Liberal Arts Institute Moving from Rhetoric to Substance

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Swarthmore Institute for Liberal Arts in the 21st Century may be an ambitious name for a start-up organization that received its first funding just months ago and up to now has made little noise on campus beyond a series of occasional lectures. The Institute, which was first conceived over a year ago during the Strategic Planning process, has so far sponsored mainly symposia and faculty talks.

But the Institute is the product of many conversations between faculty who sense a need for greater collaboration and interdisciplinarity at Swarthmore and in liberal arts as a whole. Their ideas are beginning to come to fruition through the structure of the Institute. While those involved can wax poetic about the hoped-for influence of the new organization, the latest projects reveal its potential to touch all parts of the campus in provocative ways.

At their most recent meeting, the Institute Steering Committee heard two proposals, which committee member and History Professor Tim Burke referred to as the Institute’s “tent-pole projects.” According to Burke, these two long-term projects are good examples of how the Institute is moving from rhetoric into substance. “The Institute is by nature ad hoc,” he said. “Now we’re trying to figure out what the continuing institutions will be.”

One proposal is for Committee Member and Professor of Economics Philip Jefferson to facilitate a seminar this fall on poverty and inequality by faculty, for faculty.

“It’s going to be a seminar bringing faculty together across disciplines to work on a problem, imagined at a level of specificity a little more interesting than what happens in a lot of humanity centers or interdisciplinary centers,” Burke said. It may be followed in successive years by other faculty seminars.

The other proposal, for fall 2014, is for Political Science Professor Ken Sharpe to lead a teaching and pedagogy seminar for faculty. Ten to 12 professors would attend four to five of one another’s classes over the semester to discuss pedagogy.

“There would be a group of faculty attending each other’s classes, witnessing each other’s work, having a peer coaching, peer observation, discussion of teaching as open-ended thing,” Burke said. He hopes the seminar will help overcome some of the stigma that professionals don’t need to be coached. “Our classrooms are weirdly private,” he said.

Right now, the Institute, which is in the first of two “soft launch” years, is being funded by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. In the future, funding for the Institute will be added to the College’s operating budget.

“We’re sometimes so busy prepping and working and in the classroom, to do something like this requires administrative support. The Institute is providing that kind of support—some monetary, a lot of administrative,” Associate Provost and Associate Art History Professor Patricia Reilly said.

“The question will be how much money will we have to work with,” Burke said, “It’s clear that money will be coming from some small portion of the fundraising happening right now with the capital campaign. […] It won’t be pushing aside things more expensive and more important.”

The Recommendations section of the Strategic Plan includes the following language on the Institute, written to be vaguer than a concrete action but targeted enough to bring about such action over time:

The Swarthmore Institute for Liberal Arts in the 21st Century would provide a flexible structure and resources to promote projects that might involve faculty, students, and/or guests in formats that include reading groups, semester long workshops, and seminars focused on a visiting scholar.

The underlying premise is that the Institute is meant to cater to the needs of faculty that aren’t being met by the departments or other sources of funding on campus. The soft launch, Reilly said, is “two years of letting things bubble up from the faculty.” Many committee members said they agree with the characterization of the Institute as a bottom-up effort.

Burke said he thinks of this initial period as, “Let’s find out what people want, let’s find out what people have been thinking about on their own that seems to dovetail into the mission of the Institute as we understand it.”

Reilly said the Institute comes at a pivotal moment. “The College is on [the] verge of huge transition,” she said, “adopting a four-course load, […] anticipating retirement of some 35 faculty over [the] next ten years, […] looking at some 60 new faculty brought into the community in the next ten years. It’s a huge opportunity to step back.”

There are three “pillars” of the Institute for Liberal Arts. The Institute’s first and foremost pillar, according to the Strategic Plan website, is “to foster curricular, pedagogical, and scholarly innovation and to disseminate the results of this activity.” This involves determining professors’ needs and searching for administrative and structural solutions.

The second pillar is “to engage in generative thinking about the future of the liberal arts and higher education.” To do this, the Institute will seek to channel information to and from comparable educational institutions.

“One goal of the Institute is going to be to make the case for [the liberal arts],” Jefferson said. “The liberal arts model is being expanded internationally at the same time it’s being criticized in the U.S. Why is that? Because in the developing world […] what people are looking for is people who generate new ideas.”

According to Reilly, the goal of the Institute is in essence to mount a defense of the liberal arts principles that Swarthmore seeks to uphold. “This produces a form of advocacy – showing what we do well and why we do it,” she said.

