“The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century: Spotlight on Collaborative Engagement”
Eric R. Jensen, President
Let me begin by thanking and acknowledging the distinguished delegates, faculty, staff,
students, alumni, family, and others in attendance, and welcoming Senator Bill Brady,
Representative Dan Brady, and mayors Tari Renner and Chris Koos. I thank the impressive
line of Illinois Wesleyan presidents who came before me, including Robert Eckley,
Minor Myers, and Richard Wilson. Dick and Pat, thank you both for coming, and Dick,
thank you for your leadership and especially for your continuing willingness to answer
your phone when I call. I thank the members of our Board of Trustees for your faith
in me, as well as the larger Illinois Wesleyan and Bloomington-Normal communities
for the incredibly warm welcome you have extended to us. I am truly honored to have
been named Illinois Wesleyan’s 19th president.
I have some personal thank-you’s to give, beginning with my wife Elizabeth. She has
a winning combination of both patience and impatience with me — patience for those
things that deserve nurturing, and impatience for those that don’t— and we agree,
for the most part, on which is which. We are true partners in this journey. I thank
our children, Joseph, here today as the official representative of the College of
Wooster; and Jessica, attending as the official representative of Earlham College.
I’m proud beyond words of both of you and so glad that we could share this as a family.
I’d also like to thank my dad, watching remotely, for being the role model that he
is and always has been. Thanks, Dad.
Elizabeth and I are fortunate to have many of our family and friends here today, including
my sisters Kris Bahl and Beth Montblanc and their families. Friends and mentors not
with us here — Bob Trice, Lou Rossiter, and the late Bob Fritts — each helped me to
understand first, how to follow (not an easy task for a lifelong professor) and then
how to lead. Bob Archibald and Dennis Ahlburg have been research collaborators, mentors
and friends in my transition to administration. To Kathy Murray — Illinois Wesleyan
alumna, Whitman College President, thank you, for telling me just how great a place
To our other friends and neighbors from Virginia, Minnesota, and elsewhere, thanks
for coming. It is great to see you all! And a last, large thank-you on behalf of everyone here this weekend for all of the hard work done by
the inaugural committee, chaired by Becky Roesner and Kent Cook. The members are listed
in your program, and will be at the reception following, but at this time may I please
ask the committee members to stand and be recognized?
As happy as I am to be here today, I have to confess that my initial instinct was
to forego this ceremony. As a longtime professor, it definitely was not an attempt
to avoid speaking to a captive group. Rather, it was a bit of an “aw, shucks” moment
coupled to an initial misconception that this event was somehow about the new president.
I was corrected, gently, by more than one person on this matter, and came to understand
that inaugurals are at their core about institutions. More specifically, they are
celebrations of transition, and stability; of continuity, and change.
Inaugurating a new president helps us to come together as a community, to marry a
long and storied history to an exciting future. It allows us a chance to celebrate
unabashedly a place that we love, and especially to shine a light on the people who
have both given and taken so much from Illinois Wesleyan—not just to highlight our
spectacular students, but to show off the many accomplishments of our alumni; to acknowledge
our talented, dedicated and hardworking faculty and staff; and to thank trustees,
donors and other friends of the university who have been so generous with their time
and their resources. You’ve seen some of this over the past few days, and I’m grateful
to the many alumni, faculty, staff, students, and others who participated in the various
It falls to me over the course of this talk to say a bit about our history, to describe
the present landscape of higher education, and to outline my sense of our shared future.
Georgia Nugent, past president of Kenyon College, describes the special nature of
institutions like Illinois Wesleyan well:
What appears to produce the extraordinary result of a liberal arts education is the
particular combination of matter and manner, a broad-based curriculum with specific pedagogical practices in a context that also
contributes to learning.
Illinois Wesleyan has a long and proud history of educating students in this tradition.
We’ve seen some of our distinguished alumni in person as part of this weekend’s festivities,
including Juan Salgado, Marcus Dunlop, Kevin Dunn, Demetria Kalodimos, Dave Kindred, Stephen
Ondra, and Carlina Tapia-Ruano. They are here as representatives of the many thousands of accomplished alumni of
this institution, whose successes in turn reflect the talent, commitment and dedication
of Illinois Wesleyan’s faculty and staff over the decades. The strong buttressing
that supports all of this is the work of generations of committed donors and other
friends of this place.
We’re now in a period of change in higher education. I’ll admit to having only halfheartedly
researched this claim, but I’d be willing to bet that most if not all of my predecessors
have said something along those lines as they were being inaugurated. Yet most observers
would agree that the current challenges facing higher education are different, both
in their nature and scope, than many we have seen in the past. Let me explain by beginning
with a parable from Todd Rose, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education:
In the early 1950s, at the dawn of jet-powered flight, the U.S. Air Force confronted
a troubling problem: Its pilots could not keep control of their planes. At the worst
point, 17 pilots crashed in a single day. The military initially pinned the blame
on "pilot error" and elevated its recruiting standards and changed up its flight school
— to little effect.
