How does the College’s commitment to faith, meaning and values prepare its students for a changing world? Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray explains. The following conversation is condensed and edited from a series of interviews conducted over the past year.
The College’s commitment to faith, meaning and values is expressed in the Strategic Plan that you initiated on your first day as president of the College back in 2008. Has any one idea from the planning process proven particularly significant?
What has most strongly resonated with me and with many people is the idea of the Elmhurst Experience. It has become part of the parlance around here. The Elmhurst Experience refers to the collective invitation we make to students to engage in early professional preparation and self-formation.
What do you mean when you talk about students engaging in self-formation?
Self-formation is about students coming to understand themselves in relation to a complex world. There’s a very social aspect to self-formation. Students work together to interpret, understand and reflect on shared and differing values. It’s much more than just navel-gazing. In self-formation, you change yourself and by doing so, you incrementally change the world. Our emphasis on self-formation is, I think, unusual in higher education at a time when so much attention is being paid to job preparation, cost and value for the dollar.
How does self-formation at Elmhurst connect to the kind of formation you participated in as a student in Catholic seminary?
In Catholic education, formation is a way of discerning a vocation through the systematic, experience-based exploration of beliefs and values. During my four years as a student in a Catholic seminary in the mid-1970s, I was involved in academic training, social engagement and prayerful reflection. That highly intentional process helped me think about what to do with my life in response to my own abilities and the circumstances around me. It’s interesting that, aside from Harvard Divinity School, the other academic settings that I subsequently encountered as a student [at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law] did not have personal formation, in the sense I’m using it here, as part of their raison d’etre. It was not their mission to help students find their way or discern a vocation. They were about truth-seeking and professional training, neither of which, in and of itself, is in any way objectionable. At Elmhurst, however, we believe truth-seeking and professional training are intimately bound up in the intentional development of our students as mature, thoughtful, ethical individuals. We like to use the phrase “leading with values” to get at this mission. Further, our concept of self-formation emphasizes the student’s agency. It places the responsibility for student formation on the students themselves, who, with our help and in light of the College’s core values, shape themselves in response to the world’s needs and opportunities and their own talents.
Should higher education be involved in the personal development of students?
It says a lot about our world today that one even has to ask that question. It suggests that there are alternative ways of education that are devoted only to preparing for careers—which, of course, there are. We believe, though, that Elmhurst College should not only provide opportunities for job preparation, service and other kinds of productive engagement with the world, but just as importantly, we should create contexts in which students reflect on their service and ask themselves questions about the world they’ve encountered and how they might best meet its needs as well as their own. Learning, in other words, is intrinsically ethical. We come at the student’s eternal question, “What should I become?” from the position of the liberal arts, which assumes the potential of human beings to enrich themselves spiritually, intellectually and morally by studying an exceedingly and increasingly complex world through the sciences and humanities, as well as in preprofessional tracks. That’s a very different focus than some of the strictly career-based approaches coming at us from the for-profit world, for example.
How does Elmhurst encourage the personal development of its students?
I like to say that we have the audacious ambition of graduating better people, not just smarter, or more skilled, people. It begins early on in a student’s time here with the Big Questions Orientation, which has the subtitle, “What Will You Stand For?” We try to stimulate in our students an awareness of their own values and start them asking questions about meaning and values in their own lives. We encourage that within all our activities. We want students to understand the values they come to us with, but also to critically reappraise those values over the course of their time with us. Next fall, we’re launching the President’s Leadership Academy, which will build on Orientation and allow some number of our students to follow a developmentally appropriate co-curriculum from first year to graduation that builds upwards from values identification to citizenship. If successful, we’ll expand the program to many more of our students.
Is there any tension between this focus on personal development and a focus on purely academic or disciplinary achievement?
No. In fact, attending to personal development is a precondition to students realizing the most they can from their discipline-based studies. Students who are cognizant of their values and are taking charge of their lives can choose career paths that are consistent with those values. They make better choices, because they’re better people.
As someone who has made a career in colleges and universities, was it ever made difficult for you to be a person of faith in higher education?
I’m always questioning my own religious constructs, so I feel right at home in higher education! In my experience, higher education, understood as an essentially humanistic endeavor, reflects and respects the spiritual dimension of students’ lives while challenging them to examine—and, if necessary, reject—the inherited verities of our culture and times. I personally feel that performing this kind of perpetual critique and reconstruction of oneself and the world is an ethical obligation, and it is what religion, at its best, does for whole communities. The assumptions and aims of the liberal arts and faith, as I have described it, are not so different as they may first appear.
What’s the value for students in attending a college that, like Elmhurst,
is rooted in a religious heritage?
It starts with a sense of community, of people working to engage a complex world. Because our United Church of Christ heritage is important to us, we understand faith to include, but not be limited to, religious traditions. Faith can mean a willingness to confront the world without ultimate answers in hand. Religious faith is a species of that. It utilizes religious language, rituals and symbols to order the world of our experiences, while subordinating all human constructs—moral, economic and political—to the great principle of universal compassion. Through adherence to our stated core values as a college, we encourage our students, as members of an ethically committed community, to explore their faith through whatever lenses they bring, and invite them to make the College’s core values a centerpiece of their personal growth.
How does an Elmhurst education prepare students for life beyond college?
Let me put to one side the accurate but practical response that we offer multiple opportunities for early professional engagement, advising, internships, and of course excellent academic preparation by an outstanding, caring faculty. I think what distinguishes Elmhurst graduates is their recognition that the complexity and diversity of the world is best addressed when they act on individualized values that are consonant with—not necessarily identical to—the College’s core values: intellectual excellence, community, social responsibility, stewardship and the importance of faith, meaning and values. Getting to those individualized values is a creative, not deductive, process. We contribute to our students’ maturation when we help them negotiate large social differences—not pretend those differences don’t exist, or are irrelevant to their lives.
By constructively engaging very different perspectives—be they religious, political, gender, geographical or sexual orientation, to name a few—our students become informed, self-critical advocates for certain values over others because they’ve seen the alternatives and consciously selected the ones they will operate out of. That can only be done if you’ve had the opportunity in college to dialogue with other people, maybe argue with them, and maybe be converted to their points of view. If you’ve had that kind of dress rehearsal in college, you’re better prepared to engage a complex world.
Conversely, I believe we would be failing our students if we pretended to be value neutral or if we approached their education as a commodity for sale. Thankfully, Elmhurst College is and has always been about making better human beings, or in the words of my presidential predecessor, H. Richard Niebuhr, promoting the “light of knowledge and the warmth of high idealism.”