Championing the liberal arts

Ronald A. Crutcher reflects on 10-year presidency

At the end of this academic year, President Crutcher will leave Wheaton. Here, the Quarterly notes his contributions to the college and the world of higher education, through images, comments from the Wheaton community, and a recent interview in which he discusses the enduring value of the liberal arts. 
2005: Wheaton Trustee Emerita Patricia King ’63 places medallion on the president at his inauguration. (Michael Dwyer photo)
2005: Wheaton Trustee Emerita Patricia King ’63 places medallion on the president at his inauguration. (Michael Dwyer photo)

“Mentoring is important to me and to Betty,” the president says, leaning forward over the table in his Park Hall office.

“It’s important to me because I wouldn’t be the person that I am today were it not for Elizabeth Potteiger, my cello teacher, who was one of the first persons outside of my parents to be a mentor to me,” he says. “As a result of getting to know her and studying the cello with her, I made a pledge to myself that I wanted to do for others what she had done for me.”

2011: President Crutcher and Betty Neal Crutcher host a holiday gathering with the students they mentor. (Nicki Pardo photo)
2011: President Crutcher and Betty Neal Crutcher host a holiday gathering with the students they mentor. (Nicki Pardo photo)

The president has told the story before in explaining his motivation for organizing a mentoring group each year, scheduling individual meetings and regular group sessions with as many as 40 students. His wife, Betty Neal Crutcher, who earned her Ph.D. studying models for cross-cultural mentoring, also has led her own mentoring group.

“For me, it’s a great opportunity,” he says. “It’s my way of staying connected to students and their concerns.”

2007: President Crutcher rehearses with Boston Symphony Orchestra cellist Owen Young in Cole chapel.
2007: President Crutcher rehearses with Boston Symphony Orchestra cellist Owen Young in Cole chapel. (Nicki Pardo photo)

The mentoring group reflects an essential belief that has been evident throughout his tenure at Wheaton as well as throughout his career: a liberal arts education that is personal and rigorous transforms lives.

His conviction about the worth of the liberal arts drove President Crutcher to lead a campus-wide strategic planning process that developed a holistic vision for building on the college’s distinctive Connections curriculum. The plan, Wheaton 2014: Transforming Lives to Change the World, has served as a blueprint for his presidency. It included major projects, such as Go Beyond: Campaign for Wheaton, the fundraising effort now in its final year, and construction of the Mars Center for Science and Technology, the largest building project in Wheaton history.

Other highlights of President Crutcher’s tenure include:

  • The establishment of innovative interdisciplinary programs, including majors in business and management, and film and new media studies.
  • A 6.5 percent increase in undergraduate student enrollment over the past decade.
  • An increasingly diverse group of students. Twenty percent of the entering Class of 2017 self-identify as students of color and 15 percent are international students.
  • An exceptional record of student achievement, as exemplified by the college’s top 10 ranking in producing Fulbright scholars for eight consecutive years.
  • An invigorated alumnae/i community that has assumed a more active role in supporting the college through volunteer service, student mentoring, networking and philanthropy.
Standing in front of the Mars Center for Science and Technology. (Nicki Pardo photo)
Standing in front of the Mars Center for Science and Technology. (Nicki Pardo photo)

Even as he sought to strengthen Wheaton by focusing on its distinctive curriculum, President Crutcher also championed the liberal arts nationally through his leadership in higher-education organizations, including the American Council on Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). He currently serves as co-chair of the National Leadership Council for the campaign Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), and he has advocated for the value of the liberal arts in many settings, including at White House conferences convened by President Obama.

Most recently, President Crutcher authored a chapter in the book Remaking College: Innovation in the Liberal Arts (Johns Hopkins University Press), a new collection of essays from leaders in American higher education. In his essay, “The Intercultural Connection: Students and the Liberal Arts,” President Crutcher argues that students whose lessons are learned in a setting that embraces the unfamiliar are best prepared to succeed in a global economy.

“Small colleges are in a better position to help students to develop a repertoire of strategies for living in an intercultural global world, inculcating honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior; learning respect for other cultures and ideas, espousing civic learning and engagement,” he wrote, recalling the rationale that he has used to explain the importance of increasing student diversity at Wheaton.


You introduced Wheaton to the concept of “inclusive excellence” and you have made it a consistent theme at the college. Are we a model for inclusive excellence?

We are well on our way. Demographically, our student body continues to grow more diverse. Twenty percent of our students self-identify as being African American, Latino, Asian or multiracial. Our international student population is growing, too. They represent 9 percent of the student body and 15 percent of this year’s first-year class. And it is clear that with respect to our curriculum, particularly the infusion program—integrating the study of race and ethnicity and its intersections with gender, class, sexuality, religion and technology across the disciplines—we are far ahead of what a lot of our peers are doing.

You describe this as an evolution at Wheaton, rather than a revolution. What do you mean by that? 

What makes the college’s progress so special is that it is an authentic representation of Wheaton’s identity and history. It is based on the concepts that we used 20 or 30 years ago with the Balanced Curriculum Project. It worked for infusing scholarship by and about women, which was then a new approach, and our faculty realized that it would work for scholarship that reflects a diversity of views about race and ethnicity and their intersection with class, gender, religion, technology, and global issues.

How does this idea connect with your advocacy for liberal arts in general? 

I feel very strongly that in today’s fast-paced world, any student graduating from college who wants to flourish and have a successful career has to think critically, to connect knowledge across disciplines, to synthesize what they learn, to write and speak well, to think quantitatively, and to work well with people from disparate backgrounds.

