Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

What Liberal Arts Colleges Can Do to Stay Relevant

Episode 31

October 20, 2020 29 minutes


Denison University President Adam Weinberg talks with EAB’s Thomas Fringer about how the pandemic has impacted Denison and about what Dr. Weinberg believes liberal arts colleges can do to stay relevant. Despite their reputation for teaching students to examine ideas from multiple points of view, solve problems, adapt, and collaborate, liberal arts colleges face growing challenges. Increased demand for highly specialized degree programs, stackable credentials, and certificate programs are forcing virtually all colleges to adapt to some extent.

Dr. Weinberg shares how Denison has embraced change through innovations like their Denison Launch Lab, which offers students access to specialized boot camps and skill-building experiences to make them stronger job candidates. Finally, Thomas and Adam discuss the three most important areas of focus that all higher education institutions have to commit to regardless of their mission, to survive the present challenges.

Education leaders everywhere are making fast, difficult, and bold decisions. This podcast episode is part of our Leadership Voices series, where we spotlight leaders who are meeting extraordinary challenges with vision and courage.


00:11 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours. Liberal arts colleges in America have always had a strong reputation for the way that they approach education, help students examine ideas from multiple points of view, solve problems, collaborate. But for some time now, the core values of liberal arts have been under very intense scrutiny. Students, society, everybody seeking specialized programs, stackable credentials, certificates directly connected to corporations and industry.

00:36 MP: On today’s episode, EAB’s Thomas Fringer sits down with Denison President, Adam Weinberg, to talk about the challenges facing liberal arts colleges. They’ll discuss the ways Denison has embraced changes in the industry through innovation, like Denison’s Launch Lab, to give students boot camps, skill-building experiences, to make them stronger job candidates. They’re also gonna dive into the three most important focus areas that every college, university should commit to regardless of mission if they’re gonna survive in the future.

01:04 MP: Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:13 Thomas Fringer: Hi everybody, this is Thomas Fringer, Senior Director with EAB. Welcome to this week’s episode of Office Hours with EAB. I’m joined today by Adam Weinberg, President at Denison University. Adam, thanks so much for joining me today.

01:27 President Adam Weinberg: Oh, glad to be here, thanks for inviting me.

01:31 TF: So we’re just about two months post-opening of Denison University, I believe you began your fall semester on the 17th of August. I noticed you recently wrote in The Hill about how colleges and universities can reopen safely and how Denison University did it. Do you mind talking to us and to our listeners today a little bit about how you went about this process and what the first few months have looked like for Denison?

01:58 PW: Oh, sure. And I think I half-jokingly and half-seriously said in The Hill piece that every time I talk about our success, it feels like I’m tempting fate, so we’ll just kinda start there, but things have gone well. We’ve been at this about two months. We’ve had fewer than 10 COVID cases on the campus, we tested the entire student body recently, wound up with no cases, so it’s been good. I would attribute our success to a couple of things. One is, I think like every other college out there, we just did a lot of planning. We really… We had access to top epidemiologists and research scientists who worked with a cross-organizational team that we put together over the summer. We follow the best science that’s out there, we worked across the college, we put good plans in place. But I would actually argue that what’s made this successful… The fall so successful is a couple of other things. One is, despite what you read in the media sometimes, students have been spectacular. Our students absolutely showed up committed to making this work. And they said over and over again, “Look, we wanna be with our… We wanna be on campus, we wanna be with our friends, we wanna be in classrooms with our faculty and we’re willing to sacrifice on a lot of other things to make that happen.”

03:03 PW: I also think our faculty and staff have been spectacular. We’ve had lots of rules, we really restricted students, inability to visit each other’s residential hall rooms, we’ve, for the most part, restricted students’ ability to travel off-campus. So there’s been a lot of restrictions, kind of a bubble around campus in some ways. I think I also may have mentioned this in The Hill piece, but I will also say as a college president, I am a product of the liberal arts. And when you are a product of liberal arts, you learn a number of things. One of which is a lot intellectual humility. You learn that at any given moment about any given topic, you might be wrong, so you might be constantly wanna seek out alternative data. You also learn creativity problem-solving, the way to work in diverse teams. Never in my professional career have I had to lean into my liberal arts skills, values, and habits more to be successful at something. We’ve been successful because everybody in our community, our students, faculty, and staff showed up committed to making this work and making the sacrifices we need to make. And I will finish by saying, and we’ve had a lot of luck. I think what we all know from watching campuses that it takes one super spread or one wrong event and you’re off down the rabbit hole.

