Leadership in the Liberal Arts

In 1864, Swarthmore’s founders made a bold statement when they petitioned the
Pennsylvania legislature to charter a college with both female and male students—and with a governing board equally comprised of men and women. Nearly 60 years later, President Frank Aydelotte’s introduction of the Honors Program served as another bold act of hope for future generations by further reinforcing that academic rigor was the cornerstone of the College. Swarthmore’s most enduring tradition, it could be said, is to imagine, inspire, and innovate in order to continually provide students with an exceptional liberal arts education.

We live in challenging and exciting times for higher education and especially for small, residential liberal arts colleges. The accelerating rate of the production of information, a more pervasive awareness of global connections, vast technological changes, and daunting financial pressures combine to produce a particular set of contemporary opportunities and challenges.

Many questions lie ahead: What will student demographics be like in 2030? Is our business model sustainable? Can financial aid keep pace with need? Can residential colleges serve their alumni better over their lifetimes? How might alumni themselves serve as educational resources and engaged members of the College community? In making the case for the liberal arts, Swarthmore should convene others to analyze future trends and best practices.

Strategic Directions recommends that the College create the Swarthmore Institute for the Liberal Arts in the 21st century to study and expand liberal arts education at Swarthmore, in the United States, and around the world. This institute would:

• Foster curricular innovation, explore new pedagogical practices, and study new
technological innovations.
• Support scholarly activity on the future of the liberal arts within the global higher education system.
• Promote the visibility and viability of the residential liberal arts college in general and of Swarthmore in particular. The Institute could become a destination for scholars outside Swarthmore who are interested in the future of the liberal arts by stimulating generative conversation about liberal arts education and providing a physical space to convene such activity. The Institute might work particularly well in tandem with the Town Center West project, which includes the development of a 40-room Inn, restaurant, retail, and conference spaces to be built on the edge of the south end of campus.
• Provide opportunities for alumni and others who live “liberal arts lives” to engage in conversations, conduct research, or teach. This provides an opportunity for students to learn from alumni who have used their liberal arts background in myriad professions, through volunteer activities as well as in academic settings.

Plan Summary [pdf]