President's Speeches & Writings:

Globalizing the liberal arts

President's Office
July 24, 2018

Versions of this paper were presented at both the conferences on Globalizing the Liberal Arts at Soka University (June) and the conference on Liberal Arts Illuminated at the colleges of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University (July) during the summer of 2018.

Re-framing the Narrative about the Liberal Arts  

Nationally, there is a growing negative narrative about the liberal arts. The liberal arts narrative is complex, but one major and persistent theme is the question of our value proposition. We are perceived by some as costing too much relative to the value we provide. One way to enhance our value proposition in ways that are consistent with our mission, and that would deepen student learning, is to promote the globalization of the liberal arts.  

Defining Value Proposition:

Families, students, policymakers and others define and measure value in complex ways. I would argue that it is much more complex than often captured in the public narrative. But, in my experience as a college president, value is often defined around three outcomes:

  1. Preparing students for professional and career success.
  2. Preparing students to be effective citizens.
  3. Preparing students to lead meaningful lives.

Constituencies and individuals may put different weights on these three factors, but overall, they hold true. (As an aside, I would argue that prospective students and families often value #3 more than the national narrative suggests). In other words, value is about helping students develop a set of skills, values, habits, networks, and experiences that allow them to be the architects of their lives in ways that lead to personal, professional, and civic success and also contribute to society.  

Strengthening the value of the liberal arts through globalization: How might we strengthen the narrative about the liberal arts by deepening what we do in ways that are consistent with our missions and that play to what we do well and could do even better? Globalize the liberal arts.  

By creating a college experience that is deeply global in all aspects, we have an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from larger, less residential, and more pre-professional universities. In doing so, we increase our value proposition, especially relative to other kinds of colleges and universities, in three ways:

  • Across the professions, cross-cultural competencies, and other global attributes are growing in importance. From medical professionals who are working with more diverse patient populations, to businesses that are expanding into global markets, to managers who have to align and focus diverse teams, the needs for cross-cultural and other global attributes will only continue to grow over time. Additionally, the range of skills, values, and habits that students acquire through global experiences, such as adaptability, creative problem solving, and thinking across categories and boundaries, will only matter more in the emerging economy.
  • Our civic futures — locally, regionally, and globally — will depend upon citizens who understand issues as global and complex, and who see difference as a source of strength for complex problem-solving. Most of the issues we are grappling with entail what political scientists call wicked problems. These are global in scope and require citizens who can think in global ways. Wicked problems also require students to work across difference and to be able to connect disparate ideas into new ways of thinking.
  • Being globally literate, confident, and engaged opens up endless possibilities to add meaning to one’s life. These include the ability to travel, to form a wide array of friendships, to expand the movies we watch, books we read, and even politicians we follow.

What does a globalized campus look like? Globalization will play itself out differently from campus to campus depending on institutional culture, the range and quantity of available resources, location, and leadership. I believe, however, there are fundamental principles that can and should drive the work across all of our campuses.  

These principles are as follows:

  • Globalization has to be woven throughout everything the college does
  • To be global really means global
  • Quality matters and is defined by deep cultural immersion and academic rigor
  • Assets need to be leveraged to effectively scale globalization 
  • Leadership matters and is needed at all levels of the college

Globalization has to be woven throughout everything the college does. On too many campuses, globalization is defined by a signature program or an academic center that houses “global efforts.” If we are to deepen our efforts, globalization cannot be relegated to being just another program we offer. Globalization must be a principle that guides everything we do.  

Put differently, we cannot imagine our students graduating from Denison, or any other great liberal arts college, without honing reading, writing, and creative-thinking skills. The expectations are embedded, automatic, and almost unconsciously practiced. Global thinking and learning should evolve into something automatic too. In other words, our goal should be for 100 percent of our students to graduate with global competency and literacy.  

There is a lot to say about this principle alone, so let me focus on the major points:

To be global, we have to be global. This starts with the people on our campuses. Doing some research recently, I was struck by how small the numbers remain of international students at many top liberal arts colleges. Often it is less than 10 percent, and even that population is not very global as it tends to skew toward a few countries. The same is true for the international representation within the ranks of faculty and staff.  To be truly global, we need a broad mix of students, faculty, and staff. This means rethinking how and where we recruit students, faculty, and staff.  