04:16 TF: Well, I really appreciate you pointing out how in your career you’ve perhaps never leaned into your liberal arts background more than you have over these past few months. And I think that’s a perfect time to where I wanna spend the bulk of our conversation today talking about how liberal arts colleges in particular can rise to the challenges confronting them, and that are accelerated, accentuated by this pandemic. So we’ve talked about your piece in The Hill most recently, but in the prior few months, you’ve been writing quite prolifically about how the pandemic is going to shape higher education. You’ve identified some of the shifts coming to the industry in the wake of this crisis, and how liberal arts colleges in particular will be impacted but can position themselves to thrive. So the first question that I wanna propose to you on this particular topic is this long-standing question about, “Is a four-year degree worth it?”

05:12 TF: This has been something that different stakeholders have been asking for quite some time, but COVID-19 has really amplified this quite a bit. The experiences that students value on campus like the spontaneous connections, the community that forms, those are now jeopardized in this more virtual world that we’re living in and one you have to think about compliance to help safety protocols. How do you think, President Weinberg, that colleges and universities can demonstrate the value proposition at this time?

05:41 PW: Yeah, that’s such a good question. I would start by saying that I think we make a mistake thinking about higher education as a single industry. ‘Cause I think if anything, higher education’s always had distinct sectors and I think COVID is exasperating differentiations between different parts of higher ed. So if you’re talking about a community college or a large R1 or a liberal arts college or a more regional college university, we’re talking about institutions that do serve fundamentally different purposes. I would also argue that one of the real strengths of the US higher education system is the diversity of different kinds of institutions out there, which really serve the different needs and interests of students.

06:22 PW: I think for liberal arts colleges like Denison, your kind of classic, private, fully residential or almost fully residential four-year liberal arts education, we are being challenged. I don’t think the trends are new, but I think that what COVID has done is it has exasperated trends that already existed. But trends are kinda like water. As they move faster, they tend to cut deeper and they tend to combine in unexpected ways. So I do think we’re gonna be challenged. I think we’re gonna be challenged on the price front. There’s just gonna be fewer and fewer families out there, given the shape of the likely recovery we’re gonna face, who are gonna be either capable or willing to pay what they often perceive our cost to be, which may be very different from what it actually costs. We’re gonna be pushed on the value front. So it’s not just about price, I often talk about demonstrated value, which is what sits at the intersection of price and outcomes. And families are gonna really wanna know, “For the investment of time and money, what are the outcomes gonna be for my kid?”

07:23 PW: We tend to think incorrectly, to reduce that to careers, which I think is an important piece, but actually what families really wanna know is two slight variations on that. One is they want to know about life launch. “At the end of these four years, is my child gonna be fully ready to launch?” Which means, knowing what they wanna do professionally and launching it successfully into a career or profession, but it also means about having the emotional agility to deal with modern life, it means having the ability to live autonomously, all those kinds of things it takes to fully be an autonomous adult in a really challenging world. I think the other piece that families wanna know… We often talk about how many students succeed, but I think what families really wanna know is, “What’s the failure rate? If I send my child to your institution, what happens to those students who don’t take advantage of every opportunity or who don’t immediately find that faculty mentor? Is this gonna be a place where very few students fall through the cracks?” So we often say that we want 100% of our students to launch successfully. So I just think it’s gonna be about demonstrated value.

08:26 PW: I think the other challenge for liberal arts colleges is, I think before COVID, but exasperated by COVID, higher ed in general may very well go the way of the cable television industry. It’s gonna get unbundled and people are just gonna be much more willing and much more… And demanding much more education, how they want it, when they want it. They’re gonna be open to… They may be open to degrees that aren’t four years, they might be open to programs that are part-time, that are online, that are in a hybrid, that are blended learning. I just think people are gonna want more choices and at different times of their life. So I think on the flip side, liberal arts colleges are uniquely positioned to thrive at the back hand of COVID, but it’s gonna require us to just ask really deep questions about what our value proposition is and how we deliver on it.

