LEEP: Clark Leads an Education Movement

Richard Freeland

The following remarks were delivered by Clark University Trustee Richard M. Freeland (above), former Commissioner of Higher Education for Massachusetts and former president of Northeastern University, at the Jonas Clark Fellows Dinner in Washington, D.C.


LEEP: Where tradition meets transformation

For some years Clark University has represented itself to the world through a phrase: "Challenge Convention. Change Our World." In my discussions with Clark faculty and students I am consistently impressed with the way this tagline resonates with the campus community. "Challenge Convention" speaks to the intellectual side of Clark: It is a call to original thinking; to a refusal to accept received wisdom; to insist on thinking things through for oneself. "Change Our World" is about effective engagement in society beyond the classroom: It links original thought with effective action; it is a call to put ideas to use; it is a charge, as the old cliché puts it, to make the world a better place. 

"I want to affirm the revolutionary importance of Clark's commitment to fostering both original thinking and effective action."

In my remarks tonight I want to affirm the revolutionary importance of Clark's commitment to fostering both original thinking and effective action because that short phrase — Challenge Convention. Change Our World. — itself challenges longstanding academic convention. In the process, as Clark systematically implements President Angel's "Liberal Education and Effective Practice" [LEEP] initiative, it places Clark in the forefront of a movement that is changing higher education, and especially enriching the great tradition of liberal learning that has represented the pinnacle of college-level education in the United States since the founding of Harvard in 1636. I know, as a member of Clark's Board of Trustees, that the University aspires to reclaim its historic position as a distinctive university of national significance. I believe, as a professional educator, that LEEP has the potential to make this vision a reality.

LEEP represents Clark's effort to reimagine liberal learning at the undergraduate level. Liberal Education and Effective Practice captures the two-sided aspiration of Clark's tagline and implies the steps Clark is taking to give its rhetorical ambitions programmatic form. Through LEEP Clark is affirming its longstanding commitment to liberal learning as the most powerful form of education ever devised to nurture the capacity to "challenge convention" — and therefore to excel in fields that require careful and original thought, including law, business, medicine, public service and academia. But through LEEP Clark is also announcing its intention to take liberal education to a new place, linking a tradition historically associated with qualities of mind and the world of cognition to the world of practice, to the place where social change, in fact, happens. In this sense LEEP seeks not so much to change Clark as to make it more intentional and systematic in pursuing its long-held goals. 

"You should have no doubt about the national significance of what Clark is attempting to do."

You should have no doubt about the national significance of what Clark is attempting to do — or the challenge that Clark's efforts face in overcoming deeply entrenched ways of thinking within academia. Higher education in the United States is in turmoil. An industry that has habitually enjoyed enormous respect finds itself questioned from many different perspectives. One theme in this discussion involves costs: Has higher education become so expensive as to be unsustainable? A second theme points to the potential of technology: Is the traditional format of collegiate learning — the lone professor with a group of students in a classroom — obsolete? Is there a way to do this that is both less expensive and more effective? Yet a third theme focuses on effectiveness: Is American higher education producing graduates who are competitive with their counterparts in other countries? Are our standards high enough to keep us prosperous in an age of globalization?

As our country confronts the challenges of a new century, colleges and universities find themselves pushed to think anew about time-honored ways of doing business. Experiments are underway on every hand. Some see massive online open courses (MOOCs) as the new educational model that will change everything. A few institutions are experimenting with three-year degrees or with stripped-down programs that lack some costly elements of a traditional collegiate experience. For-profit colleges and online institutions are challenging traditional campuses. Competency-based programs are beginning to compete with course-based curricula. Within this ferment one of the most prominent movements seeks to improve the effectiveness of undergraduate education in preparing young people to engage in the economic and civic life of the country. This is the arena in which Clark aspires to national leadership.

The "effectiveness movement" — as I will call this dimension of contemporary educational reform — is rooted in doubts about whether traditional forms of education, especially liberal education, are giving young people the tools they need to flourish and contribute after they graduate. At its most basic level this is about employability. Too many graduates of expensive liberal arts colleges struggle to find high-quality jobs after graduation or are too uncertain about their goals even to know where to look. Too many employers complain that college graduates do not possess the skills and attributes to add value to their organizations. Such worries are leading many students to enroll in occupationally oriented programs — business, engineering, the health sciences — so that today, practical fields represent a significantly higher percentage of undergraduate degrees than has historically been the case. In the face of this trend, liberal arts colleges have added career-oriented programs alongside traditional academic majors. Many have also added summer or even school-year internships to their portfolios of learning opportunities. A few have even adopted the Northeastern University model of cooperative education. A second dimension of the effectiveness movement involves civic engagement. This trend reflects the interest of young people in combining classroom studies with experiences beyond the campus that involve some form of community service. Many institutions have established offices specifically charged to find placements for students to work in community settings, typically as volunteers; some have incorporated service-oriented internships into credit-bearing courses — so-called "service-learning" courses.

All of these manifestations of the effectiveness movement represent a version of what Clark is trying to do with LEEP: to enrich the experience of college, and especially of liberal education, with attention to the applications of knowledge to problem-solving in nonacademic settings through practically oriented classroom activity, or through direct experience in the outside world, or both. In doing this, today's educators are rediscovering the insights of the great educational philosopher John Dewey, who argued more than a century ago that all real learning must be based on experience. Classroom study with no link to experience, Dewey argued, is unlikely to produce deep and lasting learning.

