CSB, SJU hosts ‘stimulating’ conference that addresses the liberal arts

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August 1, 2018

Just after he stepped to the podium to introduce the first speaker on the final day of the Liberal Arts Illuminated (LAI) conference July 11, Amit Mrig looked at the audience and expressed what many were probably already thinking.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to acknowledge what a stimulating conference this has been so far,” said Mrig, president of Academic Impressions.

“It has been a very successful program,” he added.

That drew a round of applause from the 160 participants representing 30 colleges and universities and 21 organizations from 18 states

LAI attendeesThe three-day LAI conference, hosted by the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University for the second time, gave participants the opportunity 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 conference theme was “Reframing the Narrative: Leadership Toward Inclusive Excellence,” and was hosted by Presidents Mary Dana Hinton of CSB and Michael Hemesath of SJU.

“Liberal Arts Illuminated exceeded my grandest hopes and aspirations and that is due to the collegiality, insight and wisdom of our speakers, conference planners and participants who chose to be fully present with us and work together to illuminate the liberal arts in pursuit of inclusive excellence,” Hinton said.

The conference brought together higher education leadership, faculty and trustees for a conversation about the future of the liberal arts. Designed to provide participants with insights, ideas and partnerships, attendees returned to their campuses having explored critical questions through formal and informal interactions with other leaders, trustees and faculty members.

The conference featured leading experts in higher education for four workshops that included a plenary speaker, panel discussion and practice session. Keynote speakers included:

  • Rich Karlgaard, Forbes publisher and global futurist, economic leader, entrepreneur and author, spoke on the harm measureable achievement – grades, SAT scores, finding the right college - is causing more harm to society and individuals than good. “More and more pressure is being put on teenagers … at a time they will be living longer,” he said, advocating for late bloomers finding spots in colleges.
  • Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, spoke on his 50 years in higher education. “Never stop learning,” Hrabowski said. “Once you’ve been touched by education, it will continue.”
  • Adam Weinberg, president of Denison University in Ohio, focused on the value of a globally engaged campus and new ways of thinking about providing global learning and experience. “Adding a global dimension to the liberal arts would dramatically strengthen our value proposition in every way, shape or form,” Weinberg said. “It is not much of a leap to argue that being globally literate and globally competent, that gate opens up endless possibilities for our graduates to add meaning to their lives.”
  • Lynn Pasquerella, president, Association of American Colleges and Universities, addressed the current narrative surrounding higher education and the liberal arts in particular and its implications for inclusion, institutional success and teaching and learning. “It’s time for us to insert ourselves in the public discourse and debates over public policy and collectively reaffirm the role that a liberal education plays in discerning the truth, the ways it serves as a catalyst for interrogating the sources of the narratives, including history, evidence and facts, the ways in which a liberal education promotes an understanding that the world is a collection of interdependent yet inequitable systems, the ways in which it expands knowledge of human interactions, privilege and stratification and the ways in which higher education fosters equity and justice, locally and globally," Pasquerella said.
  • Brandon Busteed, executive director, Education and Workforce Development, Gallup, spoke on the disconnect many people have when they hear the term “liberal arts.” Still, the underlying pedagogy is as valuable and needed in today’s world. “Pedagogy is not the problem, the term is,” Busteed said. “We need to think about sales, marketing and branding of the liberal arts. This is a branding issue we face.”
  • L. Lee Knefelkamp, senior fellow, Office of Integrative Liberal Learning and the Global Commons, Association of American Colleges and Universities, underscored the importance of creating a more inclusive curriculum that supports the interpersonal, intellectual and intercultural development of all students and allows them to see the connections between their learning, their work and their lives. "One of the great things I think we need to ask in this conference and every time we sit down to that blank page that becomes, ultimately, the syllabus, is whose story gets to be told, and who tells the story, and who does the interpretation of the story."

LAI PanelAmong the issues considered by the attendees were how liberal arts colleges can move away from an exclusionary economic model; how liberal arts colleges can develop curricula and pedagogies that support learning for all students; how liberal arts colleges can consistently achieve positive student outcomes; how colleges can tell the liberal arts story in a way that values the liberal arts and its relevance for all students; and, how colleges can disrupt the traditional narrative about the liberal arts to state boldly our value.

Participants were encouraged to attend LAI in teams in order to have the most engaging and collaborative experience and take the most practical learnings back to their campuses.

“Liberal Arts Illuminated was a great opportunity to share ideas and insights with peers and colleagues from across the country, as well as learn from the many national experts who joined the conversation,” Hemesath said. “While there are real challenges ahead for higher education, I left the conference with hope for the future because so many smart and committed individuals are thinking hard about the best educational model for future students and our country.”

“I hope, most of all, that participants took away from Liberal Arts Illuminated the desire to see the humanity of the students we serve,” Hinton said. “I hope that participants will lead in embracing our students and what liberal arts can offer to change their lives. We are called to lead with hope, with purpose, and with joy as we do this life changing work. And, we are called to act: to do things that make our work more sustainable, to speak back to the narrative crushing the liberal arts, to help propel a student’s success.”