A World Without Liberal Education?

I published this op-ed in Inside Higher Education this morning. I’ve also been talking about liberal education on the NPR here and here.


“What would the United States look like if we really gave up on liberal education and opted only for specialized or vocational schools? Would that really be such a bad thing?”

The interviewer was trying to be provocative, since I’ve just written a book entitled Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters. What exactly would be the problem, he went on, if we suddenly had a job market filled with people who were really good at finance, or engineering, or real estate development?

Apart from being relieved that he hadn’t included expertise in derivatives training in his list of specializations, I did find his thought experiment interesting. Would there be real advantages to getting students to hunker down early into more specific tracks of learning? In that way they would be “job ready” sooner, contributing more quickly to the enterprises of which they are a part, and acquiring financial independence at the same time. Would that really be such a bad thing?

The debate between those who want students to specialize quickly and those who advocate for a broad, contextual education is as old as America itself. The health of a republic, Thomas Jefferson argued, depends on the education of its citizens. Against those arguing for more technical training, he founded the University of Virginia, emphasizing the freedom that students and faculty would exercise there. Unlike Harvard University and its many imitators, devoted to predetermined itineraries through traditional fields, he said, Virginia would not prescribe a course of study to direct graduates to “the particular vocations to which they are destined.”

At Mr. Jefferson’s university, “every branch of science, useful at this day, may be taught in its highest degree.” But who would determine which pursuits of knowledge would prove useful?

Jefferson, a man of the Enlightenment, had faith that the diverse forms of learning would improve public and private life. Of course, his personal prejudices limited his interest in the improvement of life for so many. However, his conception of “useful knowledge” was capacious and open-ended – and this was reflected in his design for the campus in Charlottesville. He believed that the habits of mind and methods of inquiry characteristic of the modern sciences lent themselves to lifelong learning that would serve one well whether one went on to manage a farm or pursue a professional career. It is here we see the dynamic and open-ended nature of Jefferson’s understanding of educational “usefulness.”

His approach to knowledge and experimentation kept open the possibility that any form of inquiry might prove useful. The sciences and mathematics made up about half of the curriculum at Virginia, but Jefferson was convinced that the broad study of all fields that promoted inquiry, such as history, zoology, anatomy and even ideology would help prepare young minds. The utility was generally not something that could be determined in advance, but would be realized through what individuals made of their learning once outside the confines of the campus. The free inquiry cultivated at the university would help build a citizenry of independent thinkers who took responsibility for their actions in the contexts of their communities and the new Republic.

Jefferson would have well-understood what many business leaders, educators and researchers recognize today: that given the intense interconnection of problems and opportunities in a globalized culture and economy, we require thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity and can manage complexity. Joshua Boger, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (and chair of the board at Wesleyan University), has pointed out how much creative and constructive work gets done before clarity arrives, and that people who seek clarity too quickly might actually wind up missing a good deal that really matters. Boger preaches a high tolerance for ambiguity because the contemporary world is so messy, so complex.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, one of the most innovative design firms in the world, has lamented that many designers “are stuck with an approach that seems to be incapable of facing the complexity of the challenges being posed today.” He calls for a flexible framework that leaves behind static blueprint preparation for “open-ended, emergent, evolutionary approaches to the design of complex systems can result in more robust and useful outcomes.” Like many CEOs across the country, Brown recognizes that more robust and useful outcomes will come from learning that is capacious and open-ended — from liberal education.

At the Drucker Forum last year, Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, described what she called the “embarrassment of complexity” – efforts based in data analysis to dissolve ambiguity that lead to more conformity and less creativity.  She called for an ethos among business and government leaders that would instead “be based on the acknowledgement that complexity requires integrative thinking, the ability to see the world, a problem or a challenge from different perspectives.” That’s a call for integrative thinking based in liberal learning.

In America, liberal education has long been animated by the tension between broad, open-ended learning and the desire to be useful in a changing world. Calls for dissolving this tension in favor of narrow utilitarian training would likely produce just the opposite: specialists unprepared for change who will be skilled in areas that may quickly become obsolete.

So, what would America look like if we abandoned this grand tradition of liberal education? Without an education that cultivates an ability to learn from the past while stimulating a resistance to authority, without an education that empowers students for lifelong learning and inquiry, we would become a cultural and economic backwater, competing with various regions for the privilege of operationalizing somebody else’s new ideas. In an effort at manic monetization without critical thinking, we would become adept at producing conformity rather than innovation.

The free inquiry and experimentation of a pragmatic liberal education open to ambiguity and complexity help us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, seize opportunities and solve problems. Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to shape a complex world.

