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For the Love of the Liberal Arts


Megan Scott

Editor, Knox Magazine

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Laura BehlingDr. Laura Behling has written about everything from the woman suffrage movement to undergraduate research to body parts. She curated an art exhibition of World War I posters. She lived in an undergraduate residence hall for six years (after the four she spent as an undergraduate herself). In many ways, she is the embodiment of liberal learning.

Behling, who will join the Knox community as the College's next vice president of academic affairs and dean of the College in July, first discovered her love of the liberal arts during her years as an undergraduate at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Although she left that setting to attend Boston University, where she received her M.S. in journalism in the Program for Reporting on Science and Medicine, and then The Claremont Graduate School, where she received her M.A. and Ph.D. in English and American literature, those detours were required to prepare her for a life of teaching, scholarship, and service as a faculty member at a residential liberal arts college.

Behling first served as a faculty member at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, where she rose through the ranks and served as chair of the English department from 2006 to 2009. And though she left the liberal arts setting once again to serve as associate provost for faculty affairs at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, her heart still belonged to schools like Kalamazoo, Gustavus Adolphus, and Knox.

"My experiences as a student at Kalamazoo and as a faculty member at Gustavus Adolphus taught me in so many ways why a liberal arts education matters," she said.

So when Lawrence B. Breitborde announced last spring his retirement from his role as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, a position he has held since 1995, to return to teaching and research, an opportunity opened for Behling.

"Knox gave me the 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."

Behling finds the transformational possibilities of the liberal arts particularly evident in Knox's commitment to undergraduate research and creative work. "To engage undergraduate students as scholars asks us to reimagine the complete undergraduate experience, gives us the space to teach our students what early twentieth century U.S. author Zora Neale Hurston characterized as learning ‘how to poke and pry with a purpose.'"

She recognizes that with the growing national focus on higher education, there are a number of challenges that Knox and colleges like it face. "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 is a liberal arts degree a sure path to a job and career, a way to pay rent, a tangible return on the investment of tuition," she said.

"These challenges allow us to engage in thoughtful conversation and meaningful action around any number of questions, including are our curricular offerings forward-looking, dynamic, and innovative? 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."

Pursuing the answers to these questions, paired with her deep respect of the kind of opportunities a residential liberal arts college offers, are what compels Behling, as she says, "to do what I can as dean of the College to ensure a strong future for Knox."

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Printed on Monday, October 22, 2018