seems to me, is that it used the device of the college as an adaptive response to new challenges and opportunities. It turns out that in one respect universities are no different from all other organizations, which confront a fundamental, inescapable necessity to balance the conflicting need for both integration and autonomy—the former necessary for unity, efficiency, continuity, stability, and fairness, and the latter for diversity, change, innovation, individual identity, and participatory engagement.

In the history of the university over time, the former was accomplished by the central administration, the latter by the autonomous administration of colleges within the university. The ultimate model of this balance, perhaps, is the grandfather of all universities in Europe—Oxford—which is a federated community of approximately 40 colleges that are simultaneously autonomous and integrated. This balance of unity and diversity means that colleges within a given university can often, as they have at Oxford in the past, operate as a kind of skunk works for the university as a whole, experimenting with new ways of doing things while retaining all the benefits of a common enterprise.

My own life has been profoundly shaped by these two institutions. Once, a very long time ago, I spent a year studying at the University of Pavia in northern Italy. I lived in the Collegio Borromeo, built in the sixteenth century with a donation from St. Carlo Borromeo, whose remains now repose in the crypt of the Milan cathedral. The Borromeo was a “college” (collegium in Latin) in the sense of being part of a larger university (and it was a magnificent building—a veritable palazzo) but its underlying purpose was to meet a social need for access to higher education by bright students from poor families. To this day it still serves that original purpose.

As luck would have it, I started my teaching career at another college—Whitman College—that is a completely independent institution but still small enough to adapt quickly to environmental changes. In the 1930s, during the depression, Whitman almost went bankrupt. At one point, faculty went months without pay. Local stores gave them food on credit. Then a Walla Walla businessman, Don Sherwood, stepped forward and promised to bail out the College if it would agree to adopt a radical austerity program that included reduced spending and no future borrowing on credit (does this sound familiar?). It worked, and Whitman is now thriving, but it was possible only because the College was small and flexible enough to take charge of its own destiny.

In 1990, I had the great good fortune of participating in the founding of a new campus at Bothell, which, though not a “college,” certainly has replicated the adaptive function of the traditional college within a larger university, and just as certainly has grappled with the tension between integration and autonomy. So when I was contemplating how the university could respond most effectively to the emerging challenges of the future, while taking into account the massive shifts in the landscape of higher education that have occurred in the past two decades, the new technology of learning that has also taken place during that time, as well as the emergence of a whole new level of global interaction, the first word that popped into my mind was “college.” In the last 21 years on the Bothell campus, we’ve learned a lot about how—and how not—to start a new campus. Could we take what we have learned and give birth to a wholly new enterprise that would be both autonomous and integrated at the same time?

How new? Well, I invite you to suspend your disbelief for a moment and join me in imagining a new public, global liberal arts college. It would draw from a pool of faculty members from all the colleges and universities in the state of Washington, and would combine the benefits of both a traditional liberal arts education and experiential learning to prepare students for a meaningful life of social entrepreneurship. The first two or three years would focus on a rigorous liberal arts education comparable to that taught at the best liberal arts colleges in the country (better, actually, since this curriculum would focus on imparting a basic understanding of the major areas of human knowledge, and be based less on what faculty members want to teach and more on what student need to learn). The third or fourth year of study would concentrate on the practical skills needed to create an organization or company—either non-profit or a social business—whose goal would be to address persistent social problems in our state, nation, and world.

The rationale for this structure and curriculum is based on my own observation over many years of a disconnect between the long-term benefit and the short-term drawback of a liberal arts education. On the one hand, a liberal arts education is the best preparation for a productive career requiring imagination, flexibility, and critical thinking skills. But on the other hand, recent graduates with a liberal arts education generally lack practical understanding of how best to leverage their skills and knowledge in useful employment. Why not combine the two, and throw in the overall improvement of humankind for good measure? In this case, education would create jobs, and jobs would create education. We could even contemplate branches of this college in the major cities of the nation and the world, which would facilitate travel, study, and internships abroad as students explore practical manifestations of the problems they are studying in the classroom. The world, in effect, would become the campus.

Faculty would be hired on five-year, potentially renewable, contracts. There would be no tenure.  There would be no academic rank.  Every faculty member would be a “professor.” Most of the successful enterprises resulting from this education would be non-profit, but some might be able to combine profits with social responsibility. Those latter entities would commit to return 5% of their profits to the college, part of which would go to reduce tuition for future students, and part to establish a venture-capital fund to seed future student/graduate enterprises.  The goal would be eventually to have a sustainable operations budget that would provide affordable tuition for all students.  It would align the mission of the institution with the most fundamental need of our times to foster responsible citizenship, enrich lives, prepare leaders, reduce the public subsidy of education, create jobs, and operate in a global world.

It would manifest the simple truth that while studying a problem requires analysis, solving a problem requires synthesis. Research universities are best structured for the analytical specialization of the former; colleges are best structured for the synthetic generalization of the latter. Neither is better than the other. They are both necessary and required for the advancement and application of human knowledge. Such a liberal arts college—or array of potential colleges like it—would represent an adaptive response to a very rapidly changing environment.

Above all, following Odegaard’s example, this new college would be focused on relationships, between knowledge and practice, between faculty and students, between campus and community, between Washington and the world. Several years ago Desmond Tutu gave a speech at the UW Medical School in which he made the following remark: “We cannot be human alone; we can only be human together.”  That observation says it all.  We cannot thrive alone; we can only thrive together.

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