By Tim Cloyd
Board Retreat Oct. 27.
Note: These speeches have been digitized from print documents. During this process, formatting and other errors sometimes occur. I am correcting mistakes as I see them, but be aware that these speeches may still contain unintentional errors. I also give special thanks to Helen Plotkin for her help editing and researching these speeches.
I was asked to speak at a Rotary Club in a small town in Arkansas. The meeting was held in the Western Sizzlin” – next door were Hommer’s Hardware and the Whole Hog Barbeque. The “all-you-can-eat”, mega food bar was packed. The club meeting room was full. The President of the club had invited the homecoming court and the football cheerleaders from the local high school, and they were seated in front of me.
I was introduced as the President of Hendrix College – “one of those liberal arts colleges.” As I stood to speak, thoughts rushed through my mind about how to reframe this introduction of Hendrix as “one of those liberal arts colleges” – or at least how to articulate to this group – (there were no Hendrix graduates in the room) – what it means to be a liberal arts college and why a liberal arts college education is so relevant in contemporary America. I was not on the defensive, because I am an evangelist for the liberal arts, and I am confident that what we are doing at Hendrix ( and at liberal arts colleges) – the kind of education we offer, the way we teach, and the values we hold up to our students make this type of institution the most important type of higher education in contemporary America. I want to tell you why – First, however, I want to innumerate some of the stereotypes that are conjured up in the mind’s eye of the general public when we say we are a liberal arts college or when someone makes that code statement we have often heard “oh, so you’re one of those liberal arts colleges.”
The first issue is the word liberal – what is the liberal in liberal arts. The Romans coined the phrase liberal arts. They meant by this that it is an education that frees the mind – that creates an open mind. To be able to debate in the Roman Senate the cultivation of the skills of thought in the liberal arts was essential. The Romans thought in terms of technical arts and liberal arts – technical arts being applied crafts. Liberal, then, in liberal arts means among other things open minded, questioning, and unafraid of challenging orthodoxy. This approach to learning, thinking, and living provides a person the courage to ask questions about fundamental truth claims. Liberal arts education cultivates analytical and critical skills to struggle with complex questions thoughtfully and to cultivate the communication skills to articulate an informed position. I believe these qualities were seen by the Romans as essential traits of leadership. A liberal arts education resists absolutes because of the view that no one human being, country, race, religion or historical epoch holds and knows the whole truth. But that does not mean that nothing is ever true. But perfect knowledge and absolute truth is for God, not for humans who suffer the defect of a spirituality of imperfection. We are humans – exiles from Eden.
So what are the stereotypes of the liberal arts in the general public? I would argue they include some versions of the following:
- Liberal Arts – means somehow just the arts, not hard science
- Liberal Arts – means soft headed
- Liberal Arts – means you study impractical stuff with which you cannot get a job
- Liberal Arts – means politically left wing
- Liberal Arts – means a population of geeks, odd balls, homosexuals, and radicals
- Liberal Arts – means tree huggers
- Liberal Arts – means you learn a little about a lot and not a lot about a specific discipline
- Liberal Arts – means you learn only about poetry, literature, philosophy, and history and perhaps how to paint, act or play the violin.
- Liberal Arts – means graduates are artsy, esoteric, and eccentric or just plain odd
- Liberal Arts – means anti-business
- Liberal Arts – means stuff any one can do
- Liberal Arts – means you can’t be a doctor, a veterinarian, an engineer, an architect, a scientist or a “professional”
- Liberal Arts – means you’ll have to get another degree to get a job.
- Liberal Arts – means no sports and its just not masculine
- Liberal Arts – means the rich and privileged – state schools are for the poor and the middle class
I could go on and on, but you get the point. How do we – and how could I in the Western Sizzlin’ on that day or on any day when I talk to the general public shatter these stereotypes?
I could have, of course, launched into the facts of the matter and at some level I did.
- One in seven medical doctors in the state graduate from Hendrix.
- We have more science majors in physics and chemistry in absolute terms in some years than the University of Arkansas and many other state research universities.
- We are in the top 20 schools in the country that send students on to get Ph.D.s in the sciences.
- Graduates with a B.A. from Hendrix and other national liberal arts colleges have become some of the most successful entrepreneurs, corporate, and government leaders in Arkansas and across the United States.
- Lawyers from Hendrix have federal judgeships, are partners in the largest law firms
- We do not have any more gay students, odd balls, geeks, or radicals than in the per capita population on other university and college campuses.
- We are not soft, but are in fact more rigorous – no grade inflation – Rhodes, etc.
