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As a high school student, I first became attracted to the notion of the liberal arts; of idyllic college campuses where debate was encouraged, one’s writing abilities honed, and an appreciation for lifelong learning fostered. I found all of this and more at Oberlin College. My assumption was that I was not going to college to get a job, but to ensure that I would have the tools to forge a successful career. More than 20 years later, this approach has proved to be correct.

One of the roles that my education prepared me for was president of a very different kind of liberal arts college. At Paul Quinn College, a historically black college, or HBCU, just outside Dallas, I am entrusted with the development of a student body that bears little resemblance to the one that shared the campus with me during my undergraduate days in rural Ohio.

I am a product of the American Liberal Arts tradition. The students at Paul Quinn are the products of America’s broken urban core and all that comes with it. They arrive on our campus more concerned with the identification of pathways that will lead to the ending of Pell Grant-eligible status for their families than with developing an appreciation for lifelong learning.

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While we absolutely strive to provide our students with “an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change,” and place “a strong emphasis on teaching and student development, a common valuing of the life of the mind, small size, a shared intellectual experience, high academic expectations, and frequent interactions inside and outside the classroom between students and faculty,” we must do so with an acknowledgement of the life that led them to our door. Ignoring the reality of their lives would be selfish and a betrayal of the trust that they and their families have bestowed upon us.

The students at Paul Quinn are the products of America’s broken urban core and all that comes with it.

We believe that there is room in the liberal arts college tradition for institutions that aspire both to high-minded goals and the more pragmatic approach of preparing one’s students to combat and overcome the harsh realities of resource deprivation and other socio-economic challenges.

To that end, we created a liberal arts college model based on the idea that these institutions must do more than produce people who are capable of adapting to rapidly changing environments; they must also become places that adapt to these environments. This “New Urban College Model,” challenges liberal arts schools to use their ample intellectual and physical resources to address society’s most difficult obstacles. It accomplishes this by adapting the Work College format to an urban environment; reducing our price so that students graduate with less than $10,000 in debt; and using open source textbooks.

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We developed this model in response to the needs of our students and the communities that produced them. Responding to the voices of our students and their communities is an example of what relevant institutions must do.

For many colleges the change that I am proposing requires them to venture far from their historical comfort zones. Therefore, to assist our higher education cousins with such a transition, here are a few suggestions as to how they could jumpstart such a process:

  1. Listen and then act. While liberal arts tradition is famous for encouraging thoughtful debate, that process can often delay action until the debated point becomes moot and potential beneficiaries are disenchanted. Therefore, our institutions must become more action-oriented and responsive. This change will require leadership that is willing to acknowledge that the liberal arts franchise needs a reboot. It also needs to welcome students and their families into the realm of shared governance — Imagine what would happen to the pace of campus innovation and change if the voices of the actual consumers were truly added to the decision-making process.
  2. Be pragmatic. More than 75 percent of today’s college students are working in excess of 24 hours per week. These students do need academic rigor, but they also need flexibility. Creating an educational model that incorporates the modern reality of our students’ lives while maintaining academic standards is not a betrayal of the liberal arts tradition. Rather, it is proof that its principles are timeless and adaptable to today’s world.
  3. Stop keeping up with the Joneses. By all accounts, tuition and fees at the nation’s colleges and universities have gotten out of hand. The marketplace no longer accepts the practice of continuously raising prices and justifying it by pointing to some nebulous cost equation. One can hardly read an article on higher education today and not feel the anger of students, parents, pundits, and the federal government over the continuous increases in cost. What many people do not fully appreciate is the role peer pressure plays in this area. Far too many schools are afraid to deviate from the accepted price range established by their peer institutions for fear of retribution and reputational damage. The theory behind this practice is that if you want to be thought of as a certain kind of school, you must do what those schools do. This irony of this logic is priceless: Liberal arts institutions purport to create legions of independent thinkers. However, in this area, they themselves fail to be independent thinkers. Here’s a revolutionary thought – let’s actually behave independently and value the interests of our students over those of our “peers.”
  4. Choose the harder right over the easier wrong without apparent regard for self-interest. Lastly, it is time to re-examine our relationship with our faculties. We hold tenure out as the prize, but have established guidelines for its attainment that betray the foundational tenets of the liberal arts tradition and reward selfish behavior. If tenure is still necessary, then the process for earning it should place a greater premium on student success and satisfaction than it does on research and publishing.

I recognize that many liberal arts colleges may not embrace the changes that I mention in this article. After all, their endowments and rankings have created an aura of invincibility that they believe will mostly insulate them from societal shocks.

However, and thankfully, the rest of us live in a world where we must either evolve or perish. For the sake of our students and the liberal arts tradition, let us make the best use of that challenge.

Michael Sorrell is the president of Paul Quinn College, a private, historically black college (HBCU)  south of downtown Dallas, He has twice been named HBCU President of the Year.

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