President's Blog

Archive for January 2012

From the Association of American Colleges and Universities

I’ve spent much of this week at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, along with Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall (who is doing two presentations on the program) and a team of six Sweet Briar faculty members.

In my last post I mentioned the recent faculty retreat and our ongoing discussions of curriculum review. Bringing a campus team to this conference was another aspect of that process: here there are sessions highlighting research and best practices from around the country on a wide variety of topics. One member of our team is following discussions of the Bologna Accords and the development of European learning standards: another is attending sessions on business curriculum: several are going to sessions on how to integrate research, assessment, and learning outcomes into campus planning; and all of us are going to the occasional session that just looks interesting! (For me, yesterday, that was a session about how students at elite liberal arts colleges define success. . . for a couple of members of our group yesterday afternoon, it was a session on digital humanities that is featured in this article.)

For my part, I’ve been participating in the President’s Forum. At lunch today, a representative from the Department of Education spoke with us about the education proposals just, and I mean just, announced by President Obama. As you might imagine, having the opportunity to respond to some of these proposals within a day of their announcement was valuable; the presidents who are here posed a number of important and fundamental questions.

It’s both sobering and encouraging to sit with a group of college and university presidents these days. Each and every one of us is aware of the serious problems facing higher education. College needs to be more affordable, more Americans need to complete degrees, the learning that takes place in college needs to be more clearly and persuasively demonstrated, and state and federal investments in education and research need to be commensurate with the importance of higher education to the economic future of the nation. No institution is immune from these considerable pressures — no community college, no elite research university, no liberal arts college, no comprehensive state university. And no one knows what the answers should be or will be. (That’s the sobering part.)

But every single person at this conference is deeply committed to being part of crafting the best possible answers. Every dean and faculty member here is deeply committed to making higher education the best and most meaningful experience it can be for every student on their campuses.  And finally, at the end of the day, whatever the answers turn out to be, we all recognize that they will need to be centered on student learning. As long as student access and learning goals are kept at the center of our thinking, our research, and our planning, we will get to the right answers. That’s the encouraging part!



Faculty in Retreat

The title is a lame pun, I know: in fact, the faculty of Sweet Briar is moving forward with innovative and important discussions. It’s just that this week they did so in retreat.

One of the highlights of this first week of the new semester was a faculty retreat led by Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall. The discussion was, to my mind, exhilarating. The topic was curriculum: trends in the national discussion of curriculum (as exemplified by the AAC&U’s LEAP initiative,) various theories of general education, “high impact” educational practices (practices shown by research to have especially strong impact on student learning,) and models for structuring academic work, both in terms of credit-hours and academic calendars. Among other topics.

The discussion was supported by data provided by our outstanding Institutional Research office. If you share my slight data-geeky tendencies, you might be interested to know that IR has a new website up and functioning. There is a good deal of interesting information there now, and more will be added in coming months; a wealth of information about the College is now made publicly available on that site.

And, of course, the discussion was supported by readings! Books referred to included Abelard to Apple (which I mentioned in my vacation reading post), Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges, and Weathering Turbulent Times by Michael Townsley. Together, these three books draw an interesting and compelling picture of the issues facing not only Sweet Briar but all small residential liberal arts colleges. They address curriculum, pedagogy, technology, finances, marketplace issues, scholarly communications — most of the pressing issues educators are thinking about today.

Our faculty is second to none in its dedication to student learning and liberal education. In discussions such as this one, they are working together to engage the questions that are central to planning what and how Sweet Briar students will be learning a decade from now, and perhaps even a decade after that. It’s a privilege to be part of that process.

Home again, home again. . .

I’m pleased — no, delighted — to report that I’m back on campus after vacation followed by some visits with Sweet Briar alumnae and supporters. Now to get ready for the best part of winter break — preparing to welcome the students back at the end of it!

In my last post, I made bold assertions about my plans for vacation reading. Naturally I didn’t manage to get through everything I hoped I would, but I certainly enjoyed what I did manage to read.

Several of you sent notes saying that you too are reading, or planning to read, the new biography of Catherine the Great. I highly recommend it — although my reactions to it were not uncomplicated, made all the more so by the conjunction of reading it with Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. (I hadn’t realized that I’d be spending so much time in the 18th century on this trip, between the biography of Catherine and a long novel about the French Revolution, but as it turned out I was.) Both books, to my mind, emphasized the relationship of political ideals and political realities, focusing on the tension between intensely felt commitment to values in the abstract and intensely experienced difficulties in realizing them in practice. Catherine, as Massie presents her, struggled throughout her reign with reconciling Enlightenment values that inspired her with the realities of governing Russia. (The French Revolution played an important role in Catherine’s thinking, of course, as an example of what she wanted to avoid at all costs.) Mantel, in her novel, follows fictionalized versions of Robespierre, Desmoulins, and Danton through the Revolution, charting the twists and turns of their convictions as events unfolded around them, ultimately spiraling out of their control.

Since I was already so deep into the 18th century, I rounded out the trio by reading Death Comes to Pemberley, which was light, witty, and great fun. (Oddly enough, the French Revolution appears in this book too, as a character complacently reflects that the general superiority of British ways of life is the best insurance against such upheavals.) P.D. James cleverly interweaves the conventions of an Austen-like “little bit . . . of ivory” with those of a modern detective novel.

At the last minute, I picked up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher for a plane ride and to continue the detective theme. This is a compelling piece of non-fiction, set in the earliest days of professional police detection. I couldn’t put it down — and neither could my sister, to whom I gave it. This book, depicting a time when the nature of “evidence” and the rights and privileges of the “detective” were under debate, offers not only a gripping story but also interesting reflections on to what lengths we can or should go to pursue the truth, and how we can possibly know whether we’ve gotten there.

Which also turned out to be a theme of my final book. Finally, whew, Two Lives, Janet Malcolm’s fascinating book about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Malcolm brought me full circle back to Massie and Catherine the Great: she poses fundamental questions about what it means to attempt biography and the very possibility of biographical knowledge, even as she offers provocative insights into the two biographies she considers.

There can be no greater treat than time to read at length. . .