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Doubling down on the liberal arts

A Q&A with José Antonio Bowen

Goucher College President José Antonio Bowen recently renewed his contract with the college, signing on for another five years. To mark the occasion, Goucher Magazine sat down with Dr. Bowen to talk about his eventful three years as the head of the college, where he thinks Goucher’s headed, and what he sees for the future of the liberal arts.

Goucher Magazine: I know you’re always focused on the future, but I wanted to take a moment at the beginning to look back at the past three years and see what you think have been the major changes or major accomplishments from your first three years.

José Bowen: For accomplishments—look at what we’ve achieved with the Goucher Video Application, and the new curriculum, and the new residence hall. They are clearly three big projects that have changed the nature of the game for us, but we’ve also increased the diversity of the students, staff, and faculty..

GM: And the changes?

JB: In some ways, the first three years have mostly been about the biggest disruption in college enrollment nationally—in finances, in the business model. You just can’t take your eye off enrollment—there are fewer students going to liberal arts colleges, and the competition for those students is fierce.

GM: How is Goucher responding?

JB: Despite the national decline, we have actually increased our class size over the last couple of years. We are gaining market share, increasing enrollment and holding our discount rate fairly steady—it is amazing. Most liberal arts colleges are under-enrolled.

GM: So are we out of the woods?

JB: The short answer? No. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are moving swiftly in the right direction.

Look, every college president is worried about the budget. They are worried about the sustainability of the higher education financial model that relies on raising tuition every year. It’s going to be that way for a while until we rethink the price and the business model. It’s going to take some time for Goucher to adapt to the new reality of higher education—it’s a large ship to turn, but I’m confident we can do it.

GM: How did this thinking play into your decision not to raise tuition?

JB: Yes, for the first time in Goucher history, we did not raise tuition. That should probably go on the list of accomplishments. It may seem contradictory after talking about all the financial pressures on colleges, but the decision to freeze tuition was about students. It was about affordability and access. We can’t just keep hiking the cost because that is what is always done. We went through several hundred budget models to make sure we were not putting the extra financial burden on our students.

GM: Let’s talk about the Goucher Video Application. That was the first big, splashy thing that signaled that we were going to do things a little differently here. That seems to have worked out.

JB: It has and we didn’t have any idea how big it would be. We have more than 50 kids a year applying that way. Is that good? We don’t have anyone to be measured against.

GM: There ended up being a large percentage of students of color who applied that way, right?

JB: There did. In fact, the first-year GVA pool was 57 percent students of color. That’s much more diverse than our normal pool—or the normal pool for any of our peers. In that sense, it’s helped us increase student diversity on campus.

GM: So you would call it a success?

JB: For sure. In addition to diversity, I think we’ve showed there’s a different way to search for potential. It’s not zillions of kids, but that is okay. The fact that these students have come to Goucher and are doing well is what matters. The students who applied by video are some of our best students. They have some of the highest GPAs and are some of our great campus leaders.

GM: You mentioned the new residence hall, and along with the other building projects going on around campus, that’s probably one of the most visible signs of change.

JB: There is definitely a lot going on. Part of that is because we had to address some housekeeping issues first before we moved forward. When I got here, students were living in triples in Stimson—some of our alums may remember them as double rooms—with no Wi-Fi and no AC. That had to change.

GM: It had become a bit of a joke among students.

JB: Right. So we had to start there. In order to replace Stimson, we needed to replace the three big functions of that facility—the residence halls, dining, and Hillel.
Each project gave us an opportunity to go beyond just replacement. In all three cases, we asked the question, “Without spending any more money, could we replace something old with something better that does more?”

GM: And?

JB: Well, for example, our Hillel is moving to the Goldsmith Interfaith Center, which gives us the opportunity to add Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist prayer rooms, and integrate all of these next to the chapel, where we will fix the roof and make repairs, but also improve the chapel as a space for all faiths.

GM: For residence halls, the big talk is about the new first-year village.

JB: Right, and a lot of the ideas that went into Pagliaro Selz about the way the design of the residence hall can influence student learning—maximizing student interaction, for example—are starting to bear fruit.

GM: This sort of combination of psychology and architecture is interesting. To push better learning through seemingly unrelated things, like where the bathrooms in the dorm are located.

JB: My next book is going to be about the 3Rs and how we improve learning outside of the classroom using design and behavioral science. And we’re actually doing at lot of this already at Goucher. The dining hall, the residence hall, and the new curriculum are all applications of new research and design thinking.

They are innovative, but they are based on science and data, and we spent less money in Pagliaro Selz than we spent per bed on Welsh or Sondheim. I’m proud that we’ve rethought how to do all these things and we’re getting more value out of every dollar. And the real value that we’re getting is enhanced student learning.

GM: So what’s the next big project?

JB: The next and most expensive project will be the new Science Research Center, which builds onto Hoffberger and will include new biology and chemistry labs.

GM: Are you planning it with the same approach that you took to the first-year village?

JB: Yes. Our science faculty have been visiting other colleges to look at the different way new labs are being designed.

We know a lot more now about how architecture affects learning. Students don’t want to study in their rooms and we want them to work in groups anyway, so the new science center is going to have lots of learning spaces where faculty and students will bump into each other. Open and shared spaces end up being really important.

