Challenges Facing the Liberal Arts

One year ago, we began our planning process by asking community members, on campus and off, to identify Swarthmore’s greatest strengths. Though expressed in a variety of ways, the hundreds of responses we received produced a remarkably consistent list:

  • Our commitment to academic rigor and creativity
  • Our diverse and vibrant community of students, faculty, staff, and alumni
  • Our Swarthmore values, derived from our Quaker founders and including respect for the individual, decision-making by consensus, simple living, social responsibility and justice, generous giving, and the peaceful settlement of disputes
  • Our desire to support access and opportunity for all students, regardless of their financial circumstances
  • Our belief in the responsibility to improve the world.

The goal of this planning process is to preserve these five core strengths to meet current and future needs, and in so doing, continue to provide the kind of education that can, and does, positively transform the world.

A college…must be conducted that while best serving each generation in its turn, it will ever adapt itself to the new and larger wants of the rising one.

Swarthmore President Joseph Swain at his inauguration, 1902

We—Swarthmore’s students, faculty and staff members, managers and alumni—are stewards of a living heritage. Although we should never change simply for the sake of change, we should, as our predecessors have done, ask tough questions and take action when it is needed to ensure that Swarthmore continues to offer the best possible education to our students.

Challenges Facing the Liberal Arts

As our work unfolded, we looked carefully at the current environment facing Swarthmore and higher education more broadly. We read literature, examined data, and engaged in intense dialogue with each other, all of which surfaced a number of issues. These issues range from the significance of the residential liberal arts model; to questions about our financial model; to the flexibility of our structures to accommodate the rapidly changing ways that knowledge is produced, taught and learned; to the shifting demographics of students; and to our increasingly global and interconnected society. And given this broader context, we also considered how best to describe to future students, faculty, staff, and the broader public, the special and distinct nature of Swarthmore. Here are some of the most significant issues we confronted and the questions they prompted:

Swarthmore is not a business, not a governmental organization, not a family, not even a big university. Swarthmore is a scholarly community that educates undergraduates through the study of “great things” and “big issues” and through engaging them in a holistic, complex, multifaceted microcosm of the world with a distinct view toward the future.

Barbara Mather, ’65 Chair, Board of Managers

Residential liberal arts colleges educate only two to three percent of the undergraduate population in the United States. Our model of a liberal arts education values a low student-faculty ratio; students and faculty closely working together, not only inside but also outside the classroom; a robust campus life; a diverse and inclusive experience for students with a wide variety of extracurricular activities; and both infrastructure and staff to support a deeply engaged community. Needless to say, this way of providing an education requires an incredible commitment and investment of time, energy, and resources.

But the power of this model is undeniable—students become critical and creative thinkers and leaders who are trained to be ethical, collaborative, and innovative. Americans developed this model as a social investment in the formation of citizens who could cultivate democratic society while pursuing a productive and satisfying life. Now this model is under assault by critics who question its value and challenge its ability to prepare students with the skills required in the current and future workplace. Paradoxically, this criticism comes just as many others around the world increasingly recognize the liberal arts as a type of education that is peculiarly suited for the 21st century. So we asked: Can Swarthmore illuminate and shape the relevance of the residential liberal arts model for the 21st century? If so, how can we support our faculty and encourage others to continue to innovate in the liberal arts? How do we ensure that this model continues to educate for lifelong learning, leadership, and service for our graduates?

As the public continues to question the value of the liberal arts, financial conditions remain volatile. More families need financial aid, and many will require increases in the amount of aid they receive. Because most of our operating expenses go to financial aid, which is escalating, and to personnel costs, our budgets are not as flexible as those in other types of organizations. One pressing challenge is the pressure on the financial model for higher education in general and for Swarthmore in particular. This prompted us to ask: How do we build flexibility that might help us navigate this uncertain environment? How do we ensure and expand the generous financial aid packages that are so vital to our commitment to access?

Changing demographics present challenges and opportunities for higher education. Overall, the population of college-bound high school graduates in the U.S. will shrink for at least the next five to 10 years. Domestic populations projected to experience growth during this period include first-generation college students, students of color, and those in the West and Southwest. We want to be well positioned to attract and recruit students who may not have traditionally considered Swarthmore in the past. International students are increasingly interested in applying to Swarthmore, yet we have not been able to devote adequate resources to recruit them. We know that a diverse and global student body will enrich the Swarthmore experience for every student, and we recognize the challenge to reach these and other potential students given our current recruitment practices. How do we reach out to potential applicants? How do we best share who we are to unfamiliar audiences? How do we identify and reach students who will thrive at Swarthmore? How do we recruit a student body diverse in background, ethnicity, experiences, talents and perspectives?

