Leadership & Governance

Remaking the Liberal Arts

Katherine Bergeron, president, Connecticut College

November 22, 2016

Carmen Mendoza

Katherine Bergeron, president of Connecticut College, discusses how the liberal-arts institution revamped its curriculum to help students better connect their experiences in and out of the classroom and to help them develop a broad question to frame their education. So far, she says, students and students have responded positively to the change.


IAN WILHELM: I'm here today with Katherine Bergeron, the president of Connecticut College. President Bergeron, thank you for coming to The Chronicle.

KATHERINE BERGERON: Thanks very much for having me.

IAN WILHELM: One of the things you've put an emphasis on, and really the main thing you've put an emphasis on, in your presidency so far is revamping the curriculum. I wonder what you've done and why do you think it's important now?

KATHERINE BERGERON: Well, the curriculum at Connecticut College looked like the curriculum at many other liberal arts colleges, a kind of model that's existed for a hundred years really, where there's breadth and there's depth and a kind of academic major and general education requirements. That formed the four-year student experience.

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And our faculty basically asked the question, does this make sense for the 21st century? That's a 20th-century model. Does it make sense for a global and networked 21st century? And they said no, really, it doesn't. We really need to create some new structures that help students deal with complexity because the goal of an education is to prepare students to confront the increasingly complex world problems.

So Connections was born out of that emphasis to think about how you tie together the kinds of work that students do in their classes, of course, but also in the community, in the world, and in their lives after college in four years. So that's the general overview. And I could give you some more specifics if you want to know.

IAN WILHELM: Sure. Well, one thing I'd be interested in is as the faculty typically has said is they own the curriculum. So how did you, as president, influence this discussion while making sure they still kind of had that ownership?

KATHERINE BERGERON: Well, a president can't change a curriculum because the faculty does own the curriculum. And what was fantastic was to arrive at Connecticut College at a moment when the faculty was very, very committed to thinking about this new model and very creatively thinking about how to do it. And so I would say that the best thing I did was to create enthusiasm from the sidelines for the work that they were doing.

And we have a very collaborative faculty. And so they put together the working groups and workshops and open forums on the campus that started pretty much immediately after I arrived. Really, it started to put together the questions that we were trying to address.

And over the course of 18 months, they developed this framework for a first-year experience that was expanded with new forms of teaching and advising. A second-year experience where students no longer just thought about, well, what major am I going to take. But they were asked to formulate a question. And they're now going to be – that question now becomes the frame for the next three years.

The question will inform their choice of a major to be sure. But it also will inform their choice of what we're calling an integrative pathway. And the pathway is the set of courses and other experiences that are put together around a central theme. So there could be a pathway in public health or a pathway in entrepreneurship or in urban education. And the question that the students are posing will really inform their exploration of that pathway over the next three years.

In the junior year, they extend that exploration through internships, research in the local community and across the globe. And in the senior year, they tie it together with an integrative project.

IAN WILHELM: How have parents and students responded so far to the changes?

KATHERINE BERGERON: Well, I think that our class of 2020 is the first class to come into this new curriculum. And it's early days for them, of course. But they do feel, I think, liberated by the opportunity to be choosing but with a certain kind of intention. They are not bound by the sort of seven distribution requirements that we had in the past. And now they're, I think, making choices about the things that they want to explore in their first semesters very differently from what they were doing. So that's positive.

Parents have actually already begun to say that they believe that what we're offering has more value, has increased the value of the education, particularly because of the way it's tying ideas of professional development across the whole student life cycle.

IAN WILHELM: How do you define success with this? How do you say this is how I will measure this has been a successful endeavor for us?

KATHERINE BERGERON: I think it has to do with forms of engagement. It has to do with the kinds of internship and research experiences that students will engage in. It has to do with the kinds of experiences they have immediately outside of college. And ultimately, we are interested in long-range success, how people are engaging in the world as citizens and in their lives after college.

IAN WILHELM: I mean, is it part of the hope that you can make the argument that, hey, here's how the liberal arts in the 21st century can make a powerful student who's ready for the job market?

KATHERINE BERGERON: I think that the job market is on everyone's mind. And absolutely that's the case. But the liberal arts have always been about creating engaged citizens who are capable of addressing the most critical problems of our day. And we have to do that in new ways in the 21st century because the problems are so interconnected.

IAN WILHELM: President Bergeron, thanks very much for your time.

KATHERINE BERGERON: Thank you so much.

Ian Wilhelm edits coverage of international issues and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @ianwilhelm, or email him at ian.wilhelm@chronicle.com.