Wes Trustee Joshua Boger in Biotech Hall of Fame

Yesterday I had my final conference call of the fiscal year with Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees. This devoted group of alumni and parents help steer the university for the long haul, and they find time in their busy schedules to provide support, critique and financial assistance for key Wes priorities. I am so grateful for their efforts.

The Board of Trustees is led by Joshua Boger ’73, P’06, P’09. A philosophy-chemistry major here as an undergraduate, Joshua has had an extraordinary career as a scientist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and citizen.  Recently he was recognized for his work in biotechology and chemistry. He  received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Boston Biotech CEO Conference.  Shortly after this honor, a large international gathering in Washington D.C. presented him with  the Biotechnology Heritage Award, jointly given by BIO and the Chemical Heritage Foundation (non-profit keepers of the history of chemistry, located in Philadelphia).  This means that Joshua is a member of a very small and distinguished group known as the Biotechnology Hall of Fame.

Joshua Boger

Congratulations, Joshua!


Our Joshua Boger ’73: Philosopher, Chemist, Entrepreneur

Yesterday I received an email from a friend who has a relative who suffers from cystic fibrosis, “an inherited disease that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs and digestive tract. It is one of the most common chronic lung diseases in children and young adults, and may result in early death.” She was writing because she had just heard about the amazing results that Vertex Pharmaceuticals had achieved with a drug it had created to eliminate almost all symptoms of a form of this dreaded disease. The jury is still out, but the results so far are inspiring. My friend had read that Vertex was founded by Joshua Boger. “Is that our Joshua Boger?” she asked.

It is our Joshua Boger ’73, P’06,’09, Chair of Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees. He reported the following to me:

We basically transformed most of these patients into biochemical normals; using biochemistry you could not tell they had a major metabolic defect, because we fixed it with one tiny pill twice a day.  Average lung function went, in 30 days or so, from barely being able to climb stairs to being in normal activity indistinguishable from the usual American coach potato.  We added on average a pint to every one of their breaths.  Some patents ran across a room for the first time in ten years.  Hospitalizable lung issues dropped 50%.  Patients, who have a hard time keeping up normal weight because the defect affects food absorption, gained an average of 7 pounds over six months.  All the effects are sustained through the entire study.  Side effects leading to stopping participation in the trial were something like 5x higher in the placebo group than the drug group.  It is without qualification the most spectacular clinical result I have ever seen.   Transformative.  First oral drug for any genetic disease that addresses the genetically defective protein directly.  A major paradigm shift in drug discovery.

And only took 13 years from start till here!  We should have this on the market by the first of next year.  Good stuff.

Joshua was a philosophy and chemistry major at Wesleyan, and he founded his biotech company to “transform the way serious diseases are treated” (the company’s other major drug in production is for Hepatitis C). He’s told me more than once that he has a “high tolerance for ambiguity,” and I can see how he thinks of the long run. These drugs take a decade or more to develop. They also have the potential to make a lasting difference in the lives of thousands of people.

I was so proud to respond to my friend that yes, that’s Wesleyan’s Joshua Boger. He is on campus today for our Board of Trustee meetings (he also chairs the board of the Harvard Medical School). If you see him wandering around campus this weekend, please say “congratulations and thank you!”

Wesleyaning into the Future!

Last weekend the Wesleyan Board of Trustees was in town for its annual retreat. The trustees, almost all alumni along with several parents of Wes students, gathered this year to focus on two major topics: building the long-term economic health of the university, and imagining how Wes will look 30 or 50 years from now. We were joined by faculty, staff and students, and the discussions were animated and productive.

On Saturday we looked at the general profile of the endowment — past, present and future. There are three key ingredients to building an endowment strong enough to provide annual revenue for the operations of the school: gifts, spending, and investment performance. Over the last three years we have shifted our fundraising priorities so that we now invest more of the gifts we receive rather than spending them, and we have reduced the percentage that we draw from the endowment. Finally, we have hired Anne Martin, formerly a Director in the Yale Investment Office, to provide wise stewardship of our investment portfolio. Anne led the retreat participants in some exercises that explored how we choose the asset classes in which we invest, and how we choose managers within those classes. Everyone left with a greater understanding of how our investment operation works.

We also discussed endowment fund raising at some length, since all trustees are active friendraisers and fundraisers for the university. Chair Joshua Boger led us in some creative exercises in which we thought about our highest aspirations for Wes and how we might envision taking steps to act on them. One trustee suggested that we find a way over the next decades to do so much good for our students and the world that Wesleyan becomes a verb!

