8.5 Big Questions for 3 College Presidents

Liberal Arts 2.0 and the Future Role of Colleges in Society

Z. Mike Wang
Mar 8, 2017 · 15 min read

We are living in a time of vast, fast and unprecedented change in our world and will need educated citizens equipped with the skills, character and mindsets to tackle complex challenges and make decisions of consequence. Liberal arts colleges are institutions that are fundamentally committed to a deep, broad education that cultivates and launches the leaders we need. The best colleges will be those that continue to adapt and innovate in what they offer to best serve today’s young people and society.

I nerded out with three presidents from some of top liberal arts colleges in the country to explore the future of college and how we might get there (our panel at SxSWedu here, post your questions: here). #SxCollege

President Daniel Porterfield (Frankling & Marshall College)
President Kathleen McCartney (Smith College)
President Sean Decatur (Kenyon College)

Table of Contents:
Chapter 1: Beginnings
Chapter 2: The Liberal Arts
Chapter 3: The Role of Colleges in Society
Chapter 4: The Role of Presidents
Chapter 5: High-Impact Best Practices
Chapter 6: The Future of Liberal Arts Colleges
Chapter 7: The Future of Work
Chapter 8: Challenges
Chapter 8.5: What If…

Chapter 1: Beginnings

1.a) What is your six-word story?

McCARTNEY: First gen. Fierce feminist. Dream job.

DECATUR: Chemist college president, secret Jedi wannabe.

PORTERFIELD: He created the life he sought.

1.b) What was the first record that you ever owned? What format was it in (tape cassette, vinyl, CD, MP3, etc.)?

McCARTNEY: The Beatles, “Meet the Beatles!” (vinyl)

DECATUR: Jackson 5, “I Want You Back” (45 rpm vinyl)

PORTERFIELD: Elton John, “Madman Across the Water” (vinyl)

1.c) What was the most formational class you ever took? You ever taught? Why?

Most formational class I took: Child Development at Tufts University

Most formational class I took: Introduction to Black Studies — this was a class that introduced me to important authors and texts (including Zora Neale Hurston, James Balwind, and Malcolm X) as well as to the power of history to help one understand the contemporary world and one’s own experience.

Most formational class I’ve taught: Seminar in biophysical chemistry. My favorite subject to teach — it challenges students to integrate a broad range of knowledge, form molecular biology to organic chemistry to quantum mechanics.

Most formational class I took: First Year Theology seminar: “The Problem of God”, Georgetown University

Most formational class I’ve taught: “The Poetry of American Prisoners”

Both emphasize the intrinsic dignity of each individual and the responsibility we all have to create our lives.

1.d) Favorite app you use on your phone:

McCARTNEY: Tinybeans



Chapter 2: The Liberal Arts

2.a) What is your “definition of liberal arts”?

Definition: A liberal arts education prepares students for lives of meaning-making and impact through the teaching of broad subject matter and an emphasis on transcendent skills like critical thinking, communication, and question-posing, rather than specific training in a single discipline or field.

Definition: Higher education across the disciplines, with the goal of enabling students to develop their capacities to meet challenges as individuals and as members of society.

Definition: I believe that the classical/Roman definition of the “liberals artes” still applies: an education that prepares one for effective citizenship. In the 21st century, effective citizens must be creative problem-solvers and analytical thinkers; strong communicators; informed about the world around them, with a global perspective; flexible thinkers, adaptable to change and comfortable with uncertainty; and practiced leaders in diverse and inclusive environments.

2.b) What are the top 3 myths that you believe need to be “busted” about liberal arts education? Why?


  1. They are not practical in our modern economy
  2. They are a luxury only affordable for the wealthy
  3. They have become less relevant over time


  1. The liberal arts are a privileged form of education that does not prepare students for careers.
  2. Liberal arts education is entirely academic and not at all experiential.
  3. The liberal arts and online learning are at odds with one another.


  1. The equation or reduction of “liberal arts” to “humanities”. While every liberal arts education must include exposure to the humanities, many forget that the natural sciences (or STEM fields) are a part of the liberal arts as well, and that there is not a true dichotomy between “STEM” and “liberal arts.”
  2. To study liberal arts means to avoid things that are “practical.” A strong liberal arts education is in fact the best preparation for the practical, real world challenges that graduates face. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has done several surveys of employers about what attributes they desire in prospective employees. The list of skills I outlined above (strong communicators, creative problem solvers, analytical thinkers, flexible thinkers, etc.) dominates the responses. In other worlds, the dichotomy between “liberal arts” and “career preparation” is also false.
  3. Liberal arts graduates don’t find good jobs. Graduates of liberal arts colleges do well in employment. They also succeed as entrepreneurs, building new companies (and in some cases new industries).

