Synergy in struggles: Defending the liberal arts by advocating for inclusion

By Mary Dana Hinton, President, College of Saint Benedict 

Two years ago, the inaugural Liberal Arts Illuminated conference brought together more than 200 higher education leaders to discuss the future of the liberal arts. The gathering afforded the opportunity not only to address the challenges faced by liberal arts institutions but also to affirm and celebrate the core values that underpin a liberal arts education: the imperative of critical thinking in relation to complex issues, the value of careful consideration of competing ideas and ways of understanding, and the ability to transcend the boundaries of one’s own culture or experience. As president of the College of Saint Benedict, I am called to live those values daily. 

But what do or should those values mean in the face of a complex issue on all of our campuses: diversity and inclusion? According to the American Council on Education, 44 percent of two-year college presidents and 55 percent of four-year college presidents in 2016 reported that the racial climate on their campus had become an increasingly high priority in recent years. Over many years, colleges across the country have deployed numerous resources to support multiculturalism, diversity, cultural competency, inclusive excellence, inclusion and intersectionality. Likely all of them have identified an area or person to be tasked with addressing these issues, increased programming on campus, or showcased diversity via the “heroes and holidays” strategy. Countless articles and a surging body of research have evidenced the importance and impact of diversity in the education of all students. The economic outcomes for underrepresented students who are able to attain a degree are substantive and consistent. The case seems to be clear: inclusive excellence is a necessary future for successful colleges and universities. 

And yet, the challenges, demands and concerns related to equity have remained largely unchanged over many years. I posit that the challenge of the last half century is not that we have allocated insufficient financial or human resources to these compelling issues, but rather that we have not consistently connected the value of the liberal arts and the will for transformative change to the demands of inclusion. 

The future of liberal arts colleges is connected inextricably to our ability to engage, support and graduate the increasingly diverse student bodies enriching our campus conversations. And, our opportunity to drive the narrative about the liberal arts depends upon our ability to foster positive outcomes for all students who seek a liberal arts education. We must strive to acknowledge that every day we dwell together in pursuit of a shared and common mission. Our campuses are not engaged in the unidirectional transformation of students; we also must be willing to be transformed at our very core by the students we serve. We must craft an ecosystem of inclusion that casts a critical, yet hopeful, eye on our policies, programs and practices that inhibit inclusion, and we must commit to making the necessary changes. More simply, we must use the values of the liberal arts and the lessons and tools that they provide to achieve inclusive excellence. 

How can you prepare leaders on your campus to engage in this important conversation and deploy the values and purposes of liberal arts in support of inclusive excellence? On July 9-11, 2018, the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University will again host Liberal Arts Illuminated, a national conference for faculty, presidents and senior administrators, trustees, policy makers and external partners. The 2018 conference will focus on Reframing the Narrative: Leadership Toward Inclusive Excellence. We will explore the following questions: 

  • How do we tell the liberal arts story in a way that values the liberal arts and its relevance for all students?
  • How do we disrupt the traditional narrative about the liberal arts to state boldly our value?
  • How do we move away from an exclusionary economic model?
  • How do we develop curricula and pedagogies that support inclusive learning for all students?
  • How do we consistently achieve positive student outcomes?

 The aim of Liberal Arts Illuminated is to create a common commitment and template for actionable hope. Please join us for an inspiring and challenging conversation about the liberal arts and inclusive excellence.