This week we had our inaugural faculty meeting of the year. Department chairs introduced more than a dozen new professors who are joining our ranks across all divisions. These are extraordinary scholar-teachers who have already begun making their mark. Listening to the descriptions of their research and the classes they are teaching filled me with confidence in the ongoing rejuvenation of our curriculum and of our ability to shape scholarly fields through original contributions.

I was Wesleyaned!

[tags]Board of Trustees, endowment, Anne Martin, Joshua Boger, fund raising[/tags]

Trustee Meetings: A Grand Gift, MoCon, Tuition, Liberal Arts

This past weekend the Board of Trustees was on campus. Despite the blizzard in the Northeast, trustees managed to get here for key meetings, engaging conversations and for some important decisions. One of the great moments of the weekend was the dinner to honor Wesleyan volunteers. At this celebration I was delighted to announce that Joshua Boger ’73, P ’06, P’09 and Amy Boger, M.D., P’06, P’09 have pledged 12 million dollars to our fundraising efforts. This will establish the Boger Scholarship Program and the Joshua Boger University Professorship of The Sciences and Mathematics. The first recipient of the chair appointment will be David L. Beveridge, professor of chemistry.

Here are some other highlights from the Board’s meetings.

The Campus Affairs Committee has an extraordinarily wide portfolio of concerns. They receive reports on Admissions (plenty of good news there!), co-curricular initiatives and core academic affairs. We discussed some of the current departmental models for assessing student learning and heard a report on the summer session pilot program. This committee also forwarded its recommendation to grant tenure to two stellar young scholar-teachers: Matthew Kurtz in Psychology and Typhaine Leservot in Romance Languages and the College of Letters.  Matt works on the neuroscience of cognitive rehabilitation for schizophrenia, and Typhaine’s research concerns changing modes of literary analysis (postcolonial, feminist) for contemporary Francophone writing. Congratulations to both!

The Finance Committee has a lion’s share of the work at the February meeting because it’s here that we propose our tuition for next year in the context of our budget projections. For next year the Board approved a 5% increase in tuition and fees, and we also project an 11% increase in our financial aid expenditures. We had plenty of discussion about how we might find ways to reduce costs so as to restrain future tuition increases without sacrificing the quality of student experience. This is a high priority going forward.

A topic that came up in various venues throughout the weekend concerned the future of McConaughy Hall. I knew the building well as a student, living just across from its front doors as a frosh. I remember with real fondness its grand staircase and wonderful light, and I also think back to some great parties and concerts I attended there. The building has been empty since I began my presidency, and since that time I’ve been trying to find an alternative use for it. The structure turns out to be terribly inefficient, and in great disrepair. Still, I had hopes that we might transform it (as we have done with Davenport and Fayerweather, and will do with Squash) for some community use.

I haven’t found an alternative use for MoCon. But given all the strong feeling, which I share, about trying to find alternative uses, I’ve delayed signing contracts for its demolition. The building has been here for almost 50 years, and I don’t take this decision lightly. But I also will not spend significant university funds every year without having a real function for the building. So, I am reviewing options (with appropriate professional guidance) one more time. I appreciate the input I’ve gotten, and I will be writing again soon on this subject.

At the main Board meeting we held an open discussion concerning changes in the liberal arts curriculum. How should we steer liberal arts learning in the future? I was particularly interested in hearing what fields the Board thought should be added to a liberal arts education, and which areas should be cut or reduced in importance. For example, I’ve been exploring the possibility of developing a liberal arts approach to engineering, and I’m also interested in how design thinking can have a more prominent role in our curriculum. Integrating our arts programs more fully into our academic programs (as with our new efforts in creative writing) is an important priority for many of us at Wes. I can ask readers here what I asked the Board: What would you like to see Wesleyan doing more of, less of?

Our conversation centered on three main areas for growth, and, truth be told, no real places for cutting: (1) public policy domestically and internationally, (2) engineering and design, (3) and the study of the impact of technology on culture and society. Dean Don Moon reminded us that while it might be good to have these general conversations at the Board level, each year the Wesleyan faculty develops dozens of new courses. The curriculum has been evolving and will continue to do so. We can thank our scholar-teacher model for that! It’s through their research that our professors develop new ideas that energize the classroom, and we are all the better for it!

