Campus Conversation series ends

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April 9, 2010

4:22 AM

The College of William and Mary held the seventh and final installment of its Campus Conversation series Thursday.

The public session centered on College Provost Michael R. Halleran’s working draft report titled “William and Mary as a Leading Liberal Arts University in the 21st Century.”

Although the last session served primarily as a wrap-up to the issues raised in the previous installments, Halleran opened the floor to the assembled faculty, staff and students for discussion.

The Campus Conversation series was initiated by a steering committee comprised of three members — two faculty members and Halleran. The previous six installments included three discussions led by faculty panelists, one led by a student panel and two featuring distinguished visitors.

Each installment was open to the public, and audience members included faculty, students, staff, administrators, alumni, BOV members and community members.

The content of Halleran’s report resulted from the series of campus-wide conversations through which he received input from faculty, students and other members of the college community.

“This conversation has … been critical to the College’s self-identity, future directions and overall strategic plan,” Halleran said. “The conversation has been extensive, lively and thought provoking.”
Halleran said his report addressed three issues — defining the College’s identity as a liberal arts university, discussing the College’s future success under its identity and setting up a system to review the current curriculum and merit processes.

Acknowledging that the traditional model was being modified, he addressed the changing perspective of factors that constitute a liberal arts university. He offered the inclusion of practical coursework such as business, engineering and medicine in undergraduate schools — courses that typically would not fall under the traditional model of liberal arts — as examples of a shift in the meaning of liberal arts education.

During his discussion, Halleran said the College had a hybrid nature due to its relatively small size and incorporation of graduate studies and research opportunities.

“Our focus is bifocal. We don’t look only at a liberal-arts based undergraduate teaching mission, nor are we blinded by graduate and research metrics only,” Halleran said.

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions has marketed the College’s hybrid nature to prospective students, but Halleran said the changing perspective of a liberal arts university has raised questions on whether this is the best way to represent the College.

“The fact is that most institutions that look like William and Mary are elite private universities, many of which have sufficient ‘brand’ power not to need any descriptor,” Halleran said. “For us, perhaps ‘public Ivy,’ or simply ‘William and Mary,’ will prove to be the best term for marketing. Whatever decision is made on that front, it remains true that [the College] has strong characteristics of a liberal arts college and a research university; it is neither of these, but rather a composite of the two.”

Economics professor Robert Archibald raised questions about intimate classroom instruction that valued “face-to-face” time spent with professors as opposed to “distance learning,” which is seen in larger schools where classes are taught by graduate students and visiting lecturers.

“This seems to be a broad educational arena,” Archibald said. “We might need an explicit description [given to the admissions office] that emphasizes that we offer face-to-face education.”

Another issue discussed included reaching an ideal balance between teaching and research. Halleran reported that the conversation between participants suggested that this issue was important, but that there was no final consensus on how to attain this balance.

Halleran concluded by discussing budget cuts, saying that the College was in the process of developing a financial model which would rely less on the state for its operations.

“It will be critically important to focus on what is core to our identity, our values and our ethos, and to map our ambitions on the twin grids of a changing world and a new fiscal reality,” Halleran said.

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