Presidents corner: How can courage breathe new life into a classic liberal arts education?

Colleges face a calamity of challenges, specifically regarding the First Amendment. As political tension continues to inflame disagreement between students, professors, and invited speakers, the nation needs even-keeled citizens who can help make "democracy more concrete," according to Middlebury College President Laurie Patton.

In his 2011 The New Yorker essay, Harvard professor Louis Menand conceptualized the function of higher education in three ways: to develop life skills, enhance career prospects and improve social status. President Laurie Patton likes this framework, but in her eighth year leading Middlebury College and observing the changing world around her, she believes a new pillar has sprouted.

Amid the rapid digitalization of the workplace, climate change, an incendiary political landscape and the growing call for student diversity, President Patton believes that to answer the call, higher education’s new function must be to instill courage in all stakeholders involved.

“It takes courage to be an institution of education, and it takes courage to develop it in other people,” she says.

Tucked away in the small rural town of Middlebury, Vt., the small private college has traditionally championed the classical values of a liberal arts education. But President Patton has helped boldly steer Middlebury College into a new era, embedding in its blueprint of academic excellence a commitment to data literacy, environmental literacy, cross-cultural exchange and conflict transformation.

The courage she’s gained to help shift Middlebury into such a forward-thinking direction is spurred by the new leadership traits she believes is required of today’s college presidents. Authenticity, accessibility and vision invite more collaboration with campus stakeholders—and better ideas as a result. Gone are the days of simple command and control.

“I do think that I have learned in my journey with Middlebury to be unafraid…,” Patton says. “Once you learn that skill, it’s straightforward.”

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Embracing career focus in classic liberal arts

In the 30 years that Patton has worked in academia, the foundational goal of a classical liberal arts education has changed dramatically, forcing her to reflect on those values and ditch what’s antiquated and even hurtful for today’s cost-savvy students

“I think there was a sense then that those of us who went into the business [of liberal arts and sciences 20 or 30 years ago] felt that learning and relationship transformation was the best mode at the time,” Patton says. “And I certainly land there, but I and many other educators have changed their perspective to say, ‘If you are paying so much debt out of college that you can’t really find meaningful work, then that’s no good either.'”

As today’s workplace demands diverse technological skills from its employees, President Patton has helped implement the university’s initiative, which plans to embed digital methods and data science lessons in student courses regardless of their major.

When it comes to AI, its use in the classroom is still in the mire. Patton, a scholar of Indian religion, believes the college’s role in addressing AI is best suited to preparing students for the workforce. However, its use as an academic tool has its pros and cons. To test artificial intelligence’s safety, she measures its potential use against where it supports or inhibits students from gaining three essential values at Middlebury: connectedness, curiosity and openness.

Addressing the need for diverse students

With the fall of affirmative action, one method institutions will now more popularly pursue to ensure its enrollment of a diverse student body is seeking first-year students from under-resourced backgrounds. While a recent report has discovered that the nation’s most selective institutions have regressed in enrolling first-year Pell Grant students by 2% in the past decade, Middlebury has increased its cohort by 9%.

President Paton credits her institution-wide commitment to increasing student diversity well before the June Supreme Court ruling to the college’s stakeholders identifying how a diverse student body enriches its century-old values. With support from its Board of Trustees, Middlebury has expanded its recruitment of Pell Grant students by offering competitive financial aid packets to underresourced students. Now, nearly 50% of its students receive some form of financial aid.

Cooling campus conflict

Colleges face a calamity of challenges, specifically regarding the First Amendment. As political tension continues to inflame disagreement between students, professors, and invited speakers, the nation needs even-keeled citizens who can help make “democracy concrete,” according to Patton.

To help develop students’ voices in a particularly challenging time, Patton finds that now is the best time to implement conflict transformation, a pedagogy she believes genuinely impacts student learning. The five primary modalities of this framework are restorative practices, arbitration, mediation, conflict management and deliberative dialogue.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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