Studying Abroad

I’m traveling with Board Chair Joshua Boger and his wife Amy this week to meet with some alumni overseas. We’ve been in Bangalore the last few days and had an extraordinary visit with Azim and Rishad Premji at their Wipro headquarters. Rishad graduated from Wesleyan in ’99, and just last year we awarded his father Azim an honorary doctorate for his outstanding philanthropic work. The Azim Premji Foundation is focused on making a national impact on the educational system here – with particular attention given to helping girls erase the literacy gap. I also learned about the Foundation’s programs helping very young children of migrant workers, as well as an ambitious plan to open the Azim Premji University in a few years. This university will have teacher training as its core mission. I’ve been deeply impressed by the foundation officers and their work.  They taught me so much in a short time, and I’m optimistic about their chances of success.

Wipro is a major international technology services company based in India, and it is increasingly taking on work in “green industries.” Joshua, Amy and I met with a group of Wipro executives responsible for the professional development of the staff (over 100,000 employees!). They are practically running a university at Wipro, and it was fascinating to hear about their approach to continuing education through seminars, lectures and mobile device access. I took plenty of notes!

Our conversations with Azim Premji and Rishad Premji focused on how to raise Wesleyan’s profile in India and on how a liberal arts education can prepare graduates very well to become imaginative engineers.  I look forward to continuing these conversations as we enhance internationalization at Wes and develop connections between our programs and the broad spectrum of engineering (from infrastructure to technology and sustainability).

We had the chance to see a bit of Mysore today, and we’re off tomorrow before dawn. Next stop, London, for a brief visit with the Wes community there.



[tags]Azim Prenji, Rishad Prenji, Wipro, philanthropy, Wesleyan overseas, internationalization[/tags]

Celebrating Achievement

This past week I had the pleasure of welcoming students, faculty and their guests to the Fall Initiation of our Phi Beta Kappa chapter. One of the oldest honor societies in America, PBK acknowledges great student academic achievement. Good grades aren’t enough though; the undergrads must satisfy the General Education expectations and be nominated by their home department.

Most of the Phi Beta Kappa members of the class of 2010 will be inducted in the spring semester, and it is a special honor to be asked to join during the fall. This semester the initiates are:

Sue Hyun Chung
Alexis Horan
Megan Hughes
Peter Hull
Samuel Kurtis
Elias Leight
Rebecca Loomis
Anna Mageras
Mark McCloughan
Juan Pablo Mendoza
Anne Merley
Ari Tolman
Rebecca Turkewitz
Chan-young Yang
Jake Zuehl

The research and co-curricular projects of this year’s group are as varied as they are impressive, ranging from sophisticated research in microbiology, economics and political philosophy to worthy efforts in the realms of education and public health, theater and the Peace Corps. Some of the PBK students are headed to Kenya, others to Ecuador, and I bet a few wind up in Brooklyn.

Yesterday, Provost Joe Bruno and I joined the Chemistry Department and Board Chair Joshua Boger in celebrating Betty Tishler’s 100th birthday with her family and friends. Max Tishler, Betty’s late husband, was a great Wesleyan scientist, and she has been a beloved member of our community for four decades. One of the very special guests was Dr. Satoshi Omura, who came in from Tokyo for this event. Dr. Omura, one of the world’s leading bioorganic scientists, discovered and developed the drug ivermectin, which is on track to eradicate onchocerciasis, or River Blindness. Millions of people across the globe have been taking ivermectin, and the results have revolutionized public health.

Dr. Omura was at Wes in the early 1970s, and as we stood together looking across Andrus Field yesterday, he grew wistful. He told me that he was so happy to be back at Wesleyan since this was the place where he first developed his scientific ideas. It was in our Chemistry Department that he began the work that would change the lives of millions of people around the world.

Maybe some of our Phi Beta Kappa students will have similar stories to tell one day!

[tags]Phi Beta Kappa, General Education Expectations, honors society, Peace Corps, Dr. Satoshi Omura, Ivermectin, River Blindness[/tags]

Trustee Discussions

This weekend the Wesleyan Board of Trustees will be on campus for their annual retreat. This is an especially interesting time for the Board, given the economic crisis from which we are emerging, the planning framework for the next decade we have started to discuss, and the fact that Joshua Boger is beginning his tenure as Chair of the Board. Joshua (Wesleyan class of 1973) was a philosophy and chemistry major here, and after taking his Ph.D. at Harvard he pursued a career in science. After rising to the top of research at Merck Pharmaceuticals, he used his entrepreneurial skill to start his own company. He founded Vertex, which has been dedicated to building medicines ‘from the molecule up’ for serious diseases. Having stepped down as CEO last year, Joshua sits on the board at Vertex and at least another dozen other boards (mostly not-for profits). He has had two children graduate from Wesleyan and has been a tireless advocate for the university.