09:17 TF: Yeah. When we think about price, when we think about demonstrated value, that of course brings to mind increasing competition in higher education, and it’s not just traditional universities as we’ve thought about them, but as you wrote in one of your pieces, alternatives to traditional higher education institutions, Google Career Certificates, for example. You wrote a bit about this. I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit more about what you see is the threat that Google Career Certificates and other non-traditional players in higher education pose to traditional colleges, and what you think higher education leaders might do and how they should think to keep college as a first choice option for students.

10:00 PW: Yeah. Not surprisingly, after I wrote that piece in Business Insider, I got a phone call from a friend who’s the chair of a computer science department saying, “What does this mean for places like ours?” I actually think that Google Certificates are really good for private liberal arts colleges. I think if you are offering students a more technical education that may be two years, three years, four years, then I actually think that Google Certificates is a threat, because it kind of begs the question, “If I can get from Google in six months what’s gonna take two years or three years to get at your institution and the outcome’s the same, why do that?”

10:34 PW: But for places like Denison, I would actually argue just the opposite. Because I think the trick for liberal arts colleges is to move beyond a conversation of “or” to a conversation of “and”, because I actually believe that across higher ed, too often we’re forcing students to make a false choice, a really false choice, between getting a broad-based education that’s gonna serve them well across their range, across their life course, but particularly across their professional lives, or a more technical education that allows them to launch quickly and successfully. And in fact, liberal arts colleges have the opportunity, as should all education, to do both.

11:09 PW: What the Google Certificates do is they allow us to say to a student, “Look, come to a liberal arts college, get a broad-based education that’s gonna serve you well. You’re gonna learn all the… Not just skills, but also values and habits that it’s gonna take to adapt across your life, across your professional career. And here’s some certificates that you can stack on top of your BA that may round out your education.” So as you and I have talked about before, I’m super interested in what people are calling Last Mile programs, those programs that close the gaps between what we teach in the curriculum and what students need to launch professionally. I think we need to close those gaps, but we don’t do it by retreating from liberal arts, we do it by embracing things like Google Certificates, we do it by using the entire 12 months. Students are only in classes 60% of the year, maybe a little bit more. How do we use the winter and summer months more strategically so that a great liberal arts education is a 12-month, four-year kind of proposition?

12:08 TF: These forces we’ve been talking about, so, questioning the value of college, demonstrated value as you framed it, the proliferation of alternatives, competitors that are non-traditional, it all comes back to the sense of best preparing students for what you’ve termed “life launch”. So we’re thinking about broad-based education, but also deep technical expertise in a particular area that will equip our students for future success in the workforce. I wanna spend more time talking about this idea of life launch, and I also wanna talk a little bit more about what Denison University is doing specifically. I understand there have been some recent announcements about your work that you are doing in this space, a new initiative that you’re standing up. Let’s spend a little bit more time here, and maybe you can tell us a bit about what Denison is specifically doing in this space.

12:54 PW: Yeah, we’ve been walking this path now for about six years, and we’ve done a lot of different things, but let me talk about three that I think are pretty exciting. One is, we took a look at our curriculum. We stepped back a couple of years ago and said, “We’re fully committed to a liberal arts curriculum, but we also think a liberal arts curriculum can have a pragmatic edge.” So our faculty kinda sat back and asked, “What are courses that we mostly already teach that we could put together in new and different ways that would still be rooted in the liberal arts, but will prepare our students to thrive with where the world’s going. And our faculty actually came up with 18 ideas, and we want to launch in a global commerce program, which is in some ways really our response to an undergraduate business degree, but more deeply rooted in the humanities and social sciences, a program in data analytics, a program in financial economics, in narrative journalism, health, exercise and sports studies, global health, and politics, and public affairs.

13:44 PW: So one is we just… We looked at our curriculum and just said, Are there different pathways through our curriculum that might give students a little bit more of what they need? The second is we launched what we call our Knowlton Center for Career Exploration. And without going into a lot of detail, the Knowlton Center was really built on a couple of principles. One is that we wanna reserve the semesters for our students to really focus on their liberal arts education, but we’re gonna really recapture January in the summer months. The second… And in those months, we’re gonna kinda close the skills gaps. The second is we’re gonna get students involved early.

