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Liberal Arts Education to Meet Society’s Needs

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These accomplishments and others are consistent with our sense that our educational enterprise is healthy and strong. But what of the future? In the past half-century, society’s expectations about higher education have changed. Where once the key word was access, now it is affordability (even utility or accountability). Where once the aim was to serve society by transforming individuals through maturation, now the aim is often understood to be preparation of the individual for a job—not a career, let alone a calling, but a job. As we move more deeply into the 21st century, Emory and other institutions founded on the liberal arts will be asked increasingly to defend our approaches to curriculum, admission, financing, and measurement of outcomes. Emory is in a good position to make that defense, but we need to speak boldly and unapologetically about what we are doing to serve society’s needs rather than merely address society’s wants.

Consider accessibility and affordability. In 2011, under the leadership of Provost Earl Lewis, we created a new organizational structure for student enrollment activities, from admission to financial aid to registration, and we put in place a new admission management council and advisory committee. Emory had reached a plateau in its recruitment efforts, and we now have an opportunity to improve significantly our acceptance rate and yield for Emory College. By the way, both of these measures have improved for the current first-year class. With the appointment of a new dean of admission, John Latting, we are well on the way to implementing a strategic enrollment plan to meet the needs of Emory College.

At the same time, we remain committed to making Emory as affordable as possible for the best students, regardless of their means. Emory Advantage—for undergraduate students in Emory College, Oxford College, Goizueta Business School, and the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing— continues to make Emory more affordable for low- to middle-income, high-quality students. In the 2010―2011 academic year, there were 802 new and returning Emory Advantage undergraduates, and the admission yield for the program is almost 70 percent, compared to about 30 percent for all matriculants. In May we graduated the first group of students who had received aid from the program for all four of their undergraduate years. They left Emory with indebtedness of $15,000 or less. We are dedicated to raising the philanthropic support for this program.

Of course, it is not essentially our enrollment activities that make us who we are today and provide a guiding vision for our future educational mission. Let us remember that Emory is founded on, formed by, and dedicated to the principles of the liberal arts—principles exercised in our graduate and professional schools as well as in traditional liberal arts disciplines. Emory retains the ideal that animated its founders 175 years ago: the belief that education in the humanities and the sciences together is essential for the deepest understanding of what it means to be human. Better yet, liberal education lays the foundation for continual self-education in the years after formal schooling.


175 Years of Emory

Watch this video and learn more about the value of an Emory liberal arts education. You'll see how our leadership in research and teaching has been changing the world for 175 years.

Beyond these private benefits, liberal learning has a public benefit. It enables men and women to know their own minds with integrity and to be able to appreciate the perspectives of others. It prepares men and women for citizenship, because it draws them out of themselves and into the broader society of which they are part and to which they owe interest, concern, and—if possible—leadership.

Emory does this quite well, but we can do better at promoting the values of a well-prepared mind. At times, I sense that our students—our philosophy, history, and English majors, for example—feel almost apologetic about the so-called impracticality of their disciplines rather than emboldened by the strength and agility of their thinking. It is this very thinking that is necessary for imagining the future and addressing problems that threaten the progress toward that future. Yes, we do liberal learning well, but we need to do it better. So, I applaud Provost Lewis’s new university-wide initiative to determine what it means to “own the liberal arts.”

As that initiative gets under way, we must raise awareness of the value of liberal learning both as an end in itself and as a foundational component of the professions. The breakdowns on Wall Street that precipitated the recession arguably resulted not from a lack of intellectual capacity but from a lack of intellectual breadth that could bring ethics and humanity to bear in the work of those whose calling is to create wealth. I wish that Wall Street were dominated by the sort of principled leaders prepared by our business school. In summary, we can point to academic accomplishment, commitment to access, and our liberal learning values to support our confidence that our educational enterprise is strong and on a proper trajectory for the future.

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