Chapter 10: Making Connections: How Strategic Education Reform Can Ignite Innovation and Build a Better Community
Posted on April 12, 2021Download as a PDF
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Even the most serious efforts, representing months or sometimes years of committee deliberations, have been known to die on the faculty floor for want of consensus. And that, in turn, can lead to apathy as future generations either avoid the question or end up settling, at best, for change at the margins.
The faculty at Connecticut College, where I serve as president, had this kind of experience some 20 years ago after an unsuccessful bid to reform a vintage curriculum. When I arrived in January 2014, enough time had passed that they were taking up the cause again with zeal. In fact, my first day on the job involved a meeting with two faculty leaders trying to guide the new reform through the stages of shared governance. Having achieved a major milestone in December, they wanted to maintain momentum and asked for my help. I saw right away that I had my first big assignment. Failure was not an option.
This essay is about the new curriculum that ultimately emerged from that effort, a program we call Connections. I want to tell the story of how Connections came to be, how it works, and how it has fostered a new culture of innovation at Connecticut College. But even more broadly, I want to consider how this kind of strategic reform, and the renewed sense of purpose it engenders, can help leaders navigate the challenges facing the liberal arts in what may yet be our most transformative moment in history.
It is certainly not an overstatement to say that we are living through a tumultuous time in higher education. It is a challenging time, as our sector is buffeted by ever stronger winds of competition and disruption. It is a troubling time, as we work to find the most honest and honorable paths to lead our institutions through the twin pandemics of coronavirus and systemic racism. And yet for these reasons it is also an important time, a time of promise, as we see the boundaries of college expanding with waves of new thinking about how we should be educating young people not just for employment but also for equity, for empathy, and for future leadership.
We see the boundaries of college expanding with waves of new thinking about how we should be educating young people not just for employment but also for equity, for empathy, and for future leadership.
Connections belongs to this new wave. The mission of Connecticut College is to educate students, as we say, “to put the liberal arts into action,” to produce leaders capable of addressing the complex global issues of our time. How should we be doing this today? That’s what our faculty wanted to know. And they set out to design a more holistic approach to higher learning that would prepare students for next-generation success.
Fortunately, there was a model. Connecticut College had undertaken its first bold experiment in integrative education already in the 1990s, with four new centers of interdisciplinary scholarship: international studies, arts and technology, public policy, and the environment. Like honors colleges, these centers allow select students to enhance their academic majors through a heightened program of interdisciplinary and practical study.
Over time, the centers came to define the excellence of a Connecticut College education, with high-achieving students winning prestigious academic honors and awards, post-baccalaureate fellowships, and competitive employment. It is not surprising, then, that our faculty looked to these programs—and more than 25 years of in-house market testing—to reimagine general education. And yet they also knew that the selective centers served just a small percentage of the student body. The challenge, then, was to scale their impact: to make a rigorous, intentional, and engaged education available not just to a select few but to all.
In May 2015, at the end of a deliberative, 18-month process, our faculty ratified a new program to be launched with the class of 2020. What they approved is not a new list of general education requirements. It is a four-year, integrative experience that obscures the distinction between general education and the major, between breadth and depth, by making them mutually dependent: Connections. There are no longer gen-ed courses to “get out of the way” when, as one faculty put it, “every course counts.” And the academic major no longer stands apart, when it gains relevance and purpose through tailored interdisciplinary study, off-campus learning, guaranteed internships, and professional development.
I will never forget that vote, one that should go down in the annals of faculty governance. The chair of the faculty introduced the motion by reading the name of every committee and working group that had contributed, asking them to stand and be recognized. By the time he finished, 80% of the faculty was standing. The visual testimony spoke for itself. The curriculum passed by an overwhelming margin. The next year, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Christian Johnson Endeavor Foundation awarded the College $1.55 million to support the development of Connections over three years.
Liberal Arts in Action
With a focus on experiential learning, Connections is designed to foster ethical development through new forms of global and local engagement. But even more importantly, it embraces an ideal that Susan Sturm has called full participation: it seeks to enable all students—whatever their identity or background—both to realize their full potential and to contribute to the flourishing of others.1
So how does it work? In year one, students begin with specially engineered first-year courses, not just seminars but also 100-level offerings that have been redesigned to foreground interdisciplinary ways of thinking. We call these “ConnCourses,” aptly named to represent a kind of runway for the integrated program. Students also pursue a world language, explore departments, and work with a whole team of faculty, staff, and student advisors, so that, by year two, they are ready to choose not just their major but that complementary element we call the Integrative Pathway.
The Pathway is the genius of Connections: a set of interdisciplinary courses and off-campus experiences organized around a central theme. By definition, it depends on staff from multiple departments and divisions. By design, it combines courses across the curriculum with real-world learning in the workplace, in the community, and across the globe.
The Pathway is the genius of Connections: a set of interdisciplinary courses and off-campus experiences organized around a central theme.
It begins with a gateway course bringing together sophomores from many different majors around a broad topic. There, students formulate a personally meaningful question to be explored over their remaining semesters. In year three, juniors expand that inquiry through off-campus study and guaranteed paid internships in the local community and abroad. And in year four, seniors complete and present a reflective project. Since 2015, the College has curated 14 pathways with topics ranging from entrepreneurship to public health to urban education to peace and conflict to creativity to global capitalism to data analytics to communications to food.2 Again, these are not stand-alone programs but avenues for interdisciplinary inquiry, integrating multiple modalities of thought and work.
