A compendium of messages from or regarding President Robyn Hannigan.


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A series of musings from President Hannigan on contemporary topics that transcend higher education in which she offers thoughts and opinions to the Ursinus family and our surrounding community.

Marginalia: Revolutionizing Liberal Education

Earlier this month, Ursinus College had the distinct pleasure of hosting “Revolutions in Liberal Education,” a first-of-its-kind national colloquium where 40 esteemed higher education innovators and thought leaders gathered to discuss—and to defend—the value of a liberal education. That event was accompanied by news coverage and media inquiries from across the country, notably:

  • “Great Books Can Heal Our Divided Campuses” (The Wall Street Journal)
  • “Inside the Fight to Save American College from Runaway Careerism”
    (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
  • “Defining Liberal Education, and How to Advertise It” (Inside Higher Ed)

There is perhaps no better time to reflect on liberal education and its importance in the national discourse. As we are all aware, liberal education (as it seemingly has for centuries) continues to stand trial and draw scrutiny. By definition, it promotes integration of learning across disciplines, exploring and questioning all ways of knowing, thereby creating new understanding that leads to solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. It ensures a sustainable and just future for people, places, and planet. But its detractors tend to not see beyond what all that has to do with career outcomes.

In this Philadelphia Inquirer column—in which Ursinus was acknowledged as a long-time “innovator in the renewal of the liberal arts”—Roosevelt Montás of Columbia University, who spoke at Ursinus’s commencement ceremony, said, “The biggest overall climate threat [to higher education] is an increasingly transactional view of education, where … the public sort of thinks of colleges as career services.”

That was a common theme that emerged throughout the colloquium as attendees wrestled with ways to confront the challenges that colleges like ours face; and how to shift the narrative from the transactional to the transformational. It reminds me of Kevin Walthers’s recent musings on the topic, in which he says, “The question is not whether college is worth the cost or not. The question is how do we maximize opportunities for young people to advance their economic mobility?”

As I stated in Inside Higher Ed, pitting liberal education against career preparation is a false dichotomy—they’re often positioned as opposing forces, but in reality, the very nature of a liberal education is to not prepare individuals for one job, but to best position them for a successful life.

As members of this Ursinus community—as faculty, staff, students, alumni, and parents—you’re well aware that our promise of a quest for knowledge expands opportunities for our students and, by virtue of their common good, works to benefit and better society.

It was appropriate that the two-day conference occurred at the birthplace of the Common Intellectual Experience, where engagement in discourse such as this—driven by four enduring questions—is commonplace. For more than two decades, CIE has—as The Wall Street Journal states in this column—defied the odds and has served as a model for liberal education at a time when some institutions are abandoning it.

But we can’t just preach to the choir. The colloquium was inspirational, but we are like-minded in that we already see the value of liberal education. We know it because we live it. It has informed our experiences.

We must not just pontificate—it’s time we took to the battleground to not just defend, but to demonstrate, our value. As a college president, I’m committed to empowering our students to embody the full power of a liberal education—one grounded in tradition, like our CIE, but one in which “the freedom of one’s mind” (as noted in the Inquirer column) allows students to cultivate the discernment and leadership required to understand and achieve success throughout their lives. That is done by working across many disciplines to solve today’s problems by thinking differently, collaboratively, and entrepreneurially to ensure the health and well-being of people, places, and our planet. Evidence of this lies in the very research our students and faculty do on our campus.

I was honored to have hosted this colloquium at Ursinus, which served as an opportunity to step out in front of these challenges and work together to reframe the national dialogue. It doesn’t end with discussion. Let’s keep taking action and revolutionize liberal education together.


President Robyn Hannigan

“Marginalia” is a series of columns from President Hannigan. If you’d like to share your thoughts or reflections on this piece, email presidentsoffic​