Chapter 3: The Role of Colleges in Society

3.a) Since November 2016, have your ideas of the role of liberal arts college in society and a liberal arts education changed at all? Why or why not? (Please also share your thoughts on the role of colleges in society)

PORTERFIELD: In times of disagreement and tension, the liberal arts (and education in general) become more important, not less. Education encourages empathy, problem-solving, community-building, knowledge-sharing, and question-posing. We need citizens with the interest in ability to do this now more than ever.

McCARTNEY: Now more than ever, it is important to teach media and information literacy.

DECATUR: Over the past year, political rhetoric has devalued analytical thinking, informed decision-making, and global perspective as pathways towards the solution of social and economic problems. This should be a great concern to all of us who lead institutions who hold these concepts as core values. We must do a better job at reaching out beyond our campus gates to engage the broader community in true dialogue (not one-way, condescending lecturing that academics can sometimes adopt as a posture). And we must give our students experiences to understand how their learning in the classroom is directly linked to their roles as citizens and leaders in their communities.

Chapter 4: The Role of Presidents

4.a) What is something that very few people understand, about what it might be like to be the president of a college?

McCARTNEY: One of the most important parts of a president’s job is to set the tone for the institution: forward-thinking, optimistic, and inclusive.

DECATUR: Few people see the scope of responsibilities of a college president: at times the job can feel like that of a mayor or political figure (oversight of a security force; responsibility for roads, parks, and infrastructure; political roles to play within the community, including connections to the local government, organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis, and Rotary, and involvement in regional economic and community development); other times like the CEO of a large private organization (responsibility for a large budget, hundreds of employees, work with unions, concerns about regulatory matters, compliance, and liability); still other times the development roles of a non-profit director; yet fundamentally, at all times, the core of the job is that of an educator. This breadth of scope is what makes the job both challenging and thrilling.

4.b) What are the 3 skillsets / competencies that you believe every college president will need to have in 2030 (outside of fundraising)? Why?


  1. Listening.
  2. Ethical reflection.
  3. Intellectual agility.


  1. Strategic thinking: to promote a plan of action for the college, thereby encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship.
  2. Ability to engage across difference: to partner with stakeholders to advance social equity and well being. Everyone needs to feel that they belong and that they matter.
  3. Equanimity: in order to see criticism as caring about the institution.


  1. Cultural competency/ability to lead a diverse and inclusive community. As we move forward towards 2030, the best institutions will continue to evolve demographically, reflecting the diversity not only of our nation but also of the world. These diverse institutions will require presidents committed to creating inclusive environments, in which diverse student and faculty populations feel welcome and empowered to express their perspectives and to challenge ideas and be challenged in return.
  2. Facility balancing VUCA and tradition. Colleges and universities are based upon, and to some degree sustained by, strong and lasting traditions and values. Our institutions are built for the long-term, adapting gradually to change while also emphasizing the continuities among the experiences of generations of alumni and the current students. But, looking ahead to 2030, we can expect our world to be dominated by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, requiring institutions to respond, adapt, and change more quickly. Presidents will have to balance and navigate these conflicting forces.
  3. Core commitment to role as an educator. The most important responsibility for a college president in 2030 will remain that of an educator. While the other demands on the position — managing the financial and business enterprises, fundraising, etc. — are essential parts of sustaining the institution into the future, the core values that shape the strategic directions and decisions of the institution must remain rooted in good educational practices.

Chapter 5: High-Impact Initiatives

5.a) What are the 3 high-impact initiatives that are valuable to spotlight at your college that you believe people should know about?

PORTERFIELD: At Franklin & Marshall College, we maintain a comprehensive effort called the Next Generation Initiative through which we recruit, support financially, educate, and launch dramatically higher percentages of lower-income and first-generation students. In recent years we have also collapsed our traditional career center and created a new and innovative Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development to support students and young graduates as they earn opportunities during and after college, and our College House System serves as an alternative to a traditional dormitory model of residential life in which students live, learn, and socialize together in a community with faculty and administrative mentorship.

McCARTNEY: Statistical and data sciences: Data science draws on statistical methods to answer questions in an array of disciplines in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Our new program is the first at a liberal arts college and prepares student to work across sectors in a profession where women are significantly underrepresented.

Teaching via “Complex, Urgent Problems:” This theme of our strategic plan commits us to use the curriculum, co-curriculum and campus operations in service of high-stakes challenges that often lie at the heart of global inequities (e.g., climate change; inclusion, diversity, and equity; the status of women worldwide, including in STEM fields; education access).

Concentrations: An innovative program of study that links experiential and academic learning through course work, praxis and research. It is a model that has distinguished itself, particularly in the humanities and social sciences (e.g., museum studies, global financial institutions, climate change).