- A high percentage of the highest academically qualified students in the United States attend national liberal arts colleges
I could have given the civic club all of that data and I did to a degree – . But for some reason I didn’t feel the homecoming court wanted to hear all this empirical evidence. So, what to do? What do we say to such stereotypes?
Tonight I want to invite us to move to higher ground. Rock has talked about the idea of our own calling and the transcendent meaning of our lives. What do we give back to the world?
I want to complement his talk to ask what is the calling of Hendrix and the liberal arts in the world today? What is the soul of who we are and what we do in this college?
First, I want to suggest to you that we are on the brink of a deep, dramatic, dangerous and perhaps irreparable crisis of division in American society today. We are being torn apart as a country by deep ideological divides. Divides framed in terms of irreconcilable truth claims –
On the one side is the fundamentalism of the right – led by evangelical fundamentalist Christians, orthodox Jews, and fundamentalist Muslims. All of these groups believe that modernity, secularization, and cultural liberalism have damaged the world. On the other side is a fundamentalism of the left, led by those unwilling to listen to others whose beliefs may be informed by spiritual belief or faith. This type of left-wing fundamentalism says that we humans can know the whole truth through reason and science. The enlightenment makes us God or a bunch of individual gods.
You know the battle lines of this culture war:
- Pro-choice vs. Pro-life
- Pro-Gay vs. anti-gay
- Evolutionary science vs. creationism or intelligent design
- Stem cell research vs. embryos as the unborn
- Radical feminism vs. traditional gender roles
- Relative truth vs. universal and absolute truth
- Fluid self actualized sexual identity vs. biblical, Koranic, or biological determined identity
- Active euthanasia vs. non-interventionism at the end of life
- Anti-death penalty vs. pro-death penalty
The vast majority of Americans today are turned off by both ideological extremes. The vast center feel uncomfortable, they feel conflicted, and paralyzed. Some fall on one side of one of these issues and on the other in the case of another issue. The winds of life experience tempers straight ticket voting on these volatile issues. Most of us feel our voices lost.
What does this have to do with the Liberal Arts at Hendrix – or the Liberal Arts in general? I think our Liberal Arts colleges particularly those committed to the education of the whole person – mind, body, and spirit are our only hope for a way out of this ideological impasse where there is no voice for compromise. Many of those institutions are related to mainline churches.
Students that come out of such colleges give us hope, because of their grounding in notions of tolerance, liberty, and their sense of the truth of our historical place as fallible humans. This does not mean that they graduate with the idea that there are not better and worse ways to live a life. They learn there are better ways to live a life – more spiritual, more fulfilling ways to live. Nor does it mean that these students learn to believe that there is nothing worth dying for or that war is never justified. But, the sensibility of the tragedy, imperfection, and complexity of life that students in liberal arts colleges learn cultivates above all humility. Our students learn that life and reality are rarely black and white, but more often gray. They learn that in the fog of uncertainty we must reach conclusions, make decisions, and take action – But they learn this must be done thoughtfully, sometimes painfully, but always with the humility that we might get it wrong. This sensibility of the potential for human tragedy prevents an arrogant hubris that, as the Greeks taught us, can be our nemesis.
For three hundred or more years, the leaders of this country were educated in these types of schools, or they were self-educated in the tradition of the Liberal Arts.
But in the last 85 years, the place of our type of liberal arts college has been assailed – first, by major research universities – institutions developed in our rush to global competition and hegemony and in our attempt to prevail over the Soviets in the cold war. This was not all bad, but it has lead us to focus students’ educations narrowly, particularly in the sciences. Grounding students in a broad exposure to history, moral philosophy, and literature has been lost at research universities often to professional schools and applied disciplines. Science, technology, and other research disciplines at the same time have de-linked undergraduate studies from a more holistic education.
Recall that KSM studied at one of these universities in our country.
The holistic approach of mind, body, and spirit is, of course, persevered in the liberal arts college – a core curriculum – that grounds all majors in the great works and books of history and allows all students to cultivate the mind in its fullest form, to cultivate the spiritual, and to see themselves as historical beings – meaning that they come to realize that all that they believe and know is in some sense historically contextualized. This situates our students in the long broad flux of world history.
The second wave of challenges to our type of liberal arts college come some 40 years ago when flocks of Bible institutes in the evangelical movement across America began to call themselves colleges or universities. These schools have specific ideological and fundamentalist convictions. They have challenged liberal arts colleges related to mainline churches by claiming that their Christian “liberal arts colleges” not only offer an academic program guided by biblical truth, but offer religious truth in predigested forms. They imply a guarantee that the sons and daughters of their groups of believers will be able to associate only with other believers, and so kids will not be lead astray. They study liberalism, pluralism, and other faiths as the antithesis to their truth. They teach from a framework of friends on one side and enemies on the other.
