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Association of American Colleges and Universities - Educational Vision, History and Development, Programs and Organizational Activities, Membership and Financial Support

aac liberal diversity learning

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) is the national association that works to advance and strengthen undergraduate liberal education for all college students, regardless of their academic specialization or intended career. Since its founding in 1915, AAC&U's membership as of 2001 included more than 735 accredited public and private colleges and universities of every type and size.

AAC&U functions as a catalyst and facilitator, forging links among presidents, administrators, and faculty members who are engaged in institutional and curricular planning. Its mission is to reinforce the collective commitment to liberal education at both the national and local levels and to help individual institutions keep the quality of student learning at the core of their work as they evolve to meet new economic and social challenges.

In 1995 the AAC&U board of directors approved five priorities that guide AAC&U's work: (1) mobilizing collaborative leadership for educational and institutional effectiveness; (2) building faculty leadership in the context of institutional renewal; (3) strengthening curricula to serve student and societal needs; (4) establishing diversity as an educational and civic priority; and (5) fostering global engagement in a diverse but connected world.

Educational Vision

AAC&U advocates for excellence in liberal education as an equal opportunity commitment–to all students regardless of where they study, what they major in, or what their career goals are. Although liberal education has always set the standard for excellence in higher education, the content of a liberal education has changed markedly over time, and the educational vision and nature of AAC&U's programmatic work has changed accordingly. Since AAC&U's founding, however, liberal education at American colleges and universities has consistently fostered the development of intellectual capacities and ethical judgment and the attainment of a sophisticated understanding of nature, culture, and society. AAC&U believes that liberal education prepares graduates better for work and for civic leadership in their society.

As it has evolved over the last few decades of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first century, liberal education has come to place new emphasis on diversity and pluralism. In a board statement approved in 1998, AAC&U asserted that, "by its nature, liberal education is globalistic and pluralistic. It embraces the diversity of ideas and experiences that characterize the social, natural, and intellectual world. To acknowledge such diversity in all its forms is both an intellectual commitment and a social responsibility, for nothing less will equip students to understand our world and to pursue fruitful lives."

In the twenty-first century AAC&U members are working together to reinvent liberal education and stress both its analytic and practical benefits. Liberal education now involves first-year seminars and programs, newly revitalized and developmental general education curricula, topically linked courses and learning communities, undergraduate research, community-based diversity projects, online scientific experimentation, and advanced interdisciplinary studies.

This contemporary liberal education is both conceptually rigorous and pragmatic. Ideally it will prepare graduates to use the knowledge they gain in college and across their working lives in thoughtful, ethical ways.

History and Development

AAC&U's mission has consistently focused on advancing liberal education and defining the aims of a college education in America. First named the Association of Colleges (AAC), the organization was established at a meeting of college presidents in 1915 in Chicago, Illinois. Robert L. Kelly, president of Earlham College, served as its first president. Although most of its founding-member schools were small liberal arts colleges, from the outset, AAC has been composed of colleges and universities from all sectors of higher education, including public or taxsupported institutions.

In 1923 the association voted to admit new members and amended its original charter to read "College of Liberal Arts of" in the case of universities or other institutions that had several departments or schools, beginning its long history of including many types of colleges and universities among its membership. This aspect of the association distinguishes it from most other higher education associations.

Throughout its history, AAC has also consistently engaged the challenges of diversity in American higher education. In 1969 AAC released a statement on "Racial Problems and Academic Programs" asserting, in part, that "The nation owes a debt of gratitude to its minorities for giving a fresh and morally compelling impetus to the movement for restoring relevance to academic programs, not in any trivial or opportunistic sense but in the sense that the worth of an educational system is ultimately measured by the quality of the society it serves." AAC also launched its continuing Project on the Status and Education of Women, the first such office at a Washington-based association, in 1971. The project's first director, Bernice R. Sandler, coined the phrase "chilly climate" to describe the campus environment for many women and minority men.

Acting on recommendations of a blue-ribbon committee, AAC voted in 1976 to withdraw from all formal federal lobbying activities and dedicate itself solely to the mission of being the "voice for liberal learning" in the United States. At this time, AAC assisted in establishing the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities to work on federal relations on behalf of private or independent institutions. In 1995 the organization formally changed its name to the Association of American Colleges and Universities to better reflect the diversity of its member institutions.

In 1985 AAC issued an influential report to the academic community on "Integrity in the College Curriculum." The conclusions of this report guided AAC's work from the mid-1980s into the 1990s. The organization continues to work on issues of curricular coherence in the undergraduate experience through a variety of programs and initiatives.

Programs and Organizational Activities

All of AAC&U's work connects goals for student learning with institutional planning and practice. Through a combination of continuing programs and grant-funded initiatives, AAC&U provides resources and direct practical assistance to campuses working on improving undergraduate education. It also works more broadly to shape the national dialogue on central educational issues.

During the 1980s and 1990s AAC&U programs and initiatives focused on curriculum transformation and general education reform, undergraduate learning outcomes, re-forming college majors, faculty development and preparing future faculty, building faculty leadership for educational and institutional change, campus diversity, and global learning. At any given time AAC&U generally runs about ten to fifteen funded projects. The organization also runs a variety of meetings and summer institutes, including the Asheville Institute on General Education (sponsored since 1991 in collaboration with the University of North Carolina, Asheville). It also publishes several quarterlies including Peer Review, On Campus with Women, Diversity Digest, and Liberal Education, its flagship journal, which it has published under this title since 1959.

Signature AAC&U initiatives have included Greater Expectations: The Commitment to Quality as a Nation Goes to College; American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy and Liberal Learning; Preparing Future Faculty; Shared Futures: Learning for a World Lived in Common; and Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities.

Membership and Financial Support

Membership in AAC&U is institutional and open to all accredited colleges and universities in the United States. As of 2001 AAC&U comprised 700 member institutions. The association's general operating funds are furnished by membership dues and income from publication sales and meeting attendance. For major programs and initiatives, the association seeks grants from independent and corporate foundations and from the federal government. AAC&U has its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

ASSOCIATION OF AMERICAN COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. 1985. Integrity in the College Curriculum. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

ASSOCIATION OF AMERICAN COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. 1995. The Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

SCHNEIDER, CAROL, and SHOENBERG, ROBERT. 1998. Contemporary Understandings of Liberal Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

INTERNET RESOURCE

ASSOCIATION OF AMERICAN COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES. 2002. <www.aacu-edu.org>.

DEBRA HUMPHREYS

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