DECATUR: Establishment of an Office of Community Partnerships that connects faculty and students to businesses and social service organizations throughout the area, providing valuable educational experiences for our students and leveraging our resources to help build strong communities in central Ohio.

A multi-pronged approach to recruiting, matriculating, retaining and graduating students who are first generation college students, from families at or below US median income, or from groups historically underrepresented. The Kenyon Academic Partnership is an early college program in 21 central and northern Ohio schools, permitting academically talented students to take introductory Kenyon College courses, often at rural or urban schools where resources have limited AP or IB options. Summer programs for high schoolers, including Camp IV and our Kenyon Review Young Writers Program, introduce students to the residential college experience and the potential benefits of a liberal arts education. Once these students are ready for college, the Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program (KEEP) supports cohorts of first-generation and underrepresented students by connecting them early with supportive peers and mentors. And once at Kenyon, alumni mentoring programs support students for what comes after graduation. Through the combination of these programs, we are building multiple pathways for academically talented students form a range of backgrounds to find their way to Kenyon and succeed.

Kenyon summer scholars program. Students have the opportunity to pursue collaborative projects with faculty members in a wide range of disciplines (natural sciences, the arts, public policy, legal studies, as well as the humanities and social sciences).

5.b) What are 3 initiatives that you have seen at other higher education institutions (or other organizations / companies) that have inspired you?

McCARTNEY: Alumnae Business Network: Providing a forum for alumnae business leaders to network with one another and to mentor young alumnae.

Innovation lab: Creating collaborative space that brings together students, staff and faculty across disciplines to advance entrepreneurial ideas and skills

Innovation grants: Incentivizing change by offering venture funds to individuals and groups to address significant structural challenges (e.g., “Complex, Urgent Problems”)

Chapter 6: The Future of Liberal Arts Colleges

6.a) In a rapidly changing world, where industries are being disrupted, what makes you believe that liberal arts colleges are going to be here in 20–30 years? What steps are you taking to secure the success of your liberal arts college in future?

PORTERFIELD: Liberal arts education that teaches young people to think, communicate, and ask questions no one has thought to ask before has more value today than ever before. As industries change and new challenges emerge, the skills of discernment, curiosity, and flexibility that a liberal arts education provides will enable future workers and leaders to cut through the clutter and contribute meaningfully to our new and diverse society. F&M’s emphasis on opening its doors to talented students of all backgrounds, its Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development, and the innovative mindset of our faculty are preparing the institution well to succeed in its work for generations to come.

DECATUR: We sometimes lose sight of how much liberal arts colleges have changed, in a fairly short period of time. My college, Kenyon, was a very different place fifty years ago: smaller (only about 500–600 students), all male, almost all white (only 1 or 2 non-white students on campus), largely regional in its draw, and a much narrower range of curricular offerings. Since the 1970s, our institution has almost tripled in size, become coed, diversified both the student body and the faculty (and the academic leadership), broadened the curriculum, embraced and integrated new technology. In other words, as the world changed, Kenyon (and other liberal arts colleges) changed as well.

Technology makes disruptive change faster, and colleges (and their leadership) have to keep pace. But, given our history of change and adaptation, I have confidence that institutions can navigate disruption moving forward.

The biggest challenges our institutions face are relevance and accessibility. We need to make sure that the education received at Kenyon remains relevant to the demands of the future; and we need to make that education accessible and affordable to talented young people regardless of resources available.

On this first front, we are creating opportunities for our students to apply the learning from the classroom to complex problems beyond the campus gates through internships, research experiences, community-based research and courses, and international opportunities.

In terms of access and affordability, we are working to control the costs of a Kenyon education (in part by working with peer institutions through consortia to reduce overhead costs) and direct new resources towards financial aid.

McCARTNEY: The best liberal arts colleges provide a curriculum to foster essential student capacities. For example, creativity, critical and analytical thinking, resilience and resourcefulness, and self-awareness as learner. I have seen classics majors end up on Wall Street, and engineers who have become artists.

6.b) There are ~4,400 accredited colleges and universities operating today. How many will there be in 10 years? In 30 years? Please give a number and rationale for your number.

PORTERFIELD: 4,000 in 10 years because there will be some attrition.

5,000 in 30 years because we will have continued to expand and democratize education, and because higher education of some type — already essential — will be essential for virtually all workers.

DECATUR: I predict that it will be about the same. That is not to say that there won’t be institutions that fail/close in the coming decades. But, I think the demand for post-secondary education will continue to increase, and we will see new institutions begin to arise.