Joshua will lead the Board, including faculty and student representatives, in discussions that should help us discover a strategy for Wesleyan that will be relevant for the next decade. The word “discover” is important, and Joshua makes the point that it is a mistake to decide on a strategy. This weekend, we will instead talk through our core purpose and our values, and how we might realize them through integrated planning and effective action. There will be many sources for this discussion, including the Wesleyan 2020 document I posted on our website. On Sunday night (10/4) I will meet with the WSA at 8:00 pm to debrief on the board discussions, and I will continue to talk with faculty, staff, alumni and parent groups in the coming months about what we we have discovered about Wesleyan, and how we intend to build on that discovery. It should be an exciting process!

[tags]Wesleyan Board of Trustees, Joshua Boger, WSA[/tags]

Renewal of Possibility

It has been an eventful week, and there are many things that were striking about my experiences of Wesleyan since my last posting. I have had a range of contacts with staff, students, faculty, and alumni over the past seven days, and the experience brings home to me some of the challenges in being president of this great university.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we were celebrating the opening of the university center, and this week I find myself listening to students who feel that it isn’t meeting their needs in the ways they expect. Some of this, I am told, is part of the beginning of each academic year. There are lines at certain times of day; some people don’t feel they are getting the choices they want. A part of this, I can see, is working with a new food vendor who is also trying to adjust to the Wesleyan context. I take the students’ concerns and the parents’ concerns very seriously. I want us to be offering quality food at affordable prices, and I will make sure we are doing so. I also have to ensure we are getting the input we need from students, from workers at the facility, and from staff so that we make the most helpful adjustments. The Wesleyan community should know that we have a labor code that describes our community standards for fair treatment of those who work on campus. We will abide by this code, and we will monitor our compliance. Still, I doubt that we will be able to satisfy everyone, because we are a community with diverse needs, tastes, and expectations. We will, however, listen to all suggestions as to how we can do a better job for our students in a context that treats all employees and customers fairly.

In the middle of this week I was in Boston for meetings with our Science Advisory Council and with parents and alumni. The SAC meeting was at the Cambridge offices of Vertex, a biotechnology company founded by Joshua Boger ’73. Josh is on Wesleyan’s board of trustees, and he is a great supporter of the institution. He majored in chemistry and philosophy (!) while here, and has gone on to become a pioneer in the development of new drugs for viral diseases, including HIV, cancer, pain, and inflammation. The discussion centered on the quality of scientific research at Wesleyan and on how we can enhance it. We were very lucky to have input from Geoff Duyk ’80, who helped us think more clearly and precisely about our needs and goals. A key component of our efforts will be to connect research in the sciences to other aspects of the curriculum. When we talk about scientific literacy at Wesleyan, we mean learning habits of thinking, investigation, and evaluation that work in fields seemingly quite distant from biology and chemistry. Another crucial aspect of our work with the SAC is the planning and construction of a major new facility for the life sciences. We saw some very exciting plans at this meeting, and I am sure to be writing about this project in subsequent postings.

The meeting with a small group of Boston parents and alumni was very interesting. It was hosted by Tim Dibble ’86, the son of a beloved Wesleyan faculty member. The conversation was very engaging, and I heard from graduates from the 1950s and the most recent decade. What did they have in common? The first thing was the strong commitment to financial aid at Wesleyan. We must keep the university accessible to people from all social classes. The second thing was the importance of faculty-student relations at Wesleyan. People spoke movingly about how professors made a powerful difference in their lives, inside and outside the classroom. We also spoke about how the relationships formed at Wesleyan continued to be our networks later in life, and about the importance of our school remaining a culture in which accidental encounters can lead to lifelong friendships. I left the meeting reinvigorated about Wesleyan’s potential.

After the meeting I spent an hour or so with Bill Belichick ’75, the coach of the New England Patriots. We talked about the difficulty of getting a team to play together, to have the combination of discipline and passion that makes for the most satisfying experience, that makes for performance at the highest level. Coach Belichick emphasized practice and preparation, the goal of improving each time you work on a specific task. As we drove back to Middletown, I started to think about some of the ways I might work at becoming a more effective president, starting with listening more closely to students and faculty.

I wish all our teams the best in this weekend’s contests. Tomorrow is Wesleyan’s opening football game, but I won’t be there to watch very much of it. Tonight begins Yom Kippur, a day that in my tradition calls for reflection, repentance, and a renewal of possibility. In retrospect, “the renewal of possibility” may be the theme of this past week. May it last!

[tags] Usdan University Center, Science Advisory Council, Vertex, Joshua Berger, Board of Trustees, Geoff Duyk, Tim Dibble, Bill Belichick, New England Patriots, athletics, Yom Kippur [/tags]