'The future is bright. The past is unpredictable.'

For its Reunion class meeting, 1950 arranged a trialogue on higher education by Hanna Holborn Gray '50, president emeritus of the University of Chicago; Mary Patterson McPherson, Ph.D. '69, president emeritus of Bryn Mawr; and Nancy J. Vickers, president of Bryn Mawr.

All three find American higher education in vigorous health, more serious, and stronger in its scope and diversity than it was 50 years ago. "I'd like to remind you of two proverbs," said Gray: " 'The schools ain't what they used to be and never was,' and the old Russian saying that 'The future is bright. The past is unpredictable.' There is always the tendency to think that education has gone to the dogs, but people often sift out what may have been imperfect in the past. I think of the emphasis, almost exclusive now, on diversity and the relative lack of it in our own day."

The presidents also are not worried for the short term about liberal arts colleges, which have been able to increase their endowments substantially and attend to deferred maintenance as a result of the strong U.S. economy. The pressing question is how the technological revolution will transform the delivery of education and whether smaller institutions will be able to keep up with the pace of knowledge, which promises only to keep growing. "Everybody wants their college to be at the frontiers of knowledge," Gray said, "but nobody wants it to grow. Nobody wants it to be in debt. Nobody wants it to change in its basic orientation. And that is the trick. ... Parents want to pay less for more. They want to have every possible option available to their children, with the opportunity to pursue all kinds of interests on country-club like campuses with very fine facilities. The notion of the stripped-down college or university, as it were, the warehouse college or university, the Staples of colleges and universities, is what I think the Internet universities are going to try to sell. The competition will be between two quite stark choices-the stripped down place that is there to teach you or the place of infinite possibilities that is there to embrace all the different aspects of your emergent personality and being."

Acknowledging that technology can enhance the quality of higher education in myriad ways, Vickers affirmed her commitment to preserving the quality of a highly selective residential liberal arts college, a quality she described as being accomplished "within a classroom, in an interaction, within a small environment that produces a community of learning and a community of intellect."

Universities and colleges can no longer set standards for secondary schools nationwide, Gray explained, in answer to a question from the audience. What they can and are doing is to work with teachers in local public school districts; students also can help by doing community service in schools. "All those people who complain about education, all the people who want much better teachers for their children, do not want their children to become teachers," Gray said. "And until that changes ... it's going to be very difficult."

McPherson, a vice president at the Mellon Foundation, works with liberal arts colleges across the country.One of her projects with a group of 41 institutions is to rethink foreign study programs so that students abroad are kept more in touch with home faculty and programs through new technologies. Collaborative arrangements are a promising way for groups of smaller institutions to leverage their resources in order to keep up with new needs and provide a broader array of programs. There is also growing interest in collaboration between institutions in the U.S. and in the former Soviet Union and in southern Africa. McPherson noted that Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore were among the earliest groups of very similar colleges in close proximity to share academic work. A recently formed group of 15 different kinds of institutions in five states, The Associated Colleges of the South, has put together a virtual classics department of 30 faculty that includes preparation for archaeological work.

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