Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

The network effect

In April, I spoke at a conference at Lafayette College titled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education Around the World.” More than 200 administrators, including 50 college presidents, turned up for the gathering.

The inspiration for the conference can be summed up in one word: anxiety. These are difficult days for liberal arts colleges. As a group we face significant challenges in demonstrating the value of the education we offer to an increasingly skeptical public, addressing the rising cost of attendance at our institutions and incorporating technology in ways that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our programs.

The conversation was interesting on many levels. However, I was puzzled by one notable omission: any sustained discussion of the role of alumnae and alumni in helping liberal arts colleges to innovate while remaining true to our core principles. That idea did not receive much attention during the conference. And yet it seems so obvious: no one understands the value of the liberal arts better than those individuals whose lives have been changed by the rigorous and broad-based study that is the hallmark of this approach. The graduates of liberal arts institutions are persuasive ambassadors and wise advisors.

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