(It turns out that) in 1926, Army scientists had measured the size of hundreds of
male pilots … and used the data to standardize all cockpits and controls to fit an
average-size airman (in the name of efficiency)
Enter the heroes of this story—as is usually the case, (at least in my stories), the
statisticians. On the basis of 10 individual body size measurements—arm length, waist,
and so forth, and defining the average pilot as one in the middle third on all 10
dimensions, not a single pilot—not one of the 4,063 airmen then flying—was average sized. Subsequent to this study, airplane
cockpits were made adjustable, to fit pilots, and pilot performance, well, “soared”
(to be clear, that’s Rose’s pun, not mine).
I tell you this story, not as someone of nonstandard dimensions (though I will admit
that this tall podium was built with me in mind), but because I agree with Professor
Rose’s subsequent claim that much of higher education forces students to fit the cockpit. To be fair, our forerunners had little choice but to do so. After the Second World
War, the influx of GIs undoubtedly energized higher education, but also placed a premium
on large-scale production of college graduates. Schools had more students than they
could handle, and the arrival of baby boomers in college only served to ramp up the
Today, our higher education model, to greater or lesser extent at any given institution,
maintains elements of the one that evolved to deal with crowds. This is true even
at liberal arts institutions, though they, for the most part, made smaller accommodations
It’s also the case that, at least at the moment, that higher education has some demographic
breathing room, with the number of US high school graduates projected to plateau for
at least the next decade. That’s an opportunity, perhaps, but “breathing room” is
an obvious euphemism. With a declining pool of applicants (and little growth in family
income), there is an undeniable need for colleges and universities to differentiate
themselves in order to attract students.
Some institutions, notably those public institutions dependent upon diminishing state
support and private institutions with declining revenues, seem likely to face difficult
futures. But other institutions, including ours, are in position to stake out a portion
of the educational spectrum that focuses on providing not just a very high-quality
education, but a distinctly individualized one that takes Nugent’s “matter and manner”
to the next level.
While Illinois Wesleyan’s strong tradition of student-faculty collaboration, dating
back at least to John Wesley Powell’s time on the faculty, is a solid base on which
to build, other similarly well-positioned institutions also are responding to their
own equally strong needs to define a market niche. Whether the measured by the depth
or breadth of student-faculty collaboration, the bar is being raised by many of our
peer institutions. There is therefore some urgency to the matter. We risk arriving
late to the dance by waiting to respond in kind, and we cannot stand pat.
It’s worth emphasizing at the outset that, while deepening and broadening opportunities
for faculty and students to engage collaboratively will enhance our institutional
status, it is not an elitist story. To the contrary, part of our task is to increase our accessibility
to economically, racially, ethnically and geographically diverse students. Some of
you may have seen recent reports of a study claiming that only 6% of private colleges
provide sufficient financial aid to reduce the annual cost borne by their lowest-income
students to $10,000 or less annually.
$10,000 is an important number, because that’s roughly the total of Pell and other
need-based grants available to low-income students in most states. Illinois Wesleyan
has not historically been in the 6% of schools hitting this target, but, if we are
serious about having that economically, racially ethnically, and geographically diverse
student body that I just mentioned, we should be in that 6% club. I'm happy to report
that we’ve already begun efforts to increase our support to low-income students, and
those efforts will expand.
So, to collaborative engagement, the title of this talk. What does it mean? In the
broadest terms, it’s the institutionally personalized initiative that we, the Illinois
Wesleyan community, will formulate in response to a movement that is nationwide (but
not uniform--more on that in a minute). It is a movement that is in part driven by
demand, as prospective students and their parents include personalized academic experiences
on their shopping lists. It is also, in part, a reflection of enabling changes on
the supply side. Technology has entered post-secondary education in a variety of ways,
some more successful than others. At its best, appropriately deployed technology can
allow faculty and staff to focus on deep interaction with students.
The efforts being made in response to these systemic changes take different forms
and go by different names at different institutions, but “signature work,” as popularized
by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, is emerging as a generic
term. A defining trait is ensuring that all graduates integrate and apply their learning
to complex problems and projects in ways that make clear not just to potential employers
or graduate schools, but also to the students themselves, the great things of which
they are capable.
Though they often happen outside of traditional classroom settings and vary greatly
in their content and design, signature experiences always involve tight collaboration
between students and faculty. They are highly personalized, reflecting individual
interests, abilities, and preparation. They require that each student assumes significant
ownership of a relatively independent academic undertaking.
I said a moment ago that this is not happening uniformly across the country. Signature
work requires a level of student-faculty interaction that is simply not feasible at
many, perhaps most, schools, and so it will never be integrated into their curricula.
