SAS Dean’s Blog

The Liberal Arts in an Expanding World

Rebecca Bushnell

Rebecca Bushnell

Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of English

In past postings on this blog I have looked at a number of factors that will play a part in the future of the liberal arts. I would add one final item to this list: the potentially profound impact of what I see as our infinitely expanding world. I referred earlier to the changing composition of the faculty and student body at elite institutions such as Penn. Today, some 14% of our student body comes from outside of the United States—and our faculty is perhaps even more diverse. At the same time that we now bring to our campus people from around the world—who bring with them an extraordinarily rich variety of perspectives—we know that we must also prepare our students for success in that world, within and beyond the borders of their own countries.

Globalization has become a critical and at times controversial issue for U.S. universities, which increasingly are seeking to establish an international presence and to compete for students internationally. For U.S. institutions, much of that expansion has been centered in the Gulf States, where the emirates have been investing large amounts of money to build Western-style educational enterprises. Most of these investments have been in professional education. Qatar’s Education City boasts a branch of the Weill Cornell Medical College, Carnegie Mellon (for business and computer science), and Georgetown (foreign service program). Singapore is also a hot spot that includes programs from MIT (engineering) and Chicago (business). There have also been initiatives to export the U.S. liberal arts educational model abroad. New York University was first in Abu Dhabi, and now Yale is launching a liberal arts college partnership with National University of Singapore. Programs such as these aspire to combine the breadth of the Western liberal arts college with the traditional rigor of Asian education.

I look forward to seeing how these experiments turn out. For our part, Penn has chosen not to take the approach of developing a satellite campus elsewhere, and in my opinion that is the right decision for this time. Our focus at present is on sustaining the values of the education we offer in West Philadelphia and remembering the things that make a Penn education special: our intellectual community, the presence of our twelve schools, our diverse student body, and our urban location, which can’t be duplicated overseas.

New technologies will, without a doubt, allow us to reach students and to expand faculty collaborations in ways that we have never done before. But as these technologies create new opportunities to expand our virtual campus, that place that is our physical campus will become even more important, as a unique community that shapes the totality of a Penn educational experience.

At SAS we are integrating global perspectives into our campus community through a variety of programs and initiatives. In our strategic planning we have given particular attention to the ever-increasing scale of social, political and economic interaction among peoples of different cultures—internationally as well as here in the United States. Our Center for the Advanced Study of India and the new Center for the Study of Contemporary China are hubs for scholarship and collaboration, engaging faculty and students from SAS and across Penn in these important countries. Our area studies programs and centers, covering parts of the world ranging from Africa to South and East Asia to the Middle East, are critical resources for teaching languages and promoting understanding of other cultures. Our humanities faculty are developing nuanced perspectives of the complexities of the global world, achieving distinction, for example, in diaspora studies, where we have attracted leading scholars of the Asian American, Latino, African-American, and Caribbean experiences.

We are also focused on teaching students who are fully prepared to enter a world where global issues present both pitfalls and opportunities. The School’s joint degree programs with Wharton—the undergraduate Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business and graduate Lauder Institute—have been leaders in the integration of management education with cross-cultural and language proficiencies. Every year, our students pursue countless opportunities in other countries: students in our Vagelos Life Sciences and Management program, for example, who do internships in pharmaceutical firms in India; or students of Classical Studies working with faculty on excavations of ancient Mycenaean sites on the coast of Greece. We encourage participation in a range of study abroad options and work continuously to improve the scope and quality of these programs. And the College’s general education requirement in cross-cultural analysis ensures that all of our undergraduates are introduced to socio-cultural systems outside the United States.

I believe that at the School of Arts and Sciences, we are uniquely positioned to meet the demands of our expanding universe. The very nature of the liberal arts education lends itself to global collaboration. We can bring the expertise of all the disciplines—across the humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences, as well as the knowledge of the past and the present—to bear on the daunting undertaking of solving the world’s most pressing problems.