On our podcast, Higher Ed Now, ACTA recently interviewed Sean Decatur, president of Kenyon College, one of the nation’s most distinguished liberal arts colleges. President Decatur is a scientist by training, and previously taught biochemistry at Oberlin College and Mount Holyoke College. He joined ACTA to discuss liberal arts education, effective college leadership, and how his science background influences his approach to liberal education.
The interview was inspired by an article that President Decatur wrote titled “Why a Liberal Arts Education Is a Game-Changer for Scientific Leadership.” He argues that the dichotomy which is often imposed between science and the liberal arts is ill-advised, because mastery in science as well as in the humanities is essential for a well-rounded, liberal education. He points out that a successful scientist must possess the adaptability, communication skills, and interpersonal understanding that a liberal arts education instills in students.
To provide students with a rigorous education that equips them with these critical skills, President Decatur explained, “College needs to be student-centered. The work of students should be at the center of all that we do . . . and I want to make a distinction. That’s not necessarily student directed.” ACTA agrees that it is the mission of college leadership and trustees to uphold a high-quality education that will launch students into meaningful careers and informed citizenship. We believe, as President Decatur remarked, “that in the end, institutions that focus on academic rigor and academic excellence will be the institutions to which students will travel.”
President Decatur stressed the fiduciary duties of trustees and how important it is that the board is committed to the over-arching purpose of a college or university: “the board [must] understand the mission of the institution, and be committed to the mission of the institution . . . and have a good understanding of how we evaluate the success of the mission. A board has to think about its fiduciary duty also in the context of performance. Are we achieving the larger mission and living up to the larger values that we stand for? I think that ACTA’s work in helping to give frameworks and information to trustees to think about those larger questions is important.”