Although the effectiveness movement is widespread, and some echo of it can be found on almost every liberal arts campus around the country, it is a long way from gaining general acceptance in the world of liberal learning. Many of the initiatives that reflect this movement are simply add-ons to traditional programs that do not affect the basic educational experience and are largely ignored, or even derided, by most faculty. At a conference discussing this movement held at Clark a few years ago, the president of Wellesley College described her efforts to introduce experiential learning on her campus and noted the deep resistance of her faculty to taking this approach to education seriously. Another speaker worried that adopting a more pragmatic approach to education in a liberal arts setting would diminish institutional prestige.

The depth of these concerns should not be taken lightly. As I mentioned at the beginning of these comments, the tradition of liberal learning is largely an intellectual tradition. Its aim has been to foster qualities of mind, intellectual habits and capacities, and mastery of academic disciplines and cultural traditions. Academics have long believed that these mental attributes provide an essential foundation for effective action in the world, but helping students actually develop the capacity for effective action in some direct way has never been part of the liberal tradition. Perhaps the most articulate voice for this perspective has been Stanley Fish, a professor of English at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, who has heaped disdain on the efforts of colleges to help students acquire practical capacities. In his widely read book, dismissively titled "Save the World on Your Own Time," Fish argues that liberal arts faculty know nothing about the world of practice; all they can do, he writes, and all they should do is teach their academic disciplines. Making the world a better place may be important, but fostering the ability actually to accomplish this goal has nothing to do with liberal learning.

Now, into this debate, and into the leadership of the effectiveness movement, steps Clark University with its LEEP initiative. As I have noted, many other campuses are positioning themselves as champions of this movement in one way or another. In the Ivy League the University of Pennsylvania provides one example. Among our New England liberal arts colleges, Amherst has entered this arena. Is there reason then to think that Clark's approach can differentiate our university from all the other colleges and universities in this movement? I think the answer to this question is "yes," and in the final part of my remarks I will try to explain, as someone who also sought prominence within this movement during my years at Northeastern, why I am such an admirer of what Clark, under President Angel's leadership, is attempting to do.

The first point to emphasize is that Clark is squarely focused on building LEEP on the basis of liberal learning. This is very different from what we sought to do at Northeastern, which, with its roots in engineering and business and its longstanding commitment to cooperative education, has always embraced the applications of collegiate studies to real-world problems. For an institution like Northeastern to link liberal learning to practical education and to nonacademic experience represented only a short step from established traditions and built on a deep well of faculty belief in the value of experiential education. Clark, by contrast, is building on its historic commitment to the liberal arts and sciences, which is the part of academia where cultural resistance to practical and occupational education runs deepest, as the attitude of Stanley Fish eloquently attests.

But the fact that Clark is centrally about liberal education creates the potential for it to be even more influential than a place like Northeastern, especially among the nation's leading colleges, because these institutions — Penn and Amherst are examples — are more like Clark than they are like Northeastern. And it is these more traditional institutions where programmatic ideas like service learning or internships are most likely to be add-ons around the edges — opportunities for interested students that are not well-integrated into the overall educational program.

"Clark is embedding the spirit of LEEP into every aspect of the undergraduate experience."

This reality points to the second place where Clark's approach is especially noteworthy. Clark is embedding the spirit of LEEP into every aspect of the undergraduate experience. The initiative includes a thoughtful introduction of the LEEP idea into freshman-level work, a plan to build on that foundation during the middle years of college, and a capstone experience as students near graduation, involving a major project focused on a real problem in an authentic setting. Every academic department has been charged to think systematically about adapting its program to this new educational approach — and this includes, of course, taking advantage of Clark's unusual character as a liberal arts research university to stress the importance of inquiry, of rigorous and personal analysis of the available facts in approaching any question or problem. For several years faculty recruitment has included an explicit emphasis on bringing in talented young scholars who are attracted to the new academic culture Clark is seeking to build.

Beyond all this, Clark's program planning is informed by a sophisticated understanding of student development drawn from recent work in the learning sciences. Clark has moved far beyond John Dewey's idea of "learning by doing" to a rich understanding of how to create learning communities involving faculty, graduate students, undergraduates and community members in a shared enterprise of problem-solving. Where most institutions participating in the effectiveness movement are doing so in comparatively superficial ways, Clark is truly creating a new academic model that systematically links liberal learning to the world of practice at every stage and in every dimension of the student experience.

"Clark is truly creating a new academic model that systematically links liberal learning to the world of practice at every stage and in every dimension of the student experience."

The final point I would make about Clark's approach to LEEP is the boldness with which it is being undertaken. This is no small experiment, being given a trial run while the rest of the university continues along familiar lines. The Board of Trustees has placed LEEP at the heart of its efforts to reposition the University as a nationally significant center of learning. The most important new building currently being planned will be devoted to the LEEP program and will be placed prominently on Main Street directly facing Jonas Clark Hall. Clark's promotional materials now headline LEEP. The current capital campaign emphasizes opportunities to support LEEP. Already a major new program of LEEP scholarships is attracting top students and is being showcased by the admissions office as a defining representation of how the University wants to be viewed.

In short, Clark has placed a "big bet" on LEEP. It has decided to position itself at the forefront of a movement that is gaining widespread, if circumscribed, acceptance all across higher education, including among top tier institutions. Clark aspires to be the prototype of where this movement can take collegiate education in the arts and sciences. The University is doing this because its leaders believe that the enriched form of undergraduate learning that LEEP provides is what our country needs, and what our young people need, as we face the challenges of the twenty-first century. I could not agree more. I could not be more admiring of what Clark is attempting to do. The community of Clark alumni should be proud of what their alma mater has undertaken. Just as Jonas Clark put "his" university on the national map of higher education during the final years of the nineteenth century through bold innovation, so the institution's leaders today seek to restore your university to that historic position at the beginning of the twenty-first. It is a brave, thoughtful, and deeply significant undertaking. I am proud to be associated with it.