A major story of the past 2–3 decades was the growth of private, for-profit institutions. Many of those have reached their own crisis points, and the pendulum has certainly swung in the opposite direction. But, I believe the demand is still there — and, certainly the need to provide high quality, post-secondary options for millions, especially non-traditional students — and some new options will arise to take the place of institutions that have failed.

Chapter 7: The Future of Work

7.a) The “Fourth Industrial Revolution… will transform labor markets in the next five years, leading to a net loss of over 5 million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies”, how might projections like this inform the role of post-secondary education institutions to educate its current students (for future jobs) and to re-educate these displaced workers?

PORTERFIELD: Makes it more essential to offer universal access to quality higher education.

McCARTNEY: Liberal arts education is optimized for what the AAC&U characterizes as “a world of unscripted problems.”

DECATUR: Disparities in educational opportunities — especially educational opportunities that adequately prepare graduates for current and future technological disruption — underlies much of the political and social divides we’re experiencing in the US at this moment. On the one hand, we have post-secondary education (at institutions like those on this panel) that adheres to the cliché that we must educate students for jobs in industries that don’t exist yet. Ten years ago, there were no jobs with titles like “Director of Social Media”; the creation of the social media industry has led to jobs not just at Facebook, YouTube, Snap, etc., but also at many companies and organization that need to manage and curate their social media image. And this would have been impossible to predict over a decade ago. This is where a liberal arts education comes in — the foundation upon which to build a career in an industry that is just developing, or adapt to change in a world where the nature of work is changing.

On the other hand, our national post-secondary education policies have not fully addressed the issues of economic displacement that technology is bringing. Self-driving vehicles — a technology that will come into its own within the next thirty years — will have a tremendous impact on the transportation industry. And, those truck drivers are not going to become directors of social media. Our national education system must find comprehensive solutions to the problem of technological displacement.

One answer might be to break down the dichotomy between vocational and liberal education. There is a place for education for specific job opportunities (only an extremely narrow elitist would argue that everyone should go to a small liberal arts college). But, the approaches taken to that vocational education should allow room for the types of creative problem solving and long-term adaptability that will serve workers beyond their immediate job prospects.

And the burden can’t fall exclusively on educational institutions. Industry must find ways to give space for development and creative autonomy to all of its workers. Not only does this benefit workers who can regularly grow and keep pace with change, it also benefits industry with the insights and innovations that can come from workers who feel empowered to contribute their ideas and thoughts.

Chapter 8: Challenges

8.a) What is a challenge or problem that you’re grappling with, that you don’t yet know how to fix? How can a community of problem solvers help?

McCARTNEY: The escalating cost of college, which is an industry-wide challenge.

PORTERFIELD: Perhaps the greatest challenge is how best to facilitate the holistic development of today’s students for the world they will inhabit. Another is how best to develop the current financial model of undergraduate education in a dynamic global economy.

Chapter 8.5) What If…

8.5) If there were a known existential threat to human civilization, would colleges be obliged to equip their students with skills specifically tailored to addressing it, or would it be OK for them to deploy curricula that had little or no bearing on the problem?

DECATUR: I think we’re already facing something that is a challenge/problem and existential threat — climate change. At their best, colleges teach the type of systems analysis — the ability to see a complex problem from a range of perspectives, simultaneously break it down into soluble pieces while also considering the holistic interactions of those pieces. This is exactly what is required for all of us to address climate change.

There is not, and will not, be any one discipline brought to bear on this. In fact adequately addressing this problem demands that students deploy their understanding of physics, economics, political science, psychology history, literature, and the arts simultaneously. And a solution will only come from a collaborative, community effort.

McCARTNEY: Facing an existential threat, of course we would adapt our curriculum to prepare students. as we are now with respect to climate change.

PORTERFIELD: College would certainly be obliged to equip students — AND to equip society while also facilitating civilization-saving scholarship. It also would be obliged to help society deal with the consequences of that near apocalypse and to help build the best possible society given that threat. We must always serve the one and the many — especially if there’s a coming Zombie Apocalypse….

Thank you for reading. A huge shout-out to President McCartney, President Porterfield, and President Decatur for their engagement and willingness to “flip the panel.”

Thank you to Greg Rosenbaum, Ryan Burke, Will Houghteling, Josh Fost, Charlie Harrington, Ben Tirone Nunes, Ian Choo, Nick de Wilde, Mariel Reed, Matt McFarland, Michael Harbaugh, Camille Merritt, Jessica McKellar, Scott Hartley, James Genone, Patrick Erker, Jesse Silberberg, Patrick Watson, Jannine Versi for your help and support.


Z. Mike Wang

Written by

Global Director of Student Experience @MinervaSchools. Banker turned educator, Chinese parents confused. Lover of tacos & soup dumplings. Chef.