GM: When I think back to my college dorm, I doubt this sort of thought went into it.

JB: Dorms used to be like barracks. They were a place to sleep, and maybe they had a lounge, but now we think of the living spaces as a learning environment. For us that means all 3Rs: relationships, resilience, and reflection. It turns out, for example, that better relationships improve your working memory capacity, and poor relationships diminish it.

GM: You think relationships have that big of an impact on academics?

JB: The science proves it. If you’re worried about a break up, or you’ve got trauma in your life, you’re using brain cells to worry about all that stuff. That’s fewer brain cells you have to think about chemistry. If you are stuck in your room, you feel isolated and alone. With healthier relationships, you feel like you’re part of the community, you feel safer and more confident. You’re more likely to go to class and take intellectual risks.

GM: Which brings us back around to the liberal arts.

JB: Yes, the liberal arts have always been about both a great career and a better, healthier, and rewarding life. There are both personal and economic benefits of learning how to learn and being self-directed.

GM: You are committed to the liberal arts philosophy. Why do you think it is so important?

JB: Because it’s almost impossible to teach current students the information they need for the jobs of the future—because those jobs don’t yet exist. There were no social media directors ten years ago. The jobs of the future are going to take place in a learning economy, so our graduates will have to learn new stuff to take those new jobs.

GM: You don’t often hear a college president think that way.

JB: Don’t get me wrong. We are training students for both lives of purpose and careers. It’s just we are giving them a whole tool box instead of just one tool. We believe that students will be prepared for the jobs of the future by being a liberal arts graduate. That’s why I am so thrilled with the new curriculum and its focus on complex problem-solving. This is a unique new approach in American higher education and I really think it’s going to work.

GM: How is this different from what other colleges are doing?

JB: A lot of other colleges are adding major programs in nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, criminology, hospitality, or cyber-security to attract students. We’ve decided, however not to add more pre-professional majors.
Goucher has taken a position that we are doubling down on the liberal arts. We are committed to staying focused on the liberal arts and very few other places are.

GM: How does that work in practice?

JB: It is all about the new curriculum, which is already proving to be popular with students and faculty, and it’s distinctive. We have put our energy into creating a curriculum that is centered in the traditional liberal arts and also clearly connected to engaged student learning and parent desires for a return on investment. It is a true liberal arts curriculum, but redesigned for the 21st century.

GM: This idea of the jobs of the future…I’m thinking of computer programming—if I had gotten a computer science degree 20 years ago, I could come out with the best skills in programming whatever language was in vogue at the time, but that wouldn’t have been enough to remain in that profession. There’s an element of continued learning, the lifelong learning that you’re talking about, I guess.

JB: Computer science in some ways is the best example of that because on the one hand, we are going to need computer scientists for a long time, but computer scientists clearly also need to be self-directed lifelong learners. We have a magnificent computer science major, because it is focused on thinking and creativity. We recognize that the technology shifts every semester, so we are not trying only to teach the i-gadget of today. Whatever you study in college may be obsolete and out of date by the time you graduate. Which is okay, as long as you keep learning the next thing.

GM: It’s hard to avoid the fact that technology is accelerating every area of our lives.

JB: Acceleration is indeed the theme. I think of my own chemistry degree and think, “Wow, the kids are doing stuff in the first-year labs that I had never even heard of.”

Meanwhile, we all carry around a device that can access unheard of amounts of information, and computers are only going to get better and better at storing that information. So people will have to be better and better at asking questions because that becomes the limiting factor. If you don’t know how to ask the right question, and you don’t know how to interpret the answer, then all that information is useless.

GM: We talk a lot about that in relation to the Internet—there’s more and more information out there, but you need to be a more informed consumer of that information to separate the good from the bad.

JB: And that is a prime example of what we are trying to do with our curriculum. The ability to discern, to analyze, to think for yourself, which has always been part of a Goucher education, is becoming ever more important because there’s more information, and it’s more bad information as well as good.

People will also need to be better at integration, and colleges have to learn this too. We have separated dining, housing, and athletics from classes. One class doesn’t connect to the next class, the general education requirements don’t connect to the major.

Our new curriculum is all about connecting the general education and the major. It’s all about integrating, about having developmental growth over four years. Those are all things that liberal arts colleges have talked about, but rarely actually implemented.

GM: There’s also this drive toward inclusiveness, toward equity. Does the new curriculum address that?

JB: We are working every day to build a more inclusive environment. Frankly, if the country wants a more inclusive economy, then it has to provide the kind of education that levels the playing field. I’m convinced that’s not more content, because you can learn content from your phone or your computer—if you know how to learn. That’s not been the premise of most education. That’s a place we could actually level the playing field.

GM: There are going to be people who read this and say, “Oh, they’re dumbing it down, it’s not going to be as rigorous as it was when I went to Goucher.” How do you address that concern?

JB: We are sticking with the liberal arts. We continued with the two semesters of foreign language. We require study abroad. We require three semesters of writing, two semesters of data analytics. I would argue that we’ve just put into place one of the most rigorous curriculums in the country and most rigorous liberal arts curriculum. I think that we can make the case that we are focused not on input, but on output, and that we are maintaining the highest standards. There is no more rigorous academic curriculum that’s being put into place than the one Goucher’s just approved.

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