A Global Liberal Arts Alliance

New network seeks to encourage colleges to trade knowledge and talent -- from Pennsylvania to Pakistan.
April 6, 2009

WASHINGTON – The Global Liberal Arts Alliance formally launched last week, in effect meshing a regional consortium of liberal arts institutions with a new transnational one.

Members of the alliance, to be administered by the Great Lakes Colleges Association, met in Washington to formalize what participants characterized as a mechanism for multi-way exchange and knowledge-sharing. While the liberal arts college is often thought of as a peculiarly American model, it's a model that's proliferating in countries worldwide, often in the shadow of the large public university systems that predominate.

“Institutionally, professionally, we feel a stronger sense of belonging here than we do in our systems back home,” said Driss Ouaouicha, president of Al Akhawayn University, in Morocco.

Added Celeste Schenck, president of the American University of Paris, “We speak the same language” (and she didn’t just mean English).

Institutions represented in the alliance include the Great Lakes consortium members, located in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania and including the College of Wooster; Albion, Allegheny, Earlham, Hope, Kalamazoo, Kenyon, Oberlin and Wabash Colleges; and Denison, DePauw, and Ohio Wesleyan Universities. International institutions represented in the alliance include Al Akhawayn; Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts (BISLA), in Slovakia; Effat University, in Saudi Arabia; Forman Christian College, in Pakistan; Franklin College, in Switzerland; John Cabot University, in Italy; the American Universities in Bulgaria and Cairo; American College of Greece; and the American Universities of Nigeria and Paris.

In addition to promoting faculty and staff exchange more broadly, the alliance will function in part as “a matching service,” said Dale Knobel, president of Denison. If an institution seeks assistance in starting a residence life program, for instance, it would tell the Great Lakes Colleges Association (as the administrator), which would match that institution with an appropriate collaborator.

Members are serious about the idea of mutual and equal exchange. The amount of faculty or staff time one institution gives another would be “banked” in a central database, with the idea that each institution would give and take an equal amount of time across the range of colleges in the alliance, explained Richard A. Detweiler, the Great Lakes Colleges Association president. So if Allegheny benefits from a week of help from American University of Nigeria, AU Nigeria should in turn give a week to another institution in the alliance – not necessarily Allegheny.

An earlier pilot involved bringing athletics directors from the College of Wooster and Denison to help AU Cairo with managing and integrating athletics into the life of a liberal arts institution (AU Cairo has a new campus with sports facilities). Alliance members have also discussed holding summer institutes to bring faculty together from a range of colleges, and there's particular interest in starting with a possible summer institute on Middle East and Islamic Studies in Cairo.

While meeting in Washington, presidents of the alliance’s institutions described deep conversations about the meaning of the liberal arts in each of their particular contexts. “It’s not a franchise but it adjusts to particular countries and cultures,” said Samuel Abrahám, BISLA’s rector.

“Nobody else has to agree with this, but I was struck by how much we share in deep and tacit ways our approach to education. And yet all of us fit uncomfortably in our contexts,” said Douglas Bennett, Earlham’s president. Bennett said discussions of how the liberal arts function in Saudi Arabia, for instance, "will knock me out of some stylized ways" of talking about the concept -- with parents, students and, yes, reporters.


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