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Westminster Adds to Higher Ed Debate

Westminster Adds to Higher Education Debate

By Marilyn Campbell

Eight o'clock on a Saturday morning in October and the Westminster College campus buzzed with activity. Students, faculty, staff, community members, and experts in higher education from across the country gathered in the Courage Theatre of the Jewett Center for the Performing Arts. Integrated with the inauguration of President Michael S. Bassis and sponsored by Bank One and Zions Bank, a national symposium on the future of higher education began.

Serving as one of the first coordinated, collective responses to the Association of American Colleges and Universities' two-year study, "Greater Expectations," the symposium initiated a national conversation about the ways in which colleges and universities must respond to the changing needs of the country's college-age students. Rather than listen to formal academic papers, participants discussed four topics in one-hour breakout sessions led by national experts. Robert H. Atwell, President Emeritus of the American Council on Education and the symposium co-director, kicked off the symposium and highlighted the symposium themes and its panelists.

The first breakout session, Diversity as an Educational Resource, addressed the meaning of diversity in its many contexts. Evelyn Hu-DeHart brought her experiences both as Director of the Center for Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University and as a woman and minority. She and Edgar Beckham, Senior Fellow of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) Office of Diversity, Equity, and Global Initiatives, brought divergent opinions and issues to the floor. Participants considered the importance of diversity on a college campus. "Beyond their experiences here, students should leave Westminster College open to differences and willing to embrace the idea of diversity," said staff member and symposium participant Bev Christy.

Diversity of college curricula surfaced in the second session, Values, Citizenship, and the Role of Liberal Learning. Rosalie C. Otero, who directs the Collegiate Honors Council both nationally and at the University of New Mexico, and AACU President Carol Geary Schneider guided this session, seeking insights on liberal learning. Discussions concerned integrating curriculum with hands-on experiences and service learning, blending applied programs with a true liberal arts curriculum, and engaging students in the relationship between experience and education.

Student engagement dominated the conversation at the session led by George D. Kuh and Jay Mathews. Kuh is the Chancellor's Professor of Higher Education at Indiana University and author of the National Survey of Student Engagement. With Kuh and Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews, participants explored their own powerful learning experiences. Students endorsed non-traditional learning models such as collaboration, discussion, experiential learning, and mentoring versus straight lecture methods. The group supported a move from competition to collaboration in classrooms and envisioned a supportive environment with high expectations.

Finding a supportive environment for funding higher education was not quite as easy. Alan E. Guskin, Co-Director and Senior Scholar of the Project on the Future of Higher Education, summoned his experiences as professor and President Emeritus of Antioch University to the conversation of the fourth session, The Changing Economics of Higher Education. Joined by Cecilia H. Foxley, Commissioner of Higher Education in Utah, the two confronted the costs of higher education. "We can't address the budgetary/economic issues piecemeal. We need to take an overriding look at the way we are delivering education," said staff member and participant Ruth Henneman. "The way we are going to be successful isn't to stay the course but rather to look at new ways of doing things."

Following the breakout sessions, participants re-convened for a 90-minute roundtable discussion in which session leaders reflected upon the views expressed in their individual sessions. Participants commented on themes and questioned the panelists in a lively and informative dialogue.

"The interesting thing about this [symposium] is that the answers to our questions seemed to hint that we need to work together to get the issues resolved. While that [revelation] might not be a new insight, it was certainly a reminder of just how interconnected we all are," commented student Joshua Madrigal ('05).

The theme of interconnectedness continued through the post-symposium sessions. The Westminster College community organized two separate forums to reflect upon the questions raised during the symposium. First, groups met within their own constituencies (students, faculty, staff, and associate instructors), and then, in November, they met as a whole. These meetings afforded the opportunity to address individual interests as well as campus-wide issues. Three commonalities emerged: intentional learning, diversity, and communication. These themes will guide deliberations in the weeks to come.

The symposium and the subsequent discussions gave participants a sense that Westminster College is a part of a national conversation about higher education. As the campus community gets more involved, ongoing discussions will address Westminster's future direction. The symposium gave the college valuable background and direction. As the college embarks upon the Strategic Planning Process, these conversations will be recalled, core values will be re-evaluated, and strategic issues will be discussed. As Tim Carr, professor in the School of Education, commented, "Change is a slow process. We take it little by little. But what a great way to get started!"

Marilyn Campbell is an assistant to President Bassis.