Q&A With New Knox Dean

Behling Answers Questions about Her Dedication to the Liberal Arts

February 08, 2013

Laura Behling On February 8, Knox College announced that after a nationwide search, Laura Behling would replace Lawrence B. Breitborde as dean of the College and vice president for academic affairs. Behling, who previously worked as associate provost for faculty affairs at Butler University, answers questions about her own dedication to the mission of the liberal arts, her experiences inside the classroom, and her first impressions of the College.

What drew you to this position at Knox?

Broadly speaking, I wanted to get back to a residential liberal arts college. My experiences as a student at Kalamazoo College, and as a faculty member at Gustavus Adolphus College, taught me in so many ways just why a liberal arts education matters.

More specifically, it's hard to ignore a school like Knox, with its long history of excellent academics, a real commitment to diverse perspectives and experiences, students who are doing thoughtful, interesting things in their education, and a campus community committed to success.

So, there was an opportunity to return to the type of school where my educational heart is, to serve an institution whose values and commitments I share, and to work with faculty, staff, and students who are engaged -- really engaged -- in the Knox iteration of a college education, and committed to its future. I really can't imagine a more exciting place to have landed.

How would you describe the culture of Knox?

In conversations with faculty, staff, and students, I found a community that is deeply committed to Knox and the education it offers. And it's also Midwestern -- quietly convinced of its excellence, proud of its students' accomplishments, honest, and with an unselfish work ethic.

What's the importance of a liberal arts education in the 21st century?

Let me tell you about one of the in-class conversations I had with my students in every literature course I taught. Near the end of the semester, I would put up big sheets of newsprint all over the classroom walls. As students came into class, I'd ask them what other classes they were taking that semester, and I'd write the name of each course on a sheet of paper. Then I gave each of them a marker and turned them loose with this question: how does this literature class intersect with/speak to/disagree with/put itself in conversation with each of your other courses this semester? You might imagine the puzzled looks on some faces, especially those carrying a load with a physics or mathematics class.But eventually, the paper was filled with really smart, thoughtful, and profound connections. And as a class, we were able to talk about the connections that they had seen among their courses.

At that moment, I knew that they had realized and articulated the transformation that happens in the liberal arts. Martha Nussbaum wrote in Cultivating Humanity (1997) "an education that is 'liberal' ... liberates the mind from the bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world."

Zora Neale Hurston, that great early 20th century U.S. writer says it a lot more plainly: she went to college where, she says, she learned "how to poke and pry with a purpose."

That this transformation occurs at Knox is clear. It happens in the special opportunities you provide your students in study away immersive opportunities and intensive research, scholarship, and creative projects. It's evident in the commitment the College has to serving local and global communities, to social justice, and to educating students regardless of their gender or ethnicity or financial means.

What are Knox's greatest strengths?

Knox is a school whose founders more than 175 years ago made a decision about who to educate, namely everyone. That commitment so clearly resonates today in a mission that is lived.

The academic program is first rate. From the intellectual care shown to students in their first semester through their senior year, to the special opportunities students have in intensive special academic terms, to the co-curricular opportunities students participate in -- these are all the hallmarks of a terrific college committed to student success.

And finally, schools like Knox owe so much of their success to its people, faculty, staff, and students who come together week after week, term after term, to challenge each other and support each other going forward, who are willing to share new ideas and responsibilities, and who represent so well, the ethos of Knox.

What are the benefits of cultivating undergraduate research at Knox?

Colleges and universities have long recognized student-generated research, scholarship, and creativity as the hallmark of an engaged and successful academic experience. The call to formalize students' curiosity inside and outside of the classroom has been heard and put into practice by so many faculty, who themselves are curious about the world.

The benefits of undergraduate research are potentially tremendous for student learning. Students report gains on a variety of skills, everything from design and hypothesis formation to information literacy and computer work. They also increase their sense and practice of professionalism because of the opportunities they have to work on publications or presentations with faculty mentors. In short, undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative opportunities signal deep engagement with learning and a commitment to collaborative learning between faculty and students. To engage undergraduate students as scholars asks us to re-imagine the complete undergraduate experience, gives us the space to teach our students how to poke and pry with a purpose, and asks us, finally, to formalize our own and our students' curiosity with the world.

What challenges are there in assuming the position of Dean of the College?

All of higher education is seeing massive changes, what we now talk about as "disruptive forces": technology that allows for online, remote courses; increasing costs that affects student access and completion and can also shorten the traditional four years to degree. And so, even though many people know that the liberal arts have value, they also wonder if the liberal arts have enough value for students anymore, by which they mean a sure path to a job and career, a way to pay rent, a tangible return on the investment of tuition.

Knox is not immune to any of these challenges. But these challenges do allow us to engage in thoughtful conversation and meaningful action around any number of questions. Are our curricular offerings forward-looking, dynamic, and innovative? How can we ensure that all students have opportunities to engage in curricular and co-curricular programs? Are we providing appropriate academic support for students? How are we responding to the significant global challenges for higher education to ensure that Knox maintains its commitment to and practice of academic excellence? And where are the opportunities for Knox to be even better than it is?

But in all of these challenges, there are also remarkable opportunities -- to learn about the terrific work of Knox faculty, staff, and students; to be in conversation with smart, creative people about new opportunities; and to do what I can as Dean of the College to ensure a strong future for Knox.