Likewise, we need to extend the global reach of our academic programs across the curriculum. Most of us have some sort of international studies program, and many of our academic departments have added more globally oriented courses. This gives us a great foundation to build from. But, if we look closely, global education is still clumped in certain academic departments with certain faculty and in certain courses.  

We need to think bigger and push beyond established disciplinary frameworks. For example: how might the sciences play a greater role in helping students dive deeper into global issues? How can global thinking influence our teaching and learning across the social sciences and humanities? What does it mean for our distribution requirements? Where is the global DNA hiding in our academic programs that we cannot see but that is just waiting to be leveraged? How do we hone the craft of teaching with a global lens, even when it might seem awkward? How do we support our faculty in their own development?  

Beyond the curriculum, we need to take a hard look at every part of campus. How can student activities and athletics, civic engagement, and arts programs embrace globalization? Where do we look to recruit coaches and athletes — where do teams travel? How do we construct and shape and support service and community-based work opportunities for students? What do we write about in our alumni magazines? What kinds of plays are performed, and what exhibitions are brought to our museums? The potential for globalization of co-curricular programs and activities is enormous but only will be realized if we are intentional and disciplined in our efforts. This also means adopting a global lens in developing budgets.  

The harder work is integrating global components. It is one thing to be global, another to embrace globalization as a core value, and a third to actually realize the best version of our global ambitions.  

For example, our international students are too often isolated on our campuses. We need to do more to foster a campus culture where every student is seeking and working toward cross-cultural engagement. For example, I suspect most of us could take a hard look at orientation programs and the first semester of college experience and find ways to encourage more cross-cultural interactions and friendships within our incoming class. Let us create campuses where students purposefully seek to create friendships with other students whose life experiences are very different from their own.  

Another example is our centers for global learning. We need to make sure these centers are fully integrated across campus and function as catalysts for expanding global work beyond the usual people, places, and departments — as opposed to islands of internationally focused research and perspectives.  

The fixes are not easy. Solutions will vary across our campuses given our unique cultures and resources. At Denison, we are highly focused on residential halls, especially first-year halls. We reconstructed our residential program a year ago to create something called Residential Communities – or as it is known on campus, ResComm.  

Our goal is to create residence halls where students learn to live and work effectively across difference, to do public work, and to develop as leaders. We are working to set the tone early, giving our students the skills, values, and habits to live in truly diverse and culturally rich settings. We try to encourage every first-year student to use their residence hall to create friendships with students from very different backgrounds.  

Reimagining residential living will not in itself make for a truly global experience for students on campuses. The truth is that despite all the students who are excited about including global experiences in their education, there is another sizeable subset of students who are tentative, even reluctant to do so.  

For the majority of our students — particularly American students — global thinking has played little to no part in their primary or secondary education. And even those students who have traveled or studied abroad prior to college generally have done so in a relatively narrow context and from an outsider’s perspective. So when they arrive on our campuses, many students equate the idea of global education with study abroad.    

That’s a failure we have to own and a reality we have to change. And we’re going to need to include students in the process of doing so. Our students are incredibly smart and perceptive, and they have fantastic ideas, if we ask, engage and listen to them.  

Globalizing the liberal arts college experience involves more than changing programs and adopting new pedagogies. It means transforming social and cultural structures on campus. And change of this sort requires student buy-in and participation.  

So we need to be proactive in bringing students into the work of globalizing our communities. We need to convey the extent to which their education — regardless of the field of study they pursue or post-college goals they have — cannot be complete or meaningful if it is absent immersion in a global context. And we need to listen to and heed their advice about how to bring about effective and meaningful change of this kind to the student experience on campus.  

To be global really means global. Too much globalization is focused narrowly on Western Europe. I am not advocating that we ignore Western Europe. Students can, and do, have fantastic experiences throughout Western Europe. But our global project has to be worldwide.  

We have been working on this at Denison, but it turns out to be harder than expected. For example, many study abroad providers are focused on Europe and Australia. Parents are more comfortable sending their students to Europe, and more students want to go there. And to their credit, European universities have become much more international. However, in truth, many of our students are not going to Europe on direct-enroll programs but rather with U.S. study abroad providers to study in program centers with students from other U.S. colleges.  

To really make progress, we need to form more partnerships with our peers. One example is a project started by the Great Lakes College Association called the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA), a network of 29 liberal arts colleges located in 17 countries.  

