The liberal arts, the conscience of the college, and faculty governance

This morning I had the chance to sit in on one session of a three-day seminar on the liberal arts. We enjoyed a few hours with Victor Ferrall, a former president of Beloit College and author of Liberal Arts at the Brink, part of which I reviewed here. Much of our conversation was, like much of Ferrall’s book, concerned with the transformation of liberal arts colleges into something else. More often than not, a greater research or vocational orientation was seen as a potential threat to the integrity of the liberal arts.

It seems to me that we really need to separate threats to the integrity of the liberal arts from innovations in liberal education. We might say that changes at liberal arts colleges are only problematic 1) if they preclude or inhibit the expression of the core values of a liberal arts education or 2) if they preclude or inhibit the achievement of essential outcomes of a liberal arts education. Furthermore, if proposed changes represent a departure from the traditions and practices in which the core values and essential outcomes of liberal education have been expressed and achieved with sustained excellence, then we should probably be very cautious about them.

This is how the conscience of the college should operate, where conscience means judgment about judgment or reason about reason. Core values and essential outcomes, and their fit to the liberal arts tradition, should be clearly articulated. Then the question of the expression of core values and achievement of essential outcomes should be at the center of decision-making.

But we must ask, “Who should be the conscience of the college? Where, when, and by whom should this question be asked?” It should be embedded in some form (not necessarily always in the most rigorous form) at every major decision-point. Moreover, given the responsibility of the institution to cultivate a vibrant intellectual community, and the unique (and I do mean unique) capabilities of faculty both to understand and execute that task, faculty must be involved in governance as this exercise of conscience. On the one hand, this means that the faculty must embrace this role. They should be open to institutional service and open to the possibility of faithful innovation. On the other hand, administrations and boards must deliberately create space for meaningful faculty involvement. Meaningful faculty involvement requires considerable transparency and the sharing of information about developments or possibilities that require careful consideration. It also requires the cultivation of faculty governance channels that have an impact on the outcomes of these conversations. Without these things, I’d say the conscience of the college is broken and we have very little hope of maintaining our bearings in the midst of the current challenges–both threats and opportunities–to liberal education.

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