There are at least three big questions on my mind right now. Maybe four.
First, what must we change right now, in today’s world, in order to enhance Earlham’s position as a leading national and international liberal arts college?
Second—after doing all we can to address question #1—have we done enough, or must we explore more fundamental changes in both our business model and the structure of our academic program to meet the demands of tomorrow’s world?
And third—can we meet the big challenges of the first task and still have the insight and energy needed to take on the even bigger (and much less foreseeable) challenges of the second task—and in the process not threaten the enduring identity and mission of the College? Or—and this is a particularly unnerving, “hermeneutic of suspicion” question that circles around all of the above—do any of our longstanding characterizations of identity and mission actually block our capacity even to discern and acknowledge, let alone grasp, the scope and depth of the emerging challenge to the very future of undergraduate education in the liberal arts? Have we put on blinders that keep us from recognizing all the ways that tomorrow’s world has already become today’s world?
I hope not. I hope we are, at least from time to time, versions of the creative, agile, supple, innovative, self-critical, forward-looking thinkers we’re sure we help our students become, and not the cautious institutional guardians of past traditions we might occasionally be tempted to be.
It would be easier to be perpetually and overly self-critical if we didn’t also suspect that many parts of what is currently prognosticated about the future of higher education and the fate of liberal arts colleges will almost certainly prove to be wildly wrong. The problem is that we don’t know in advance and for sure which parts. That makes both acting and waiting to act risky. But while we try to figure this out, I firmly believe that Earlham College—and indeed all liberal arts colleges—should hold fast to the fundamental values and approaches that define a liberal arts education and ensure that it remains personally rewarding and socially valuable for our students. Among other things, that will mean doing a far better job at showing the public the productive connection between liberal arts education and real-world issues and real-world leadership.
David Dawson, President, Earlham College