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Say What? 9.7.05

The path to critical thinking

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Despite the almost insatiable demand for graduates from brand-name engineering and business schools, small liberal arts colleges are more relevant than ever. That's the message from the new president of one of those schools, Rochester's Nazareth College.

"A good liberal arts education gives students the ability to look at a problem from multiple perspectives," says Daan Braveman, who became Nazareth's ninth president in July. A University of Rochester graduate, Braveman has a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and was dean of Syracuse University's College of Law from 1994 to 2002.

He joins Nazareth at a critical time in its history. Founded in 1924 by the Sisters of St. Joseph, Nazareth was a women's college until going co-ed in the 1970s. It now has about 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students and has gained recognition in US News & World Report, Barron's, and the Templeton Guide to Colleges. Its students have earned 27 Fulbright grants, among the nation's highest for a college of its size. And after 10 years of rapid expansion in its program offerings, the college just acquired 73 acres of land.

Braveman is passionate about teaching and hopes to have at least one class next year. He says he struggles with letting his students go on graduation day. "That is always a bittersweet time for me, graduation, because you see them come into class and you watch them grow. It is so exciting. I can't imagine anything more rewarding than teaching."

City: Nazareth is undergoing rapid expansion. Can you give us a brief look at its future?

Braveman: During the past five years, the number of programs we offered grew, as well as the number of students. And I think the college has not only been able to maintain its level of quality, but increase it. When the college bought this land, it literally doubled in size.

Now we are developing a strategic plan, and I would like to see Nazareth be a leader in liberal arts education. The college has always held to a high standard, but now I think we need to look forward at what that means and begin to lead the way.

Nationally, there has been a huge emphasis on business, economics, and engineering during the last 20 years. The MBA became the favored master's-level degree. Is a liberal arts education still relevant?

Oh, yes. I think we are going to see a strong liberal arts core combined with professional education. For example, if students want to become teachers, they would probably concentrate on a major like biology for the professional side and combine that with the core requirements for liberal arts.

Physical therapy is another example. They would pursue the professional training alongside the liberal arts. We're just beginning to offer a doctorate in physical therapy.

A third component is community service. Physical therapy students, for example, would fulfill their clinical work in community service.

What do the humanities offer that is missing in business school?

I came out of a law school, and I think the humanities are the best preparation possible for law or business. You can see how literature, the arts, or sciences all look at the same problem through different lenses. When we think of leadership skills, this is important.

The difference is between good thinking and critical thinking. Good thinking allows you to get from point A to point B. But critical thinking helps you decide if it's worth making that journey.

The University of Rochester may soon become the area's largest employer, and with that comes a lot of responsibility. What is Nazareth's commitment to the area?

I think we have an obligation to community service. Colleges have, by their very nature, a huge pool of resources. This is something I feel very strongly about. It is part of this college's tradition, and we let students know right away that we hope they will take it seriously and build it into their experience. And over 90 percent of our undergraduates are involved in some type of community service.

We also represent stability. We're not going anywhere, and we're not being downsized, so we're in the perfect position to partner with all types of organizations. And our students get to apply what they are learning in the classroom.

Another point worth noting: A large number of our students graduate and stay in the area. Plus, we have a large number of students who are returning to school as adults to further their careers here.

It is not uncommon today to see students coming out of college with $20,000 to $60,000 in debt for their education. With tuition reaching between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, how can low and middle-income families afford college? And if you come out with, let's say, a teaching degree, your earning potential is out of scale with your debt. What's driving up the costs?

It is very, very troubling. One of the main things is the increased demand for the high level of services colleges are expected to provide students with today. The better-quality dorms, athletic facilities, the counseling and career services, and of course, technology --- many of these things weren't here 20 years ago. When I was going to school, I don't remember there being a career center like we have here.

That's why we have such a strong commitment to financial aid. This is needs-based aid. Gifting, not loans. We have many students who are the first generation in their family to go to college, but the flip side to that is: first, we have to have that money in order to support students.

In some parts of the country, "college clusters" have been credited with spurring innovation and economic development --- Silicon Valley, Boston's I-Tech Corridor, and the Research Triangle around Raleigh, for example. We have seven schools right in this area. Why hasn't that had a similar impact on our region?

I would argue that it is happening. There are a lot of partnerships behind the scenes between the colleges, and there are a lot of partnerships between the colleges and business. I think more is happening than we know about, and I think we will see the kind of breakthroughs in medicine, science, and technology that we saw happen in those areas.

People look to you for leadership and inspiration. Whom do you look to for inspiration?

I think inspiration trickles upward, not downward. I'm inspired by the people I work with, students and faculty.

What was your last good read?

The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman is very insightful. I love fiction, so it is unusual for me to be so excited by non-fiction. But I think he is right when he says that technology will continue to level the playing field. And it means that a liberal arts education is once again excellent at preparing people for a culturally diverse world.

If you were meeting with President Bush this afternoon, what would you say to him?

I'm afraid it would be a rather unpleasant conversation. I am so discouraged by our politicians. Everything is spin. And the fact that we even talk in terms of "cultural wars" is a problem. We've entered into this era of intolerance when it is our differences, our rich diversity that is our strength and beauty.

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