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Liberal Education: A Unifying Mission for the 21st Century University

Welcoming Remarks by University of Wisconsin System President Kevin P. Reilly

Thursday, November 20, 2008
University of Wisconsin System Conference
Pyle Center

Good afternoon, everybody.  My name is Kevin Reilly, and I am President of the University of Wisconsin System.  I’d like to welcome you all here to this conference, “Liberal Education: A Unifying Mission for the 21st-Century University.” 

I want to begin my remarks by acknowledging some people who have been very instrumental in making this event happen.  I’d like to thank “the two Rebeccas” – Senior Vice President Rebecca Martin and Rebecca Karoff, who works in the Office of the Senior Vice President – for their sponsorship and hard work.  I’d also like to thank Donna Silver, Assistant Director of the Office of Professional and Instructional Development — or OPID — for her remarkable organizational skills in bringing all of us here today.  And, I’d like to thank SAGLA, the System Advisory Group on the Liberal Arts.  SAGLA is the other co-sponsor of this conference and, as many of you know, SAGLA has taken a lead role in the UW System’s Liberal Education initiative.  Within SAGLA, I’d especially like to thank George Savage, Professor of English at UW-Whitewater. 

Professor Savage, chairman of Whitewater’s department of Languages and Literatures, has been a real driving force behind this conference. In fact, I’d like to cite his description of the conference, because I think it succinctly identifies the critical role that liberal education can fill at this moment in the history of higher education, at the start of the 21st century. That description states:

“The modern university has become fragmented in its mission. It serves a number of competing constituencies, all of them understandably seeking their part of the economic pie. As a result, our students are often educated in a piecemeal fashion. They are apt to move from one course to the next with very little sense of continuity in the curriculum, or any awareness of the university’s broader mission.”

Professor Savage’s description also quotes William Butler Yeats, and his poem, “The Second Coming,” more specifically the line -- “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” 

A liberal education, Dr. Savage suggests, is the solution to this fragmentation in our universities, and I agree. It provides the center that can hold. Encouraging certain universal learning outcomes such as knowledge of human culture in the physical and natural world, personal and social responsibility, and the encouragement of the knowledge necessary to be a productive member of a changing workforce, liberal education is the “glue” that can provide meaningful cohesion. By emphasizing the whole student, a liberal education can be that integrative, unifying force within our universities.

Higher education is facing daunting and unprecedented challenges these days. But in these uncertain times, one thing that hasn’t changed is our unswerving dedication to the grander mission.  At the University of Wisconsin, like many of our sister institutions of higher learning, we are charged with, and take seriously, the responsibility of preparing our students, our citizens, to thrive in whatever future lies over the horizon. To do that successfully, our students must be armed with the necessary knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to greet each day with confidence – and an enlightened readiness for what that future, with all its unknown challenges, might hold. 

This conference is intended to celebrate liberal education as an integrative force within the university, and also to celebrate the ways in which the UW System — its faculty, staff, and students, its institutions — have become a national leader in that effort.

The guiding theme of this conference has a special meaning for the University of Wisconsin. In 2005, the AAC&U – or the American Association of Colleges & Universities – launched a 10-year campaign called LEAP, Liberal Education and America’s Promise. That same year, AAC&U named the UW System as its pilot partner in moving its liberal education agenda forward on the national stage. As such, Wisconsin became the first pilot state for the AAC&U’s advocacy and campus-action activities. Here in Wisconsin, the initiative connects leaders at the 15 UW System institutions, as well as other colleges and universities in the state, with the broader public to make the case for the importance of a quality liberal education for all citizens.

I am very excited about the literally hundreds of initiatives, activities, and events focused on the value of a liberal education that my University of Wisconsin colleagues — indeed, many of you here — are engaged in as part of our partnership with AAC&U. We’ll be hearing lots more about these in the hours ahead. I’d also like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation for the inspiring work being done by the AAC&U, led by its President, Carol Geary Schneider, from whom you will be hearing tomorrow. The UW System has benefited in countless ways from the leadership and support of AAC&U, something that should be eminently clear in the next day-and-a-half.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that I, personally, am the beneficiary of a liberal education. As one character says to another in Edward Albee’s play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, I am a “dirty BAMAPHD!”   That “BAMAPHD” is, of course, B.A.-M.A.-Ph.D., and in my case, all in English. My special areas of teaching and scholarly interest are Irish literature and culture, more particularly biography and autobiography written about, and by, Irish writers. A liberal arts education, to be sure. And to the surprise of more than one friend and neighbor – not to mention my parents – it’s an education that has qualified me – evidently – to be president of a university system!

One might even argue that close study of Irish writers’ life writing – a thoroughly vicious field of inquiry – is a particularly appropriate preparation for my current post. It was Jonathon Swift, the great Anglo-Irish satirist, who said of his countrymen on the backside of that hyphenated identity: “The Irish are a fair people. They never speak well of one another.” Whether in Ireland, here, or elsewhere, what better caution to keep in mind for high-level academic administration! And let me add that when George Savage conceives of a conference that takes as its central image a line from Yeats, well, you can see why I want to be involved!

Now, all this might not make me a poster child for liberal education career planning, but it does, I think, give me some credibility to speak to you about this today. I’d like to share a wonderful quote that reinforces for me the value and importance of a liberal education. It’s drawn from a report dating back to 1830, and was issued by Yale College, as it was then known. It reads:

“The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers and storing it with knowledge.”

Let me repeat this.