Denison is a member, and we have been doing everything from linked courses, to faculty and student exchanges, to a variety of joint programs. The GLAA has succeeded in creating strong relationships between a set of Midwestern liberal arts colleges and our peers abroad. But the challenge has been geographic diversity. GLAA efforts remain heavily focused on the United States and Europe. There is some representation from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East — though it remains small — and we have struggled to find partners from Central and South America. The partners are available, but we need to work harder to make the connections and form the partnerships.  

Getting beyond this requires creative thinking. We need to continue to devise and develop effective new models for liberal arts colleges to partner with our international peers.  

But we also need other forms of globalizing. Let me provide two examples.  

First, though it seems counter-intuitive, by staying more local, we might achieve more global. I was at first a reluctant and now have become a fierce advocate for study away, in addition, to study abroad. Within 200 miles of most of our campuses are major cities. For Denison, Columbus is just 25 miles down the road. In Columbus, there is a large and growing Somali population and an emerging Middle Eastern community as well. Those communities are interesting and eager to connect with the college. Another example is the U.S. southern border. It is less expensive to fly from Columbus to southwest Texas than many of the places in Europe we currently send students. And spending time along the southern border, in places like El Paso, can add tremendously to our students’ global understanding.  

Second, we might also need to rethink technology. It is important that we move away from treating technology as a barrier to students engaging globally. Rather, we need to embrace the tremendous opportunities technology offers to help students go beyond the borders of our campuses. Technology can help us become more outwardly engaged. Linked courses, for example, can bring our students together with peers from other places to which they cannot or will not travel. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the potential that merging technology with innovative pedagogies presents to expand and enrich global education in the liberal arts setting.  

All of this suggests a need to redefine “global.” It is not about travel or how far we go in an airplane. It is about the experiences we give our students — the opportunities to explore a range of cultures and attributes in ways that help them develop the skills, values, and habits of effectively working in global ways.   

Quality really matters and starts with deep cultural immersion and academic rigor. Inside Higher Ed recently published an interesting article by George Kuh and Jillian Kinzie. It was part of a debate about high impact practices (HIP) and when they matter. Global programs are of course among the high impact practices being debated. Kuh and Kinzie state, “simply offering and labeling an activity a HIP does not necessarily guarantee that students who participate in it will benefit in the ways much of the extant literature claims. Over the past few years, we’ve emphasized that implementation quality is critical in terms of realizing the benefits of HIP participation. This is not a surprise as the caveat applies to every effort a college or university makes to engage students in meaningful, relevant learning experiences inside and outside the classroom, on and off the campus.”   

Every global program must have at least two qualities: cultural immersion and academic rigor or integrity.  

The work of creating global citizens is almost impossible absent deep cultural immersion. Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs have a fantastic book called How College Works, where they make the point that people and relationships, not programs and initiatives, change lives. Chambliss and Takacs argue that we spend way too much time focused on creating strategic plans, signature programs, and new initiatives, but nowhere near enough thinking about how we bring people together.  

We can debate what makes for a high-quality global program. I would argue it starts with deep cultural immersion and suggests we focus on leveraging the emerging diversity of our campuses to make them places that promote immersion and meaningful cross-cultural engagement. Let’s “mix it up” more in our residence halls. Let’s review our study abroad programs and focus more on home-stays and maybe a new generation of better designed direct-enroll programs where students live in residence halls with their international peers.   

Likewise, academic rigor and integrity matter a lot. I know we all agree with this in principle, but I suspect if we look hard, there are places where we can improve quality across our global efforts. Every program should have high academic value.  

Assets need to be leveraged to effectively scale globalization. The optimal approach to asset and resource allocation will vary across our institutions but it is crucial. Globalization is a big project and it can be expensive. Unless we scale with quality — two things that often don’t go hand in hand — we are likely to be left with a collection of nice stories to tell but far too little institutional change. We need to aim to impact 100 percent. This means giving 100 percent of our students' multiple experiences throughout their time at college, and at each stage of their development, that help them to develop global competency and literacy.  

Here are some places Denison has opportunities to do more:  

First, leveraging our location as part of the Columbus metropolitan region. A new highway puts us 30 minutes from downtown Columbus, which has become an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan city. We are starting to think about a range of ways to use Columbus — taking students to talks by the World Affairs Council, connecting with interesting neighborhoods like our Somali and Middle Eastern communities, recruiting students and staff from Columbus who are recent immigrants, creating internships with companies that have a global focus, and using our proximity to a major airport to travel more. We can do study away on a regular and ongoing basis.  

