From the President

In my first annual report as president of the Teagle Foundation, I would like to review briefly where we have been and to sketch a few thoughts about our path forward. These tasks are made much lighter than they might have been by the work of my predecessor, Judith Shapiro, who led the Foundation for the past five years with a singular combination of wisdom and salutary humor. Judith brought to the Foundation the intellectual curiosity that is the starting point of all true learning. She exemplifies the kind of liberal education which the Foundation seeks to encourage, support, and disseminate—and all of us at Teagle are very grateful.

I take up the work at a time when institutions of higher learning face very serious challenges from both within and without. Amid the maelstrom of distrust and invective that is darkening American public life, it is tempting to feel besieged and defensive about our core values: free inquiry in the search for truth, commitment to students of all origins and degrees of preparation, and the belief that liberal education is essential for the future of our democracy.   

Some colleges and universities—especially private institutions with long histories and deep resources—are in a better position to weather the storm than others. At Teagle, we believe that these institutions have a responsibility to serve not only their own students but also the broader public interest, including the needs of their local communities. Many are doing so with admirable conviction and effect. But there is much more to do. 

To this end, we remain strongly committed to our College-Community-Connections initiative. Established in 2005, this program brings together New York City community-based organizations with colleges and universities to introduce high school students to liberal arts education. High-school students served by the community-based organization are taught by college faculty in a wide range of disciplines to deepen their understanding of what awaits them in college, to help them develop an abiding interest in learning, and to give them the confidence that will serve them well. 

Meanwhile, too many students who manage against the odds to matriculate in college find themselves trying to make their way through under-resourced institutions, where opportunities for personal engagement with faculty are scarce, advisors are stretched, and the sort of support that students at wealthier institutions take for granted is hard to come by. Under these circumstances, it is all too easy to become bewildered about how to gain the skills needed for securing a job while seizing the chance to grow in maturity through engagement with new ideas and perspectives. The Teagle Foundation feels a special obligation to such students—not to the exclusion of those attending better-resourced institutions, but with a sense of urgency to enlarge the reach of liberal education beyond the privileged few.   

For these reasons, we have decided to move beyond our recent program on “Faculty Planning and Curricular Coherence” to a new initiative we are calling Pathways to the Liberal Arts. Our aim is threefold: 

  1. to expand our current work by which colleges and universities invite rising high school seniors from disadvantaged backgrounds to spend part of a summer on campus engaging in college-level reading and discussion of major books and ideas.  
  2. to develop opportunities for two-year community college students to transfer successfully to four-year liberal arts colleges. Most students who transfer from two-year to four-year institutions do so within the public sector either because of state legislation or policy or because of sheer lack of awareness that transfer opportunities also exist at independent liberal arts colleges. Many community college students study the liberal arts and would be well-served in the supportive environment of a liberal arts college that can help them reach their aspirations for a baccalaureate degree. 
  3. to improve the prospects of a coherent learning experience and timely graduation for liberal arts students, especially those enrolled in large public institutions. The proliferation of course offerings at both two- and four-year institutions has reached a point where students often feel overwhelmed and confused, and meeting graduation requirements can feel like a box-checking exercise rather than a cohesive intellectual endeavor. Clearly defined and structured curricular pathways in the liberal arts, based on a comprehensible rationale, not only help students graduate in a timely fashion but also enrich their experience along the way. 

While we recognize that students at different strata of higher-education face different challenges, certain issues cut across all sectors of higher education. One is the growing sense that the main function of college is to prepare students for work and career. This view is understandable and, in some respects, desirable at a time when the “knowledge economy” requires increasingly sophisticated skills in technical fields. But it can also crowd out other important aims of college, including self-discovery, the nurture of curiosity, and the development of the sympathetic imagination. At many institutions, the prevailing mode of professional preparation tends to be narrow and unwelcoming to “extraneous” issues such as questions of ethics, history, and the changing character of the larger society in which graduates will live and work. 

The Liberal Arts and the Professions initiative supports efforts to embed liberal arts throughout the curriculum in professional undergraduate programs. Such curricular integration can provide students with the grounding they need to appreciate more fully the social, cultural, and ethical dimensions of their professional work. This initiative is based on our conviction that the liberal arts imbue students with the capacity and disposition to “learn how to learn”—an appetite sorely needed for success in any professional work.

We are also keenly aware that many if not most students go through college with a significant deficit in their understanding of our nation’s democratic institutions. Too few colleges are doing much to close the gap. On some campuses, commitment to free speech is wavering, and civil debate on contentious issues is no longer the norm. With these problems in view, and with the conviction that our nation is ill served when colleges fail to educate students about the history and fragility of democracy, we have launched a new initiative under the rubric Education for American Civic Life. The Foundation will support faculty-led efforts within the classroom and across disciplines that seek to address the twin issues of gaps in civic knowledge and uncivil speech and behavior. 

Other problems are evident across the range of institutions. Many factors—including the growth and fragmentation of knowledge and the professional imperative of faculty specialization—inhibit students from experiencing anything like a genuine learning community, even in relatively small colleges. Key questions raised in one course can seem disconnected from questions raised in another, even when these courses are offered by the same department or in the same major. Grasping the heterogeneity of knowledge and method is part of any broad education, yet we believe that faculties have a responsibility to help students feel some sense of coherence or at least relatedness as they encounter different ways of comprehending the human and natural worlds.  

For these reasons, we at Teagle are particularly encouraged when faculty commit to teaching common texts or themes in order to introduce students to enduring questions of meaning and purpose. Such programs can fit comfortably within any or all of our initiatives. Not incidentally, we believe that such programs also offer faculty the pleasurable benefit of learning through collaboration with colleagues in the shared work of undergraduate education. 

The Teagle Foundation will continue to entertain proposals that speak to these priorities from groups of institutions as well as from single institutions. We look for evidence of good will and cooperative energy in the shared work of faculty and administrators. On a more limited basis, we will also consider proposals that come from outside the strict boundaries of academia—from organizations that serve adults not necessarily enrolled in degree or certificate programs but who seek to enrich their lives through reading, discussion, and one form or another of collaborative learning.  

We expect all grantees to evaluate candidly the failures as well as successes of their efforts, and to implement wherever possible plans whereby initiatives supported by the Foundation can be sustained in the future by funds provided by or obtained through the home institution. In short, we are open to all efforts to advance the aims of liberal education, with an eye toward cost-effectiveness and sustainability.

It is a privilege for me to lead the Teagle Foundation, where I am fortunate to work with a group of extraordinary colleagues, and through which I look forward to engaging with educators across the country who are concerned with the welfare of their students and the future of our democracy.