14:16 PW: So the career exploration, and we talk about it not as career services, this isn’t about getting you a job, but it’s about helping you use some of your time at Denison to ask three questions, What kind of life do I wanna live? What kind of human being do I wanna be? How do people use careers and professions to become the architects of those kinds of lives? And third is, How do I use part of my time, at Denison, to start to develop the skills, the values, the habits and the networks, certain experiences to launch successfully? So the Knowlton center is getting students involved earlier in their Denison experience, so that they’re using a part of their time across the four years. It is very much based on relationships, connecting our students, not just with our alumni, but with business leaders and other folks throughout the Columbus region. So Knowlton Center was kind of a fresh look at how do we complement what we’re doing… One of the most interesting things that the Knowlton Center is doing, I think, is they’re doing a lot of work on student employment, like every other college with a lot of students working on campus, and now we’re asking, How do we make sure that every student who has a job at Denison that that becomes part of their career exploration, career preparation journey, and how do we just make small changes to our student employment for them to capture that?

15:22 PW: The last thing we do is the one you were alluding to that I’m super excited about, we announced our opening of what we’re calling the Denison Launch Lab, and this is really an attempt to capture for liberal arts students the last mile and upskilling spaces. So, the target audience is any student enrolled in a liberal arts college from the moment they matriculated that college, through their fifth reunion. Last mile programs are really programs that close those gaps between what a student might have gotten as a liberal arts student, as an English major or a history major or a philosophy major, and the few profession specific skills they need to get that first internship or job. And so the launch lab will be delivering really short one-week, two-week, three-week courses to close those skills gaps, and our intent is not for Denison to deliver those, but to partner with ed tech companies, entrepreneurs, business leaders and others who are already in this space and have really good programs, but often don’t know how to access to liberal arts students.

16:18 PW: The upskilling is at the other end. It’s a student graduates as an English major at Denison, they get a great job, they love their job, but they wish that they’d listen to their academic advisor and just taken that one stats or finance course so they can understand some things that are going on at work. They don’t quit their job, but the launch lab will be a place where you can go back and very quickly upskill and get that that very particular skill. And so that’s what we’re doing at Denison. It started with the curriculum, the Knowlton Center really pivoting… Capturing the 12 months, pivoting our campus culture and now the launch lab really making it easy for our students and students at other liberal arts colleges to close those skills gaps, either through last mile or upskilling programs.

17:00 TF: I’d be curious for your take on location, President Weinberg, I know that Denison is located 45 minutes, an hour or so from Columbus, Ohio, a thriving city and a much more suburban, quaint setting. So launch lab that you’re referencing, I believe, if I’m not mistaken, it’s sort of in Columbus, and I’d be curious to think about how you are thinking about opportunities to take advantage of location, of place now, how that under-guards, some of the efforts that are afoot and where you think unique opportunities might be for similarly situated liberal arts colleges.

17:38 PW: Yeah, so when I arrived at Denison almost eight years ago, one of the things I quickly realized was that our location was a real differentiator for us in a positive way. The first [17:50] ____ visited our campus, we have a beautiful campus; your quintessential, fully residential four-year liberal arts college, located on a beautiful hill with a big sense of community, large footprint, lots of fields in this kind of really quaint beautiful village of grandeur where there’s nice restaurants or coffee shops and all that stuff. But what was new was a new highway connected us to downtown Columbus, we are actually only 25 minutes now to downtown Columbus. And once the highway went in, most of the business growth or a lot of it has now come out our way in New Albany. So we’re within 15 miles of about 40 global companies. That combination of your quintessential, beautiful, fully residential community that’s also connected to the fastest growing city in the midwest, is huge for us. And the launch lab is in downtown Columbus- students will easily be able to go back and forth.

18:41 PW: With our data analytics program and our global commerce program, we have students working in and around businesses and other organizations in Columbus, so they’re able to do internships now. With COVID, one of the things we found is virtual internships. And so faculty are starting to think through, can we actually embed virtual internships into some of our classes, almost as kind of class projects? We launched something called the Red Frame Lab, which is our center for entrepreneurship and design-thinking. And students are now using design-thinking through a new program that we launched this summer when all the internships dried up called Red Frame Consulting, RFC, where students learn design-thinking, they work in teams on real world problem solving for businesses and organizations in the Columbus area.