And that belief has been bolstered by many, many leaders in business and industry, through my work with the Association of American Colleges and Universities and as a co-chair of the leadership council of Liberal Education and America’s Promise. I’ve had opportunities to sit down with these folks and hear them speak passionately about the kind of skills they are looking for in new employees. And the skills they are looking for are exactly those you learn through the liberal arts.

That’s a timely message, given the intense public focus on getting a job as the primary purpose of a college education. 

It’s a little frustrating. I don’t agree that the only purpose of a college education is getting a job, but the liberal arts prepare young people for successful careers exceptionally well. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, young people today will have ten to fourteen jobs by the time they are 38 years old, and some of those will be jobs in areas that don’t even exist right now. So, in order to be a flexible and adaptable professional, you have to have the capacity and skills that you gain from a liberal arts education.

The idea that a college education leads to a career has been around a long time, but it seems to have gained strength in recent years. What has changed? 

The economy. The central thing that has changed is that, unlike previous recessions (and there have been many where things would get really terrible but you could depend on the fact that there would be improvement shortly afterward), it was fairly clear that this was not a cyclical thing. The aftermath of the recession has meant that not just colleges and universities but every institution, every individual, has had to change or adjust in some fashion.

How has that change affected Wheaton? 

For colleges and universities, the area where we have been hurt the most is that family incomes had already been decreasing slowly and then in 2008 there was a huge drop in family income, while at the same time, operating costs were still increasing.

How has the college responded to this dynamic? 

The strategies that we have developed in response to these changes give Wheaton a good opportunity to flourish. For example, the business and management major; there is already a good indication, based on the inquiries that we are receiving from prospective students, that the business and management major is going to make a difference. The concentrations that are part of the program give our students opportunities to major in business and management but also continue their passion with respect to the environment or global issues or the arts or equality, as well as equity.

What do you think the most important change has been at Wheaton? 

The expansion of the academic program is crucial. The neuroscience major, for example, focuses on an area of knowledge that is critical in the 21st century. It also happens to be one of my outside interests. It’s what I would major in if I were in college. The film and new media studies. I think that’s a brilliant interdisciplinary program that grew out of a strength that we had already in film studies. The new business and management major, which I think has the potential to be a critical differentiator for us, because the concentrations give our students opportunities to major in business and connect it to their passion for the environment or global issues or the arts or equality. I am also thrilled about the new minors as well: public health, peace and social justice studies, and Jewish studies.

What about the science center? 

I am very proud of the Mars Center for Science and Technology. It’s a magnificent building that has truly transformed our campus.

I knew coming in that we needed to raise money to develop a state-of-the-art science center. There were many hurdles that had to be jumped over and the project got much more complicated because of the recession. We actually had to put the building on hold for a while. It was the right thing to do at the time, but it was very difficult and disappointing. I can remember the student newspaper talking about the “cornfield” we had created. Lo and behold, though, it did happen, thanks to a lot of alumnae/i, parents and friends.

The campaign has had other priorities, too, such as raising $44 million in endowed funds for student scholarships. 

That’s a major priority for Wheaton, and we are making great progress there, too. We’ll be able to increase by about 30 percent the amount of money we have available for financial aid to students. This will be a major step in the right direction for us. Wheaton has to have robust scholarships to build the kind of student body that is diverse in every sense—economically, racially, ethnically and socially diverse.

Why are scholarships important to you? 

It’s personal for me because I benefited from having received a scholarship for graduate as well as undergraduate education. And my wife Betty also benefited from a scholarship. That’s why our own contributions to the campaign have been to support student scholarships.

What do you plan to do once the academic year closes? 

I’ve always wanted to go back to Germany, and Betty and I are making arrangements to spend at least a year in Berlin. I’ve agreed already to do a performance at the American Academy in Berlin. I’ll probably do more solo recitals, and I plan to do more performing with the Klemperer Trio than I’ve done in recent years. I also expect to spend a year teaching some classes and perhaps some cello students. I just have to decide how much I want to do, how much I can do.

Do you have other plans then? 

I’m writing a book, the title of which will be related to one of my articles: “Spiraling Through the Glass Ceiling: Seven Critical Lessons for Negotiating a Leadership Position in Higher Education.” The concept of “spiraling” comes from the metaphor that I’ve used personally since I was in graduate school to help me understand my life’s development and progression. When I was in the first year of graduate school at Yale, I realized that I was starting over again, even though I was more sophisticated and confident than I had been as an undergraduate. I started to envision my life as walking up a spiral staircase … every 360 degrees you come back to where you started but at a higher level. Your experiences propel you upward. Within the past year, I have learned that “Spiral Dynamics” is a theory of human development based on the theory of psychology professor Clare W. Graves. Anyway, I hope that by the time I get to Germany I will have found someone interested in publishing the book, so I can devote my time to completing the manuscript. I already have drafts of the introduction and the first chapter. Recently, I completed an outline for the remainder of the book.

Does it feel like it has been 10 years? 

No, not at all. It’s amazing. I’ve been thinking about that, as Betty and I make arrangements to move out of the Presidents’ House. A key reason why the time seems to have gone by so fast is that serving as Wheaton’s president has been a true labor of love. Betty and I really feel that, when we came here, it was the right institution for us and that we were the right couple for the institution at the time. And that makes a big difference. I am very proud of the quality of the educational experience we provide for our students. That’s what fuels me.