The discipline and the furniture of the mind…  Discipline, stick-to-it-iveness … Our students probably wouldn’t be here without it. But furniture? I like where Yale College was going with that – even if it was about the period intellectual furniture of the early 19th century. 

With a liberal education, our students have furnished their minds with the tools needed to negotiate the world around us. They’ve got coffee tables, of sorts, on which to stack their volumes of knowledge. They employ figurative mirrors in their critical thinking … examining issues from all angles. They have the chairs needed to invite many ideas to the problem-solving table. And their competencies in cross-cultural, technological, and scientific arenas are couched in all corners of their minds. (Alright, I’ll stop that.)

It’s commonplace now to recognize that we’re in an increasingly diverse global society, driven by a rapidly changing knowledge economy. The question is — as a system of higher education, what are we doing about it? 

Let me briefly tell you about a few of the things we are doing.  Later on, you will hear from others here about additional things being done by faculty, staff, and students throughout the System, including our Liberal Arts Scholarship Essay Competition, administered by SAGLA.

            But first, let me cite a few highlights of the UW System’s most recent work to advance the LEAP Campaign in Wisconsin. We are now part of an AAC&U grant, funded by the Carnegie Corporation, to work on General Education Reform with a focus, in particular, on underserved students.  That project — called Give Students a Compass — brings together the UW System, the California State System, and the Oregon University System in the effort to transform undergraduate teaching and learning in more systemic ways.  The UW System’s work with AAC&U has helped that group — and funders like the Carnegie Corporation and the Lumina Foundation — to understand and support university systems as sites for real transformation. This is cutting-edge work and we are proud to be leading it.  I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize one of our other state partners in the Compass project who has joined us for this conference, Elisabeth Zinser, Special Assistant to the Chancellor of the Oregon University System and past president of AAC&U’s Board of Directors. Elizabeth, welcome.

I also want to mention a leadership group that I have convened with Wisconsin’s Lt. Governor Barbara Lawton.  Lt. Governor Lawton and I brought together a group of policymakers from education, government, the media, business, and the non-profit sector to develop a leadership group for Wisconsin’s LEAP work. We held a Wingspread conference last April, and a follow-up meeting earlier this month to get the group’s advice on how to rally more of the public behind the value of a broadly integrative 21st century education. You will hear tomorrow from Lt. Governor Lawton, one of the most passionate advocates for liberal education anywhere. This work is about renewing Wisconsin’s understanding and valuing of higher education — both public and private — as a public good; as essential to 21st-century democracy and civic engagement; and as vital to the economic well-being of the state and its citizens. 

I also want to make explicit the connection I see between the UW System’s Liberal Education initiative, and the UW System’s Growth Agenda for Wisconsin. These two initiatives are allied endeavors, and share many goals.  The Growth Agenda is the UW System’s vision for a stronger, healthier, and more “economically resilient” Wisconsin. Of course, the nation’s — and the state’s — economic context is very different now from what it was a few months ago. Nonetheless, the fundamental goals of the Growth Agenda remain as vital as ever, aiming to produce more college graduates; attract graduates from other states; and grow the jobs that will employ both. Despite our changed economy, there continues to be widespread support for the Growth Agenda as critical to ensuring an economically competitive Wisconsin, with a high quality of life and work opportunities for our citizens. Simply put, for me, our Liberal Education Initiative is the academic quality component of the Growth Agenda. In education, quantity without quality is an entirely false promise. We won’t make that kind of promise to the people of Wisconsin. Instead, we pledge through this initiative that our students will graduate with a quality of mind that will enable their citizen leadership in a 21st century, globally-engaged American democracy.

Part of the way we will do that is by putting in place for the first time a statement of learning goals for our graduates from any campus in the UW System. That is, the very first of 10 Action Steps derived from the Growth Agenda strategic planning process says: “The UW System will articulate succinctly and clearly what its baccalaureate graduates ought to know and be able to do.” …  I am proud to say that our faculty, with the leadership of Professor and Dean John Koker of UW-Oshkosh, have now developed a powerful statement of broad learning goals. We will advance these goals to the Board of Regents for their information at the Board’s December meeting, and then disseminate them widely across the state, so our citizens have a better understanding of just what it is we believe we’re doing with their sons and daughters – and fathers and mothers too in the case of our adult students!

I certainly hope that at the base of what we do is provide students with the knowledge and perspectives to help them recognize what is true and good and beautiful in their lives. In Robert Bolt’s play about Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons, there is a line that goes like this:  “Man God made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” Through the Liberal Education Initiative, we aspire to ensure that all our students graduate having tangled and untangled their minds in an informed pursuit of truth. If we accomplish that, we will have done our job wittily, and well.

Now it’s my privilege to introduce to you a man who does his job as President of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents wittily, and well. I want to go back to Yeats for a moment to introduce him.

Frank O’Connor, the Irish short story writer, looked to Yeats, as did many younger writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance, as a senior mentor and guide. O’Connor once said:  “I always feel good after I’ve been to see the old man.” Now let me hasten to assure you that I don’t think of Mark as an old man! But I will tell you that after I’ve talked with him about a personnel problem, a political strategy, a Regent policy, a BIG BUDGET DEFICIT (!) – a Liberal Education Initiative – I think:  “God, is he good, and am I – are we – lucky to have him in this role.”

I give you a liberally educated gentleman in the best sense of all those words – Regent President Mark Bradley …

Welcoming Remarks by Mark Bradley, UW System Board of Regents President

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