THE FIRST WORD THAT SPRINGS to mind in conjunction with the phrase “liberal arts education” is not “technology.” In the 21st century, however, it should.
Historically, liberal arts colleges have not placed a heavy emphasis on technology, either in the curriculum or as a teaching tool. But we hit a tipping point earlier this decade on liberal arts campuses. Not a single young person on our campus can remember life before the internet. If we don’t teach even our most traditional courses—humanities, history, literature—using today’s technology, we are probably failing as educators.
This is why I’m delighted the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE; pronounced “nightly”) has moved to our campus; Southwestern University (Texas) will be responsible for NITLE’s operations. The nonprofit initiative’s mission is to advance liberal education in the digital age. It was established in 2004 with funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and has operated until now through a network of centers and regional offices with staff in nine states.
The move to Southwestern marks the first time NITLE, which has some 130 participating liberal arts campuses, has been headquartered on a college campus. With this move, the opportunities are numerous.
Southwestern has a long history with NITLE. For the Associated Colleges of the South, we hosted one of three regional technology centers beginning in 2001; the ACS Technology Center is now part of NITLE. We have served as a regional host campus since 2004 for NITLE staff who design and deliver professional development and networking programs for faculty, technologists, and librarians from participating campuses.
Hosting NITLE on Southwestern’s campus in Central Texas places us front and center in the national conversation about technology and the future of liberal arts.
We’re enthusiastic about the best-practices, real-world approach NITLE can take as part of the Southwestern community, deepening NITLE’s connection to participating institutions and positioning it for even greater influence in undergraduate education. Particularly during the current recession, colleges are smart to work collaboratively through initiatives such as NITLE; we can share resources and tap into the best minds from around the country.
We were genuinely interested when NITLE approached us about taking over its operations and relocating to our campus, but we really began to see the potential once we persuaded Joey King to step in as executive director. King has the perfect background and credentials for this position. He’s a high-tech entrepreneur with extensive experience in higher education. His enthusiasm for the future of the organization is positively contagious. He is highly regarded for his vision and creativity in managing technology-oriented organizations. And as an alumnus of Southwestern, King also has a deep history with our faculty and our students.
The transition of NITLE to Southwestern has been an enormous effort, with involvement from a number of organizations, including The Mellon Foundation, Ithaka Harbors, and the university itself. Talks between the entities began in early March by phone, followed by a meeting in New York. Immediately following that meeting, the idea of King’s becoming the new leader of NITLE was raised for the first time.
Detailed due diligence followed, along with various meetings and votes by the boards of directors at Ithaka, Mellon, and Southwestern. After all of the legal bridges were crossed, NITLE’s move to Southwestern was announced to the public.
Once the ink was dry on the deal, King embarked on a “listening tour,” meeting with as many NITLE participants as possible and getting feedback on group programs and services. A revamp of NITLE’s website was launched, as was an intensive effort to enhance participants’ benefits.
Our goal is to make NITLE the most relevant and important entity in the country when it comes to technology and the liberal arts. That will happen only if the 130 institutions already participating find ever-increasing benefits of NITLE membership and if a growing number of colleges join. Working together, we can—and must—enrich the way we teach our students through technology rather than in spite of it.
Jake Schrum is president of Southwestern University.