If for students the pathways represent a means for channeling effort, for faculty and staff they offer new avenues for collaboration and fellowship. Each pathway requires the involvement of at least four people from distinct disciplines planning, teaching, advising, and assessing student work. This is a huge generative boost for the intellectual life of a liberal arts college. Forging bonds beyond departments, as one instructor noted early on, “makes us a stronger community.”
That strength was certainly evident in November 2019, when Connecticut College held the culminating event for Connections’ first cohort: the inaugural All-College symposium. Seniors in the class of 2020 showed how they had explored their questions through courses, research, jobs, community work, and global experiences. We heard from Teddy, a Government major in the public health pathway, who asked a question about what a multibillion-dollar healthcare company can do to bring greater equity to healthcare. After working in Johns Hopkins’ Hospital Communities Division for a summer, he completed a senior project examining access to dental care among underserved populations. He was accepted to an MPH program at Hopkins. We heard from Ken, a basketball player who majored in Economics, minored in Finance, and joined our entrepreneurship pathway. He integrated his interests in sport and business by working with two NBA basketball teams to explore the entrepreneurial mindset required for developing team rosters. We heard from Maryum, an International Relations major in our center for international studies, whose question about the ethics of drone warfare led her to Geneva, where she interned at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research to work on a project related to the regulation of drones for international security. The list goes on, with panels, poster sessions, installations, and performances.
It was a thrilling event, perhaps the first time in the history of the College when faculty, staff, and students were asked to come together to witness the outcomes of a Connecticut College education.
It was a thrilling event, perhaps the first time in the history of the College when faculty, staff, and students were asked to come together to witness the outcomes of a Connecticut College education. I remember a faculty member shouting with joy as he ran between concurrent sessions: “Connections works!” At the closing ceremony, a student commented: “Today was a monumental day for us seniors…a day for us not only to reflect on the opportunities and paths we have taken but also to be awed and inspired by the work of our peers.” The symposium showed, in short, the most powerful benefit of Connections: how it unleashes creativity, how it helps students discover their own curiosity and passion, and how it gives them the means to connect that passion to everything they do. Too often our curricula assume that students are making these connections when, in truth, they aren’t because we haven’t provided the structure. When we do, the results are spectacular. Students get off the hill, enter new cultures, tackle real problems, contribute to their communities, take on leadership. This is putting the liberal arts into action. Within three years, 94% of our first-year class said Connections was the main reason they chose Connecticut College.
The benefits to student learning are obvious, but Connections has also brought fresh perspective and meaning to a range of initiatives since its creation in 2015. To conclude, I want to suggest three ways strategic curricular reform can feed ongoing innovation and why that is so critical.
First, it gives purpose to planning. Strategic plans begin with mission, and the first place to look for how a mission is realized is in your philosophy of general education—how you seek to educate all students. At Connecticut College, making Connections, with its vision of a more distinctive, engaged, and just community, reanimated our mission and became the catalyst for a new strategic plan.3 And that, in turn, gave rise to a master plan, extending the concept of connection to the physical environment, and an equity plan, outlining the community’s ethical obligations. General education becomes, in this respect, generative.
Second, it informs capital expansion. An educational vision can shape the landscape. At Connecticut College, interestingly, most of the construction since 2015 has involved renovation, mirroring the curriculum’s adaptive re-use of materials. But the building projects also foreground the principle of integration, functionally connecting students, faculty, and staff across the College. Examples include our award-winning library renovation, with its strategically located academic resource center supporting excellence for all; two new centers for global engagement and career development, designed to allow every student to integrate off-campus work and learning into their course of study; and, most recently, a historic theater revitalization, designed to welcome both campus and region, professional and amateur, and to integrate research into every aspect of teaching and performance. The spirit of Connections is apparent throughout.
Third, it animates community. The raison d’être of residential colleges is to build better citizens, and that requires, again, a clear vision of how we commit to educating all students for equity, for empathy, and for leadership. At Connecticut College, two innovations emerging from the new curriculum have advanced this vision: an integrated graduation requirement in Social Difference and Power; and a new program in intergroup dialogue and anti-racist education, made possible by alumna and philanthropist Agnes Gund. In the end, the vision that animates our educational programs, our plans, and our physical landscape can be summarized in two words: full participation, the ideal of an environment where all people, whatever their circumstances, have the conditions to achieve their potential and contribute. This is the only way to ensure a just community. And without that, we cannot begin to face our current moment with integrity nor to navigate the acute challenges of this next transformational phase of our history.
Yes, there are reasons why colleges never get around to rethinking general education. But there are good reasons why we should. True innovation will happen, after all, only when everyone is invited to the table.
1 Sturm, Susan, et al. “Full participation: Building the architecture for diversity and public engagement in higher education.” White Paper, Columbia University Law School, Center for Institutional and Social Change (2011).
2 For a complete list of integrative pathways, see: https://www.conncoll.edu/connections/integrative-pathways/
3Building on Strength: A New Plan for Connecticut College (2016). https://www.conncoll.edu/media/new-media/communications/StrategicPlan_Revised_113016.pdf
4 For the Connecticut College Campus Master Plan (2018), see: https://www.conncoll.edu/offices/office-of-finance-and-administration/campus-master-plan/
To read the Equity and Inclusion Action Plan (2019), see: https://www.conncoll.edu/equity-inclusion/action-plan/