Those institutions that are able to implement signature work initiatives, focusing and strengthening the quality
of student-faculty interactions, will increasingly differentiate themselves from the
rest. This is likely to create distinct advantages in recruiting students for those
The true power of collaborative engagement is that students’ guided work serves to
emphasize the enormous advantage that the breadth of a liberal arts education confers.
We are, in the end, training leaders. Leadership positions are characterized by the need to think and work clearly, analytically,
creatively, critically, and persuasively in environments that are characterized by
subjectivity, ambiguity and diverse viewpoints.
This is a state of affairs that, I’m sure, sounds familiar to many of you here today.
Those with a liberal arts background well understand the task at hand, and it shows
in their subsequent careers. For example, while less than 4% of all college graduates typically come from private liberal arts colleges, 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 14% of all MacArthur Fellows were graduates of such institutions.
Yet we all know that the importance of a broad-based liberal education to subsequent
success is not completely clear to the larger world (see for example Marco Rubio on
society’s need for welders versus philosophy majors). It’s odd that this is the case,
since liberal arts education has always, at least in part, been about jobs. On this
question, Georgia Nugent, quoting her again, says that:
"...we encounter a frequently overlooked paradox of the American liberal arts college.
It was surely founded on the principles of the artes liberales, those studies that are intended to develop the highest human capacities. But the
original colonial colleges also were clearly 'professional schools.' They were explicitly
founded for the purpose of educating the pastors who would be needed in this new world.
That same liberal arts tradition, training not just for a job, but developing the
whole person in preparation for leadership, continues today. I mentioned a moment
ago that some part of the impetus for signature work consists of the opportunities
and challenges created by technological change in higher education. In the plainest
terms, theory and practice are not separated by the gulf they once were, not least because today’s students are able to work and to learn outside of traditional
classroom settings in ways that were difficult, if not impossible, to envision even
a decade or two ago. The work of historians like Edward Ayers, melding historical research with broad-based digital collaboration, or of Rebecca Frost-Davis, on the teaching of humanities in the digital age, make good reading on this topic.
Among our highest purposes, and unquestionably the comparative advantage enjoyed by
institutions like ours, is the fostering of personalized, meaningful intellectual relationships between faculty (and staff) members
and students. In what may initially seem counter-intuitive, appropriate technology can be used
to expand both the breadth and the depth of these interactions. If, for example, a
significant part of students’ work takes place outside of the classroom, faculty members
are afforded both more time, and more varied opportunities, with students for coaching,
discussion and mentoring.
While technology may expand the range of the possible, people — faculty and staff — will
remain the essential element in our work, a fact that will be incorporated into our planning
and our future staffing decisions. To be clear, as we broaden our efforts and re-imagine
faculty responsibilities so as to include every student in this transformative work,
we will do so fully cognizant that this is a faculty-intensive effort that will require appropriate resources. We’ve already begun work as a community on envisioning how we proceed together.
While specific details will reflect our institutional personality, the outlines seem
clear. There is little doubt that we will respond to our new choice set by continuing
to identify opportunities that afford students a head start on fulfilled lives and
On that last point, allow me to emphasize something I’ve left unsaid to this point
because it is so fundamental to the fabric of this place that it almost — almost — goes
without saying. At the same time it is something that is such an essential part of
Illinois Wesleyan that it deserves to be shouted from the rooftops.
We will continue our notable focus on the whole person. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a number of alumni these past five months, and it’s
clear to me that our alumni feel that their time on the Illinois Wesleyan campus — doing
all that students do here — prepared them to live fulfilled lives and helped to forge
them into confident leaders in their professions and communities.
We are in the business, at some level, of encouraging students in the development
of their better selves — of helping them understand how, in ways large and small,
to leave the world better than they found it. Minor Myers, the 17th president of Illinois
Wesleyan, famously said,
“Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.”
That spirit remains alive and well at Illinois Wesleyan University, and will continue
to thrive here.
Collaborative engagement will not just preserve this wonderful heritage, but enhance
it. By blurring the line between what one studies in college and what comes afterward,
we will allow each student not only to add significantly to his or her individual
knowledge, abilities and experience, but simultaneously to do the things that matter
to her or him. And through the very nature of their engagement in the collaborative
process, we will both extend and enhance the lifelong learning capabilities of our
We have work to do and little time to waste, but our work is the happy task of doing
more of what we are demonstrably good at. In so doing, we pass forward to future generations a thriving Illinois Wesleyan,
a place that will continue to transform lives.
Howard Schultz said,
When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common
purpose, anything is possible.
This community shares a passionate commitment to Illinois Wesleyan University. Our common purpose, the thriving evolution of this great institution, promises an
exciting future. Thank you all for being a part of it.