These evangelical fundamentalist institutions claim through things like the Christian Coalition of Colleges that they are now the true standard bearers of the Christian faith and that all others have lost their way – Liberty University, Bob Jones University, Asbury College, JBU, are some of these…..
The third wave of challenge to our type of liberal arts college came during the 1960s. Many liberal arts colleges related to mainline churches broke ties with their founding denominations. Some did so because they had become captives of left-wing fundamentalists who rejected the possibility of their theories being wrong or conditioned by the limits of reason. The arrogance of the left in the 1960’s has proven no better than the arrogance of the right. Liberal fundamentalism is the ideal of the Enlightenment were man on his own could hold or know the whole truth through reason and science.
In other cases, clergy board members and other board members became nervous about the rise of evangelical-fundamentalist colleges. They thought our liberal arts colleges should move in that direction and some groups still believe this is the answer. But the response to such pressure has always been resistance and division by the academic community and alumni leading to the severing of ties with mainline denominations.
The current challenge to our liberal arts college has been an even more complex competitive environment with well-funded honors colleges at state research institutions claiming they can do what liberal arts colleges do, proprietary colleges pushing not education of the whole person but technical training for immediate marketability, and internet degrees. Some of this is driven by the general public’s concern and misunderstanding of the rising cost of residential liberal arts colleges.
In this environment the only answer is to know who you are….to know your calling…and to differentiate yourself by reflecting that calling in all that you do in the institution. Residential liberal arts colleges are total experiences.
So, in this landscape, who are we – what is our calling as an institution – what is the soul of Hendrix – and more pointly why should you as Board members decide to make Hendrix your number one philanthropic priority? Is Hendrix your number one philanthropic priority?
In the world we live in today, the values we hold out to our students and to society as a liberal arts college are critical to our democratic culture. We are a mainline liberal arts college.
Our collective mission in this community is to instill in our students a “concern for worthy values. To cultivate the whole person”
But why is that important?
I believe that what happens in and outside of the classroom in this community is the most important work any of us could be doing. What we do here helps guard against the forces of hate, bigotry, intolerance, resentment, and barbarism we are witnessing all around us in the world today.
We are showing tomorrow’s leaders what it means to be human and why it is critical that we recognize ourselves as citizens of the world. We require them no matter their major to get outside of themselves, outside of their comfort zone, and in defamiliarizing the familiar they learn the intractable moral dilemmas of human life.
I spent a great deal of time this summer thinking about what I understand as the soul of this place and the liberal arts. We should all be alarmed and disturbed by the wars in the Middle East and should struggle with our role in that war. This summer, I climbed the hill of Waterloo, I walked the trenches in Flanders Fields, I stood on a bridge in the Ardens at the battle of the Bulge, and I visited the Gestapo prison of Dombeeck in Belgium. At Dombeeck, a tour guide told me a story that has haunted me … the prisoners of Dombeeck felt a deep sense of community at first. But things changed one day. There was a boy named Andre who was imprisoned there who cried a lot. The Germans worked these prisoners in a rock quarry. Many of them to death … Andre constantly cried for his mother and his fellow prisoners at first consoled him. But to no avail. One day, Andre slipped and fell into the cold water around the quarry. He could not swim and could not get out. He cried for help. But not one inmate moved to save him. Then, one of the guards picked up some rocks and began to stone Andre. After a few moments, a number of the inmates also picked up rocks and began to throw them at Andre. He disappeared beneath the water. The camp was never the same again. Brutality escalated.
This story struck me because it drove home for me again the thoughtless and callous nature of human brutality. These moments of human ugliness were, of course, repeated a million times before and such moments of brutality happen over and over again everyday. Yes in Iraq, yes in Lebanon, yes in Afghanistan, but all over the world and our country. It happens when humans lose mercy, empathy, and humility. It happens when a person or group of persons believe they are the center of the universe. Like 9-11.
We all lash out under the pressure of terror. We feel like responding to terror with terror. We hope none of our students has to face such dehumanizing horror. Yet it is our job, our calling, our responsibility to help prepare them for what life puts before them and to teach them to respond as thinking, empathetic human beings. It is our job to teach them to lead while being grounded in humility. Especially when we find ourselves and our community concerned with our own security, even when we have fear, and when we have the threat of terror. Easy answers, our students learn may feel good but that does not make them the right answers.