Second, commit to making sure that when we invest in new initiatives, we have a chance to infuse them with global attributes. When Denison moved to develop new academic programs, we started with Global Commerce and Denison Seminars – team-taught courses with a travel component. We are investing heavily in a new career center, the Austin E. Knowlton Center for Career Exploration, where we are building international internships and making sure they are funded from day one, so all students can participate without financial barriers.  

Third, focus on our growing four-year residential program and the international student population which has recently doubled in size – 16 percent for the class of 2022. We are committed to ensuring that our campus becomes a site for deep cultural immersion and global learning in classrooms, residential halls, studios, dining halls, and so forth.  

And lastly, we continue to increase funding for study abroad. We are raising more resources and working more closely with faculty to make sure study abroad experiences are both available and affordable to students.  

Leadership matters and is needed at every level of the college. None of this will happen without committed leadership from presidents, provosts, deans, directors, and department chairs. Globalizing liberal arts colleges will require a willingness to take on “sacred” issues that stand in the way. The signature international program that hasn’t changed in decades and takes up all the air in the room may actually need to be overhauled – or abandoned altogether. Longstanding silos must come down and institutional policies that hamper creativity and thwart innovation have to go. Leadership also means freeing up time for faculty, student development professionals, and others to focus on the global, and making sure they have resources to get things done.  

Small vs. Big  

I recently spent some time with Professor Ahmed Samatar of Macalester College, who visited Denison in April. During his visit, Professor Samatar drew a distinction between “small” and “big” liberal arts colleges.  

“Small” liberal arts colleges are at odds with the aims of globalization and antithetical to the work we are doing.  “Small” liberal arts colleges are insular, narrow in focus, and shrinking in every respect.  

By contrast, the notion of a “big” liberal arts college encompasses the imagination and aspirations of the best elements of liberal learning. “Big” liberal arts colleges are outward looking. “Big” liberal arts colleges convey palpable energy and spirit across campus that creates a distinct identity, a sense of place and institutional pride. Engaged students study with faculty who mentor and expose them to emerging issues in various fields of study and push them to go farther, to dig deeper, and to achieve more.  

At “big” liberal arts colleges, the pursuit of ideas is coupled with a cultivation of civic consciousness about the common fate of fellow citizens and the larger human race. A “big” liberal arts college is, to quote Professor Samatar, “a leader, eager to imagine new and alluring innovations that could enhance the fundamental mission of liberal learning — that is, an effective combination of accumulating wisdom or insight with appropriate application.” And a place where “the culture of the college is infused at once with attention to the local exigencies as well as too cosmopolitan or internationalist imperatives, initiatives, and habits.”  

In essence, I think this notion of being “big” is what the project of globalization is all about. We are striving to make our liberal arts colleges “big” and to avoid being “small.” We seek to be more expansive in our worldview, more open to new ideas and different approaches, more outwardly engaged, and more welcoming in all respects.  

For the last few decades, we have worked, and continue to work, to make our campuses more diverse, more intellectual, and more international. These efforts are succeeding in notable ways. We are seeing positive results and have much to be proud of.  But there is still lots to do and a great deal of work left in front of us.  

And I believe we can get there by embracing the five principles above:

  • Globalization has to be woven throughout everything the college does
  • To be global really means global
  • Quality matters and is defined by deep cultural immersion and academic rigor
  • Assets need to be leveraged to effectively scale globalization 
  • Leadership matters and is needed at all levels of the college

In doing so, we can chip away at the negative national narrative about the value proposition of higher education in general and the liberal arts in particular. More importantly, we can do so in ways that are consistent with our mission and that deepen the education of our students, strengthen the dynamics of our campuses, and prepare our students for personal, professional and civic success.  

Together, these five principles give us a set of strategies to embrace the values of “big” and reject the limitations of “small.” Even at healthy liberal arts colleges, there is a very real danger of becoming too narrow, too confined – too cautious. For me, the crux of the issue is avoiding being insular and becoming more outwardly focused. Being global is a huge component of making this happen. Hence, this conversation is about much more than “embracing the global” or adding more “global programs” to our campuses. It is about making sure that the colleges we love remain a driving force in higher education. Liberal arts colleges need to continue to provide the kind of education that students need and deserve — the kind of education that the world needs us to provide to create the next generation of global citizens.