Swarthmore’s commitment to academic rigor and creativity lives in an environment in which information, teaching, learning, and research are expanding and changing due to a variety of forces. Among the more powerful forces, technology has accelerated the amount of information that is available and has also stimulated the expansion of pedagogical methods. Although the traditional curriculum remains vital, some pressing contemporary questions require that the ideas and perspectives of different fields and disciplines be integrated. How can our traditional structures gain the flexibility they need to support interdisciplinary teaching and new forms of problem-based teaching? What spaces and resources do teaching and research in the 21st century require? How do we help our students navigate the acceleration of information we are all experiencing?

Only by encountering and attempting to comprehend the origins, assumptions, and logics of perspectives that are different from—even repellent to—our own, can we adequately understand our own convictions. True learning, in short, requires broad exposure along as many parameters as possible. This type of “deep” diversity is not politically correct but educationally mandatory.

Robert DuPlessis, Isaac H. Clothier Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations, at Baccalaureate 2011

The 21st century places a high premium on intellectual agility, making it imperative for our students to develop critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to innovate. Faculty members have also expanded their forms of engagement with students, supervising research and other high-impact learning experiences in the summer as well as during the academic year and offering new levels of support beyond the traditional classroom. Teaching at Swarthmore is a profession that increasingly includes both traditional classroom and seminar lectures and discussions and individual, laboratory, and community projects outside the classroom. Research has come to involve, and in some cases require, more collaboration, often taking place with colleagues from around the world. Although Swarthmore faculty have always gone beyond traditional classroom teaching and support, the demands of today’s teaching and learning have resulted in far more work and collaboration with students outside the classroom. How do we support all the ways faculty engage students and teach critical thinking and intellectual agility? Given the new demands these forms of teaching and learning create, do faculty have enough time and space to stay abreast of their fields and continue to produce artistic works, publish, and conduct research? What can we do to recruit, retain, and develop the best faculty for Swarthmore—one that reflects the diversity of our nation and of our world?

Among the values that resonate deeply at Swarthmore are fostering an environment in which all members of our diverse community are teachers and learners; and the unapologetic belief that students with the privilege of an elite education should put it to use in service for the greater good.

Rafael Zapata, Assistant Dean and Director of the Intercultural Center

Most alumni from whom we have heard spoke eloquently to having experienced the community at Swarthmore as stimulating and profound, citing the importance of learning from fellow students with different perspectives and backgrounds among their most powerful experiences on campus and the ones that ultimately shaped their world view. Creating a complex community allows Swarthmore to provide a microcosm of the world as students learn to address some of the most pressing issues of the day including diversity and inclusivity, sustainability, and civil discourse. The capacity to imagine and build a diverse, enriching, and compassionate community is an urgent social and global need in the 21st century. Too many in our society stay within lifestyle enclaves or simply associate with those who share the same beliefs. Enabling students to learn to create and sustain a robust, diverse, and inclusive community should be considered an important contribution to the common good. At Swarthmore, a goal of our substantive community is to support students as they learn skills of a Swarthmore style of leadership, civic engagement, and, ultimately, as they help to improve the world by addressing communal and global issues. Do we have the right facilities for students, staff, and faculty to build substantive community and engage in civil discourse? Do our extra-curricular programs, including athletics and fitness, adequately meet the needs of current students? Are we doing all we can to steward our own natural resources and protect and sustain the earth for future generations? How do we expand our community to more actively include our alumni in an enduring, life-long relationship with the College?

Against the backdrop of these complex and compelling issues, we engaged in rigorous dialogue and critical review. While we affirm many established elements of Swarthmore, we also urge imaginative new approaches where there are opportunities for growth. The plan presented here is a blueprint, not a final product. The next steps require additional consultation with the campus community, alumni, and the Board of Managers, followed by collaborative efforts among them to put the best ideas into practice and, ultimately, create an implementation plan. In the coming weeks and months, we will actively engage with all our constituencies to discuss the values and recommendations described in this document and to continue to refine the plan together.

In a world that so desperately needs the agility of thought and ethical leadership our graduates offer, our goal must be to ensure that the power of a Swarthmore education remains viable and strong. These strategic directions are meant to help Swarthmore and each of us build upon our heritage, serve our students, and provide the world with thinkers and leaders who can set the world anew and aright.