The Sweet Spot - An evolving vision for the liberal arts

A View from the Hill - Winter 2016

Over the last few years, the public has started to ask hard questions about a college education. Is it worth the investment of time and financial resources? The national debate has given us better data on what has to happen in college for it to matter. Research from the Gallup-Purdue Index and work done by experts in the field indicate that a college education is shaped by three factors: Students need to find mentors who engage them in their curricular pursuits; they need to be involved in co-curricular activities; and they need to be surrounded by peers who influence and push them in the right ways (what we call lateral learning). In other words, college is about relationships. Denison does this well, and we are focused on using recent research to make a Denison education even stronger.

Creating the Liberal Arts Curriculum of the Future. We are adding new programs to engage students in issues that will shape their generation and give them a range of experiences they’ll need to understand the world around them. To that end, the faculty recently approved seven new academic programs, including new majors in global commerce; data analytics; and health, exercise, and sport studies. We are adding new concentrations in financial economics and narrative nonfiction. Every student will participate in a new writing program to ensure that they have excellent communications skills. We are also expanding global programs in partnership with 17 sister-colleges around the world through the Global Liberal Arts Alliance. As part of this work, we have new team-taught classes called Denison Seminars that have an off-campus travel component.

We are also focused on mentorship. Having a faculty member who engages a student in the academic experience is the single largest predictor of how much that student will get out of college. About 25 percent of all college students find mentors. At Denison, it will happen for about 92 percent. Mentorship is something we have always done well, and we want to be known for it. We are focused on early mentorship of students and have created Advising Circles for first-year students. Small groups meet weekly with a faculty member and an upper-class peer to talk about the transition to college. An academic advisor can be assigned, but mentoring relationships happen more organically, and Advising Circles increase the odds that a student will find one early. We have also launched a Center for Learning and Teaching to make sure we continue to do this work well.

Harnessing the power of campus life. A lot of learning takes place outside the classroom. Nationally, about one-third of college students will be involved outside the classroom. At Denison that figure is close to 100 percent. But being involved is only a starting place. We are making sure the experience matters. For example, about 35 percent of our students will be involved in varsity athletics at some point during their Denison careers. We are building on a long tradition of Denison coaches who are great mentors, and athletic programs that help students learn to work with others, develop persistence and grit, and make decisions based on values of integrity, humility, hard work and commitment.

About 75 percent of our students will have a significant leadership opportunity, often through a campus organization. Running an organization presents students with challenges similar to ones they will face in their civic lives and professional careers. We want students to learn how to motivate, focus, and align a group of people around a common task. We want them to learn to plan, to budget, and manage projects, to keep groups aligned and focused, and to creatively problem-solve. We are doing more work through programs like LeaderShape and DUleads. We are expanding how we think about leadership to include more work around design thinking and other skills that can help our students be innovators and creators.

Learning from one another and from our alumni. Denison is not a homogeneous small liberal arts college. Nor are we a large research university, where there are lots of different kinds of people, but everyone quickly finds people like themselves. Our students come from urban centers, suburban backgrounds, and rural communities. This means we have racial, ethnic, political, and religious diversity. Our students bump up against that difference in classrooms, residential halls, everywhere. This provides students with opportunities to learn to live and work with people who see the world differently from the way they do. We want our graduates to understand that the best decisions are made by groups of people with different views and perspectives who bring varied skills and experiences to the table.

As part of this process, we are doing more to connect our alumni and parents with our current students, so that students can learn from your experiences and life journeys. One example is the work we are doing through the recently launched Austin E. Knowlton Center for Career Exploration, where we are piloting a range of programs that create opportunities for our students to engage with and learn from our alumni about building careers and entering into the professions.

Denison does the things well that matter in college. We get the relationships right. In doing so, we unlock the potential of our students to be the architects of their own lives. This makes me proud to be a Denisonian. And it makes me excited for the future of this college.

Published December 2016