The third pillar is “to facilitate conversations between liberal arts institutions and those who live ‘liberal arts lives.’” The Institute plans to engage alumni and other lecturers who can speak to the importance of a liberal arts degree as something more than just a prestigious diploma.

The thrust of all three goals is to explore the interdisciplinary possibilities of the liberal arts by working outside traditional structures, organizational, administrative, and otherwise.

This theme can be seen in a “first pillar” project put together by a cross-departmental social sciences group consisting of Economics Professor Steve Golub, Political Science Professor Ayse Kaya, and Sociology Professor Michael Reay. They recently presented their project, entitled “The Failure of Economics and the Federal Reserve to Anticipate the 2008 Financial Crisis,” at a faculty lunch. The Institute for Liberal Arts provided the group of faculty funding to take on student researchers.

Another example of a project the Institute supports is the Righteous Mind Symposia, a series of faculty symposia connected to Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, which addresses the supposed irreconcilability of moral differences. That series culminates today in a talk by Haidt himself at 7 p.m. in Science Center 101.

The Institute also produced the Visualizing Media Futures Symposium. The symposium, held on March 21-22, was jointly supported by the Liberal Arts Institute and the Film and Media Studies Department.

A longer-term project mentioned by committee members is the creation of a scholarly periodical, likely to be published online.

The ideas and projects we have seen from the Institute thus far were created in response to wishes voiced by faculty members during the strategic planning process last year, Reilly said. “We asked faculty during the strategic planning process what they want,” Reilly said, “We heard this kind of thing—community, sharing of work, learning about larger issues in higher ed.”

According to Committee Coordinator Stacey Kutish, the idea for such a structure came out of strategic planning meetings. An ad hoc committee was put together by Committee on Faculty Procedures. The Committee, which consisted of ten appointed faculty members, became the Institute’s steering committee and started meeting last spring. The Committee has an additional executive committee, comprised of President Rebecca Chopp, Kutish, Burke, and Reilly.

Film and Media Studies Professor and Liberal Arts Institute Committee Member Patty White said she noticed the desire for more unstructured cross-disciplinary conversations at strategic planning sessions last semester. “We talked to faculty about their intellectual lives, and almost without exception and across disciplines, faculty expressed the desire to have more serendipitous [interactions], more time for intellectual exchange across disciplines or with colleagues they work closely with,” she said.

White said that Chopp has been a leader in articulating the mission of the Institute. Last fall Chopp gave a lecture on the subject. Chopp “is a leader of thinking about what is a liberal arts college,” White said.

Associate Professor of Classics and Philosophy Grace Ledbetter said that she would like to see more transparency from the Institute and its programs. “Shouldn’t the students know about it? The faculty should know about it. The faculty knows if you’ve gotten an invite to one of the book clubs or through word of mouth,” Ledbetter said. “If they haven’t [created transparency], it’s because they need more resources, or they’re still playing with what the Institute is going to be, but on other hand you can still do that and be clear about what they have.”

Burke acknowledged that the Institute needs transparency, and said the situation could be improved by distilling the Institute’s meaning into a written description, something that is missing at the moment.

Though many committee members, including White, would like to see a physical space or building dedicated to the Liberal Arts Institute, one has not yet been delineated in the Campus Master Plan. “Right now there is no space, but I do believe as part of the Campus Master Plan there is written in there sort of a half a hallway, in some building, for the Liberal Arts Institute,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson said that these faculty-centered changes would also affect students, but would do so indirectly, through what professors bring to the classroom. “The role of the Institute is not to usurp authority, power, initiative, from existing college committees,” he said.

Ledbetter said that she would like to see students become more involved in the planning process. “I think it would be nice to get students involved in these kinds of discussions,” she said.

This article previously stated that the teaching and pedagogy seminar will be led by Tim Burke. It will be led by Ken Sharpe.

Image courtesy of Swarthmore College


  1. Sorry if I was unclear about this, but the Teaching Seminar will be led by Ken Sharpe. I’m going to be participating in its first run in 2014-15, but Ken and Betsy Bolton have taken the lead in crafting the project.

    • Hi Tim,

      I think that detail got lost somewhere between the interview and the final edits. Sorry about the error. We’ll change the article now to reflect that.

      Andrew Karas
      News Editor
      The Daily Gazette

  2. Alumni too are looking for more info, transparency, action, and inspiration from Swarthmore’s “Institute for Liberal Arts.” The world needs it. But it’s hard to find anything concrete to read or participate in on the www. Chopp’s essay “Against the Grain” is excellent. More? Hoping so soon!
    Kai Gutschow ’86
    Assoc. Prof. of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon Univ. (not a liberal arts school, unfortunately)

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