APRIL 24-26, 2014
Talk of crisis is nothing new in debates about higher education in the United States—American colleges and universities have undergone numerous important transformations throughout their history. However, our current economic climate, coupled with the rise of MOOCs and other forms of digital learning, has put the problems facing higher education in the US into new relief. Indeed, while higher education is as important as ever to economic success, students and parents find themselves increasingly unable to afford the cost of a college degree, and many observers have raised new concerns about what students learn while pursuing degrees. In short, both the economic and intellectual foundations of US higher education, for so long taken for granted, are now increasingly in doubt. Where do we go from here?

This seminar explores the future of higher education in the United States, with a particular focus on the kinds of problems facing liberal arts colleges and other teaching-focused institutions today. It therefore begins with an examination of the problem of college finances, focusing on both the rapidly rising costs borne by students and families and the increasing difficulty that many institutions of higher education have in ensuring their own financial stability. What is responsible for the steadily rising cost of higher education in the United States? What are its consequences? And who, in the end, should pay for it?

However, the seminar also explores the purpose of higher education at a time in which the economic benefits of a college degree are for many people harder and harder to see. What is college good for? More particularly, what is the purpose of the liberal arts at a time in which the knowledge and skills that such an education imparts seems under-appreciated by employers and policy makers alike? Should the liberal arts continue to defend themselves as before? Or does our present predicament presage a re-thinking of what is at stake in the development of students’ intellectual skills?

Finally, in addition to examining questions of higher ed finances and the purpose of the liberal arts, the seminar also explores the increasingly important question of how teachers and administrators can better ensure that students learn what they teach. To what extent have the desired outcomes of a liberal arts education changed in the recent past, if they have changed at all? How can we align our goals with the teaching strategies currently available to us? Are we actually living in a time in which the internet threatens to upend what we believe only an in-the-flesh teacher can achieve? Or can a liberal arts education be made to work with the disruptive forces supposedly arrayed against it?

In surveying the range of problems facing institutions of higher education in the United States, the seminar hopes, in one sense, to help participants come to a better sense of the predicaments that occupy so much of the time of faculty and administrators working in colleges and universities today. At the same time, however, the seminar also tries to chart the outlines of possible futures for higher education in the United States.

Presenters will include Don Randel (former president of the Mellon Foundation), Donald Levine (Sociology- University of Chicago), Harold Wechsler (Education-New York University), Christopher Welna (President of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest), Ofer Malamud (Public Policy-University of Chicago), and William Pannapacker (English-Hope College).


  • Don Levine, Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 24-36, 177-203. [PDF] A re-evaluation of the foundations of liberal education based in the author’s career at the University of Chicago.
  • Daphne Koller, “The Online Revolution: Education for Everyone,” [YouTube] An argument about the power of online education to expand access to higher learning.
  • Don Randel, “The Market Made Me Do It,” Liberal Education 98.3 (Summer 2012) [Online] [PDF] An account of the effect of market ideology in higher education in the United States.
  • William Pannapacker, “No More Digitally Challenged Liberal Arts Majors: How to give B.A.’s in arts and humanities more career options without abandoning the life of the mind,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 18, 2013 [Online]. An argument about how to incorporate digital literacy into liberal arts education
  • Hanna Holborn Gray, Searching for Utopia: Universities and their Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 61-93. [PDF] An analysis of the challenges facing contemporary Higher Education in the United States.
  • American Council of Learned Societies, “Liberal Arts Colleges in American Higher Education: Challenges and Opportunities,” ACLA Occasional Paper Series 59, Introduction and “The Past: The Liberal Arts Mission in Historical Context” [PDF] An overview of the history of liberal arts institutions in the United States.
  • William G. Bowen, The ‘Cost Disease’ in Higher Education: Is Technology the Answer? Tanner Lectures, Stanford University, October 2012. [PDF] An analysis of the “cost disease” and its role in driving up the economic burden of higher education.


8:20 a.m. Shuttle leaves Hyatt Place Hotel for Regenstein Library (1100 East 57th Street)

8:45 a.m. Check-in, coffee

9:00 a.m. Welcome and Opening Remarks

Elizabeth O'Connor Chandler, Director, Midwest Faculty Seminar
Regenstein 122
9:10 a.m. Why Should the Future of Higher Education Be Different From the Past?

Don Randel, Former President of the University of Chicago and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Regenstein 122
10:25 a.m. Coffee

10:45 a.m. Back to the Future: An Historian's View

Harold Wechsler, New York University
Regenstein 122
12:00 noon Lunch (on your own)

Preparing Future Faculty Luncheon (for those taking part) 12:15-1:30
Bartlett Lounge
2:00 p.m. Breadth vs. Depth in Higher Education

Ofer Malamud, Public Policy, University of Chicago
Bartlett Lounge
3:15 p.m. Coffee

3:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. Participant Discussion Groups

Group A, (William Rando) Regenstein Room 207
Group B, (William Pannapacker) Regenstein Room 503
5:05 p.m. Shuttle leaves Regenstein Library for La Petite Folie

5:30 p.m. Reception and Dinner at La Petite Folie

8:00 p.m. Shuttle leaves La Petite Folie for the Hyatt Place Hotel


9:15 a.m. Shuttle leaves Hyatt Place Hotel for Bartlett Hall (5640 S. University Ave.)

9:30 a.m. Money, the Web, and High School Graduates: Challenges Shaping the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges

Christopher Welna, President, Associated Colleges of the Midwest
Barlett Lounge
10:45 a.m. Coffee

11:00 a.m. What are the Ends of Liberal General Education?

Donald Levine, Sociology, University of Chicago
Barlett Lounge
12:15 p.m. Lunch and Report on Discussion Groups

Lunch will be provided
Barlett Lounge
1:15 p.m. - 2:45 p.m. Participant Discussion Groups

Group A, (William Rando) Regenstein Room 403
Group B, (William Pannapacker) Regenstein Room 503
2:50 p.m. Free Afternoon (Shuttle leaves Bartlett Hall for the Hyatt Place Hotel)


8:45 a.m. Shuttle leaves the Hotel for Bartlett Hall (5640 S. University Ave.)

9:15 a.m. Stop Calling It Digital Humanities, Start Calling It Digital Liberal Arts

William Pannapacker, English, Hope College
Barlett Lounge
10:30 a.m. Report on Discussion Groups

Barlett Lounge
10:45 a.m. Participant Discussion Groups and Wrap-Up

Discussion groups will meet as one in Bartlett Lounge
12:00 p.m. Adjournment

(Shuttle leaves Bartlett Hall for the Hyatt Place Hotel at 12:10 p.m.)
12:30 p.m. Special Programs College Fair

Those taking part will walk together to Cobb Hall (5811 S. Ellis Avenue).
1:35 p.m. Second Shuttle takes College Fair Participants from Cobb Hall to the Hyatt Place

Audio Download, May 7, 2014