19:23 PW: So it’s just, yeah. Our location is huge. And look, colleges are located in all kinds of different locations, and they each have their distinct advantages, but I think for us, our connection to Columbus is huge and it’s one that’s only gonna grow as Columbus continues to prosper in the ways it has. But it also required us to think differently, it required us to kind of… We traditionally thought about ourselves as not part of Columbus and so when I arrived, I started saying to our faculty we have this great city here, how do we leverage it? Not just supplement the liberal arts, but to really connect the liberal arts better to the kinds of things students want to be able to do when they graduate, which is a different question, the one that opened up a whole world of possibilities for us.

20:04 TF: I wanna shift a little bit, we’ve talked before, President Weinberg, about when addressing emerging challenges or long-standing ones, oftentimes colleges and universities will think about creating brand new initiatives, creating new support for students to use to address whatever the particular challenge might be, right, whether it might be preparing themselves for future career, so on and so forth. You and I have talked a little bit before about perhaps a way of thinking about it is universities and colleges often have a lot of these resources, a lot of the support already existing on campus, it’s a matter of helping to make it visible and navigable to the student body. I’d be curious for your take on, as you’re thinking about helping students prepare themselves for the future of work, as you’re thinking through navigating through some of these challenges that the pandemic has accentuated, how you and your team have approached making this all easier for your students to navigate so that they can get access to the things that already exist on campus, and that could really support them in their work.

21:14 PW: Yeah, so objectively, you can walk on just about any college campus in this country and be awestruck at the opportunity students have. It’s not that we don’t offer what students need, it’s too often that students don’t have the road map to be able to know how to take advantage of it. And too often, they don’t ever find that road map, or if they find it, they don’t really find it until their junior or senior year. We spend so much time and energy in this country preparing students to get into college, but then once they get in, we all kind of wipe our hands and say, okay, job done. No, no. Job just started. So I just think a lot of the work we’ve done at Denison in the last couple of years is about being much more intentional at helping students understand what that road map is, and then trying to connect them really early with mentors on campus who can help them navigate it, right? And so in my own view, and I think the Gallup data was really, really smart on this, I think whether or not a student finds a mentor, particularly a faculty mentor, is probably the single biggest differentiator or predictor on how much a student is gonna get out of college, and we know what happens for far few students, right?

22:20 PW: So we’ve spent a lot of time at Denison trying to increase the odds that students will not just engage with faculty during their first year, but actually find faculty and staff mentors. We’ve been much more intentional in talking to students about what their road maps and pathways are, we made it easier for them, for them to find those pathways, and then we’ve also just put things together in new and different ways, right? So I talked a minute ago about our new academic majors. What’s interesting is we launched seven of them, but we mostly did it by taking classes we’re already offering, we just put them together in new and different ways, which I think had two benefits. One is, I really worry that too many students who are in liberal arts colleges are actually not getting a liberal arts education, because one of the fundamental principles of liberal arts education is going wide across the curriculum, and students wind up double majoring, triple majoring, double majoring with a minor, and they wind up not going across the curriculum. So our new academic programs actually really embrace the liberal arts, they take students wide across the curriculum. But the second is, we’re actually managing to do that in ways that also, I think, does a better job preparing them to explore different career options and then be ready to launch professionally when they graduate.

23:26 TF: Can you talk a little bit, President Weinberg, about some of the long-term changes that you anticipate Denison will be making based on your experiences since the middle of March. We’ve talked a lot about ongoing initiatives areas as focus, but I’d be curious if we project out three, four, five years from now, what you expect might look even more different then than it does right now.

23:53 PW: Yeah, so I think you’ll see us focus on probably three or four areas. The first is one we’ve not talked about, which is keeping the college accessible and affordable to students. I just think that’s been a big project for us at Denison, we’ve double the amount of need-based aid we’ve given out the last couple of years, and by that, I don’t just mean the tuition financially, but I also mean really being much more intentional about what the financial stressors are that prevent students or make it hard for students to fully take advantage of their college experience and closing those as well, whether it’s increase in book budgets or having small grants available for students when they run into healthcare needs or whatever it is. So one is on the financial aid front, and I think every college in the country is just gonna have to do more to make sure that our colleges stay accessible and affordable to students. I think the second is, I think, given the diversity of different kinds of institutions of higher education, every college or university needs to be really clear on what its value proposition is. And for a place like Denison, that’s about the liberal arts, but it’s in particular about the relational piece in the liberal arts.