Voices around these kids push for reactionary action, resentment, and claims of absolute truth. Muslim youth, Christian youth, Jewish youth – all are assailed by these voices. They hear the truth is simple…..but it is not…. and more times than not it is the tragedy of our best guess.
So where is the hope?
WE HAVE AN URGENT ROLE TO FULFILL. This goes beyond helping students to master a skill and acquire a knowledge base – though that is central. We have a responsibility to cultivate thoughtfulness, civility, and empathy in the face of terror. Thoughtfulness, civility, and empathy – not weakness, appeasement, and inaction – but measured moral courage. If not here, then where ? Where will they see tolerance modeled? If not here, then where ? If not now, then when ?
The new students we welcomed to campus this fall have been touched by terror their entire lives. Most of them were born in 1988, so they were 13 on September 11, 2001. Their worldview has been shaped by the war on terror. We have been fighting in Iraq for as long as they can remember. For them, the world has always been FLAT. There has always been a world wide web, instant messaging, cell phones, MP3 players …
Who among us can predict what the world will look like when they graduate? We cannot see the future, but we know the critical and analytical skills required to succeed. We know to make sense of the present and the future we have to understand the past. We know that to be heard they will have to communicate effectively and clearly. They will have to write well. They will have to be prepared to learn for a lifetime in a knowledge economy. We are involved in the “development of character and the encouragement of a concern for worthy values.” We are responsible as Trustees and officers of this precious college. But, as human beings and children of God, we are called to love and to leave the world a better place. Your gifts of leadership, knowledge, and money will leave this world and our state a better place.
I am proud today and gratified today – And each and everyone one of you should fell this way as well.
We took a risk in our repositioning, marketing, and pricing strategy – We were able to get the faculty to create the Odyssey Program – A Program that embodies and promotes our values – The Faculty with our leadership also put into place new programs for first year students.
Well the risk has paid off – with 23% increase in our price we had a 43% increase in the freshman class – 280 last year and almost 400 this year. This was a $1.5 million increase in net revenue for this freshman class. 87% freshman to sophomore retention the best in the history of the college and a 66% six year graduation rate the best in the history of the college. This is also the best in Arkansas. To catch our peers in the ACS and to be in the top 25 in the United Stated our graduation rates are going to have to rise to 80% or better.
Nevertheless we have tremendous momentum, we have a national buzz going about Hendrix, and we have people in places of influence in higher education across America asking what are you going to do next.
One year does not make a trend….But this will be a trend I predict and if so we will reach 1,350 students in 3-4 years.
Now is the time to reach for an audacious goal. We can be one of the top 25 or top 10 national liberal arts colleges in America. This is with reach. We can move to a new level qualitatively a new level….
This weekend we are going to talk about how we can do this over the next 5 years. It is going to take courage, guts, and chatzba. It is going to take you making Hendirx your number one priority. I know all of us love Hendrix but to reach this goal we will all have to fall passionately in love with Hendrix and our vision.
Hendrix is within reach of becoming a Davidson or a Swanee or a W&L or perhaps even an Amherst – It will take building the academic program in an aggressive way as we grow the endowment significantly.
But why aspire to be the best national liberal arts college in the United States?
If it were for the sake a vain glory it would be empty. I submit to you that it is not just for the sake of the goal and the prestige it will being Arkansas and Hendrix.
Rather this goal is important because our nation needs the qualities and values that Hendrix represents…There are other liberal arts colleges out there – Amherst, Williams, and Swarthmore are at the top of the heep….But they do not have and hold the culture and values we hold.
The time is now for Hendrix College – a College in the South to be in the lead to teach our our brothers and sisters on the east cost and the west cost ……in blue states and in red states the importance of the values of empathy, compassion, a sense of civic responsibility, and above all humility – not arrogance – These are very Methodist ideals.
How will be know when we have succeeded –
When we are ranked in the top 50 or top 25 in US News, when were are ranked in the top 25 by the Washington Post, when we are the top rated school in the Princeton review?
All of that is helpful and that is what we intend to achieve….but I also think we will know we have achieved our goal when every one of our students believes what Margi-Ault-Duell said in May at Baccalaureate: “I rather think that the goal of a well-rounded education is to learn to look at the world through different perspectives. In our classes at Hendrix, we practice the art of seeing from behind another’s eyes.”
(possible ad or use)
When I think I am going under part the waters Lord. When I feel the waves around me calm the sea. When I cry for help hear me Lord and hold out you hand. Touch my life and still the raging storms in me!