Lynn Pasquerella, the new president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, stopped by The Chronicle’s offices last week to talk about the best way to make the case for liberal education.
JENNIFER RUARK: Hi. I'm here today with Lynn Pasquerella, who in July became the new president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Thanks for coming by today.
LYNN PASQUERELLA: It's my pleasure.
JENNIFER RUARK: So the last time we checked in with the AAC&U, your predecessor Carol Geary Schneider was here. And she described higher education as a bowl of jewels on the edge of a table, in a very precarious position made worse, she said, by the tenor of the presidential campaign.
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Now we have a president-elect who has expressed pretty clear disdain for the values that AAC&U wants to instill and advance through liberal education. Where does that bowl of jewels sit now?
LYNN PASQUERELLA: One of the most serious challenges we face in higher education today is a growing economic segregation. And I think that we have to pay attention to the real concerns of people outside of the academy. The concerns that have led to a narrative that calls into question the value of liberal education and inclusive excellence, which is at the heart of AAC&U's mission.
More than ever before, we have to make a compelling case for those values to those inside and outside of the academy. So it is precariously perched. I like to think of the bowl as being filled with engine parts or car keys, because education serves as an accelerator in helping people live their best and most authentic lives.
Certainly economic security is a part of that. But there's so much that a liberal education does that is not visible, in terms of a particular object.
JENNIFER RUARK: How do you persuade people that it's not an either/or decision between practical skills and a well-lived life?
LYNN PASQUERELLA: This is one of the challenges, that the prevailing rhetoric has created a false dichotomy between vocational and a liberal education. But if you look at the skills that we offer in terms of a liberal education, it's the capacity to write and speak and think with precision, coherence, and clarity. To propose, construct, evaluate arguments, anticipate and respond to objections.
But more importantly, to be adaptable and flexible in the face of rapid change. So in a world that is increasingly globally interdependent, and where rapidly changing technology means rapid obsolescence, the best that we can offer students today is the capacity to work with others who are different from themselves in diverse teams. And to be adaptable and flexible in a world where the jobs of the future have not yet been invented.
So that kind of problem-based, real-world engagement in critical thinking is valuable — and more valuable than ever. It's not inconsistent with technical, vocational, pre-professional education.
JENNIFER RUARK: But the gap in our culture that has been exposed by, and perhaps exacerbated by, the last couple of years of campaigning seems to present a special challenge to your organization to convey that those values of weighing the evidence to make a decision, having a global perspective, embracing difference, actually matter.
LYNN PASQUERELLA: Those of us in the academy recognize the value of diverse perspectives. Liberal education is designed to liberate the mind from past dispositions, to be engaged citizens. And our nation's historic commission of educating for democracy depends upon a confluence of diverse perspectives in ways that can move us forward as a democratic society.
We need to pay attention to the ways in which certain voices have been marginalized, but also be mindful of the fact that the academy continues to be a very white space. It lacks diversity, sometimes in terms of political perspective. So how can we reconcile our commitment to liberal education and inclusive excellence? What does that mean today?
And so this is the work that we have to engage in. And we have to partner with each other, with K through 12, business, industry, and those outside of the academy, those in communities, to make sure that we are creating pathways to excellence in higher education.
JENNIFER RUARK: For several years you've hosted a radio show called The Academic Minute, where you bring professors to public attention. Is there a role for AAC&U in getting professors outside that ivory tower more often?
LYNN PASQUERELLA: One of the reasons I decided to work with WAMC National Public Radio in Albany and Alan Chartock was this sense that we have been complicit in our own demise. That in trying to create an ascendant narrative around the value of liberal education, we need to make visible to those outside of the academy — those who are suspicious about higher education as an ivory tower representing a willful disconnect from the practical matters of everyday life — that the work we do is actually relevant to the kinds of questions that they ask, the kinds of endeavors that they're engaged in.
So how can we use humanities practice, both in the classroom and the lab, to make those connections, to build those bridges? And it has worked, in many ways.
JENNIFER RUARK: And you started out as a community-college student yourself. And community colleges are under special pressure these days to show that they're producing work-force-ready graduates. What does AAC&U do in the community-college sector to build partnerships?
LYNN PASQUERELLA: We have a number of community-college members. And we recently created a resource hub for community colleges that can exchange best practices around high-impact practices. What to do in creating pathways and scaffolding for students that celebrate success along the way.
People go to community colleges for different reasons. I attended a local community college, despite having a full scholarship to a four-year university.
JENNIFER RUARK: Why did you make that choice?
LYNN PASQUERELLA: Well, I was an only child of a single parent who had become chronically ill. And I needed to stay home and be a caregiver for her. And I was so fortunate that a community college had just opened up in the small rural town in which I lived.
The administrative offices were in trailers at a local technical school. Our classes were in church basements, high schools, the parochial elementary school. But it was a real community. And it provided me with a foundation in liberal education that allowed me to thrive at a four-year independent institution, and then in graduate school.
JENNIFER RUARK: And then your most recent experience was as the president for six years at Mount Holyoke College. What does having led a women's college bring to your perspective at AAC&U?
LYNN PASQUERELLA: Well, at Mount Holyoke our mission was to use liberal learning for purposeful engagement in the world. And as president of the first of the Seven Sisters — the oldest liberal-arts college for women — I came to truly appreciate the extent to which women's leadership is critical.
That we have to not only face and embrace change, but lead change. And do it in a way that is authentic. The kind of authoritarian, autocratic leadership that has persisted in the academy, I think doesn't serve us well. And as we look toward more collaborative, cooperative approaches that align with women's leadership, we are breaking down barriers.
I think when we look at the kind of work that has to be done in terms of community engagement, public intellectualism, providing access and pathways, mentoring in the process of high-impact practices, much of that isn't rewarded. And we focus on peer-reviewed journal articles in these increasingly narrow, arcane journals.
When we come to value, in the tenure-and-promotion process and through other reward mechanisms, the intensive work that will help students thrive not only within the course of their education, but in their work lives, then we will be better off as an institution.
JENNIFER RUARK: And that sounds like the definition of liberal learning.
LYNN PASQUERELLA: Yes.
JENNIFER RUARK: Thanks so much for coming by.
LYNN PASQUERELLA: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
Jennifer Ruark is a deputy managing editor at The Chronicle.