The time after the holidays and before students return to campus is when many professional conferences and meetings take place. For example, I’ve just come back from the President’s Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges, which was held concurrently with the annual meeting of the Women’s College Coalition.
Like folks in all other professions, college presidents find it valuable from time to time to raise their heads from the daily agenda in order to look around at the larger context shaping that agenda and forward toward whatever might be coming next. There is much to be learned from the experiences and ideas of educational leaders from across the country who share Sweet Briar’s commitment to liberal education and student success. America’s liberal arts colleges share many values, commitments, and challanges. What makes them stronger as a community makes each college individually stronger as well.
Here are things I especially appreciated during my time at the conference:
- I heard a keynote address by Andrew DelBanco on the value of liberal education. Many of the ideas he shared with the assembled presidents are developed in his book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. DelBanco’s main point is that residential undergraduate education plays an essential role in preparing students for citizenship and community life by sustaining an environment in which they can practice leadership, decision-making, debate, and self-government under the guidance of role models and mentors.
- I participated in a robust discussion about financial aid policy. This session has received some press coverage; the question is whether financial aid is appropriately allocated between two purposes — to meet the financial need of families and to provide non-need-based aid to students with particular qualifications.
- I learned a great deal about the demographics of women in higher education over the last forty years or so. Linda Sax, author of The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men, presented new research on the characteristics of the last several generations of women to enroll in college. You might be interested in this article of hers on the differences between the college experiences of women and of men.
Of course, I also valued the opportunity to pick the brains of other college presidents, hear about interesting innovations moving forward on other campuses, and reflect on the national picture of opportunity for students.
It goes without saying that leading an academic institution in this day and age is challenging work. But a conference like these is just one more occasion on which I realize how lucky I am to have the chance to do it! Providing the kind of education Sweet Briar offers to new generations of women, and advancing the proud tradition of the American liberal arts college as an option for all students, is endlessly interesting and unquestionably important.