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Mary Baldwin’s Strengths Shine During Critical Period for Higher Ed

From the President’s Desk

Higher education — its value and role in society — has risen to a level of public scrutiny and debate unprecedented in my career. Books, articles, research reports, and opinion pieces have inundated the mainstream market. They have explored every conceivable facet of the issue — or so I sometimes think, until the next morning when a new crop of articles appear in my inbox.

It is my job to make sense of the turbulent landscape of higher education and to ensure that MBC continues to be “ever ahead” (to use the motto adopted by the Campaign for Mary Baldwin College) in empowering our students to become the confident, compassionate changemakers that our world needs. Last summer I read dozens of books and hundreds of articles, and I continue to pay close attention to the ongoing debate through daily reading and participating in national higher education organizations along with other college presidents.

Societal change on a global scale is prompting seismic shifts in higher education. Turbulence in the higher education market is driven by shifting demographics, changing patterns of attendance, rapid advancement in technology and online learning (including the massive open online courses, or MOOCs, that have received so much media attention), inequalities in K-12 education, and other forces over which individual colleges have no control. No college is immune from the pressing reality of these trends.

Many voices in the public and political arenas have questioned the value of a college education, especially as average debt loads rise nationally and graduation rates fall. Political leaders are calling for increased accountability, and the public debate pits job skills against the liberal arts, accessibility against academic excellence. But these are false dichotomies. It is clear to me that higher education has become a public necessity in ways it wasn’t even 20 years ago. Recent studies document the importance of having a degree to find one’s first job and then build a career, and — less tangibly — to build a purposeful and satisfying life.

“Liberal education” is the term used in higher education circles to refer to a meaningfully integrated education that — in the words of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) — prepares students “to deal with complexity, diversity, and change” through knowledge acquisition that is both broad and deep. Liberal education is also described as one that helps students develop “a sense of social responsibility as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills in real-world settings.”

A survey of more than 300 businesses conducted for AAC&U recently confirmed that employers are most interested in hiring people who think critically and creatively, analyze and synthesize information, communicate effectively both orally and in writing, and have the capacity to solve complex problems and make ethical decisions. Leadership skills, the ability to work collaboratively, and the habit of reflecting on lessons learned through putting theory into practice serve one well in every stage of a career. Such attributes align perfectly with the outcomes of a liberal education.

This is exactly what Mary Baldwin College does exceptionally well, not only through the traditional liberal arts and sciences disciplines like English and history, but also through newer programs such as social work, Health Care Administration, and Business for a Sustainable Future. The transforming power of an MBC education is manifest in our adult and graduate programs just as surely as in the Residential College for Women.

Mary Baldwin College offers distinct advantages beyond the demonstrated benefits of higher education in general. Of the scores of recommendations for academic best practices put forth, MBC already has many pieces in place: our college-wide learning goals; our multi-step cumulative learning through reasoning, research, and capstone projects; our holistic emphasis on leadership and civic engagement in a global context; our first-year gateways.

This past October, we publicly launched Ever Ahead: The Campaign for Mary Baldwin College, an effort that began in 2005. This campaign supports historic strengths and unfolding initiatives, including the Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences. I encourage you also to visit the award-winning website, www.mbc.edu/everahead, where you can read more personal stories and watch a compelling video that references the courage of our founding and the promise of the future.

What will Mary Baldwin do in response to the permanent shifts and ongoing turbulence in the higher education marketplace? We will do what we have done for 171 years. We will liberally educate our students and prepare them for the challenges ahead. We will call upon the collaborative creativity of our faculty and staff, hold fast to our core values, and draw upon the entrepreneurial spirit that is such an essential component of the Baldwin DNA. MBC’s strengths lie in our long history of personalized, transformative liberal education, particularly for women; in our exceptional tradition of innovation; in our insistence on inclusive excellence; and in our remarkable spirit of community. We cherish and will build upon these foundational strengths as we create our thriving future for decades to come.