24:55 PW: So we’re gonna really focus as we have the last couple of years on doubling down and protecting the things that make a Denison education life shaping. So that’s things like having a full-time faculty, a world class faculty who are fully committed and dedicated to undergraduate students. It’s about focusing on mentorship and student faculty relationships. It’s about focusing on small classes that use active pedagogies and engaged learning. It’s about really taking advantage of the wide range of diversity of students on our campus, so our residential halls on campus becomes a design studio for students to learn to live and work across difference. So that’s gonna be a secondary focus, is not retreating from what we’ve been doing so well as a liberal arts college, but actually doubling down on it because that’s what makes a Denison education different from the kind of education you could get at a larger public or other kind of institutions, it’s what differentiates us.

25:50 PW: I think the third is what we’ve been talking about, which is within that framework, also really putting our flag in the ground to say, “We’re gonna do a better job than any other college.” Or at least we’re gonna aspire to, at helping students figure out what they wanna do professionally, and then making sure that they launch successfully. So if we can do those three things, if we can keep the college accessible, both from a tuition standpoint but also from a financial stressor standpoint, if we can really double down on things that have always made liberal arts colleges so life shaping, those relational qualities, that broad-based curriculum, being exposed to a wide range of people and ideas, and then give it a slightly more pragmatic edge by really focusing on what do students need to successfully launch, we’re gonna remain strong and mission focused.

26:36 TF: Yeah. What do you think is that risk for university and college presidents that underestimates the moment that we’re in right now, what would you share with them as advice or a perspective, given your past seven years at Denison University?

26:51 PW: Yeah. Look, this won’t come as any surprise to any college president. One of the interesting things about COVID is I’ve spent more time on the phone with college presidents over the last six months than I did during my first seven years at Denison, and in different configurations, the Ohio college presidents are talking more, liberal arts college presidents are talking more. And I think college presidents are attuned to this, I think we’re trying to help our campuses be more attuned to this, that hiring is not gonna go back to where it was. The Chronicle earlier last week I think, announced that 7% of all jobs in higher ed have been lost since March, and some of those will come back, but it is a deeply disruptive time. I think how people… Whether it’s students or their families but also employers think about higher education is changing. I’ve now heard from a certain number of CEO round tables, and one of the things I’m hearing CEOs talk about is that they’re not so sure they care as much as they once did about credentials.

27:45 PW: What they care a lot about is certification, What are the skills that students are gonna show up with on day one to be able to add value to my company? So I just think colleges can’t underestimate two things, one is, how rapidly things are changing, they’re not changing necessarily in new directions, but trends that were slow are now accelerating, but I think the second is that we have what we need on our campuses to address the challenges we face. We’re just gonna have to be willing to be a little bit more self-reflective in embracing change.

28:17 TF: Yeah. Well, I think that is a good place for us to wrap today, President Weinberg, thank you so much for your time and for offering your perspective on the challenges that liberal arts colleges in particular are facing in this environment. I appreciate the time. We wish you best of luck with this Fall semester and the rest of the academic year.

28:40 PW: Thank you. And thanks for having me on.

28:48 MP: Thanks again for listening. Next week episode is one you don’t wanna miss, when EAB’s VP of Partnerships, Tom Sugar is joined by a very special guest to talk through a bold new effort between EAB and a handful of two- and four-year schools in the Milwaukee area to erase equity gaps in higher education. Until then, I’m Matt Pellish for Office Hours with EAB.

More Podcasts


The Early Impacts of COVID-19 on Higher Ed

Carla Hickman and Dr. David Attis discuss the immediate effects of COVID-19 on higher ed, as well as…

4 Unique Leadership Challenges Posed by the Pandemic

In part one of this two-part discussion, EAB experts share four reasons why the coronavirus pandemic is a…

How Colleges Can Plan for and Adapt to Campus Crises

Learn how college administrators can use this crisis to strengthen leadership skills—and how schools can build greater organizational…