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Perspective 100: Building Character

Insiders Guide To CollegeA conversation with four Jewish college presidents on the meaning of a university education and the role of religion in campus life.

Have the humanities outlived their usefulness in the global economy, or are the arts, religion, philosophy necessary to help explore what it means to be a human being?

Dr. Amy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: The search for meaning is eternal. As human beings struggle to find their place and purpose in today’s complex world, those fields of study that wrestle with fundamental questions about what it means to be human will grow ever more relevant. One needs only to recall Job’s quarrel with God, Hamlet’s metaphysical dilemma, or the Joad family’s struggles in The Grapes of Wrath. In fact, one could argue that John Steinbeck’s masterpiece has brought readers closer to the lived reality of the Great Depression than any encyclopedia entry or statistical study.

The ideal education embraces knowledge for both its intrinsic and its instrumental value. The world needs engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and other specialists to find ways to meet the challenges facing humanity, and it also needs humanists to study the meanings of their solutions and translate them into poetry, novels, art, and new ways of thinking.

Dr. Scott Cowen, President, Tulane University, New Orleans: The humanities are critical in college education—central to a student’s ability to think, to develop a sense of self, and to function successfully in the world. They form the bedrock of a truly educated, aware, and socially minded individual.

Lawrence S. Bacow, President, Tufts University, Boston: As a society, we can only address issues such as the tensions between fundamentalism and modernity, ethical questions regarding reproductive medicine, and how we utilize information generated by the sequencing of the human genome if we draw on the wisdom and perspective the humanities provide. And so at Tufts we are investing in the humanities; we’ve just opened a new humanities center.

How should colleges lessen students’ financial burden while maintaining the quality of experience?

Dr. Amy Gutmann: The single best action that colleges can take is to bolster need-based financial aid. Over the past two decades, a proliferation of merit-based scholarships that disproportionately favor students from higher-income families has placed college outside of the range of affordability for many students. High-achieving students with unlimited potential frequently have limited options. We can—and must—ensure that the most talented and hardworking students from all socioeconomic backgrounds can become leaders who serve all sectors of society and bring our democracy closer to realizing its potential.

Penn is one of the few private “need-blind” universities, which accept students based solely on academic achievement regardless of financial means. This year, we are increasing our financial aid budget by 15% and offering grants rather than loans to all undergraduate students receiving financial aid, all the while posting the lowest tuition increase in more than forty years.

Dr. Scott Cowen: Keeping education as affordable as possible while not compromising quality is one of the most challenging and important responsibilities of academic administrators. One way Tulane approaches this dual challenge is by maintaining a robust financial aid effort in which approximately 80% of our students participate.

Dr. Marjorie Hass, President, Austin College, Sherman, Texas: Even during difficult financial times, colleges must seek ways to invest and grow those areas that truly distinguish them from other institutions. At Austin College, we focus our efforts on study abroad and global learning, offering semester, year-long, January Term, and internship programs, as well as service opportunities in Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Pakistan, Peru, and Russia. Last year we achieved a participation rate of 80%, among the top in the nation; and we’ve recently adopted a faculty- and student-initiated proposal to aim for 100%.

Lawrence S. Bacow: At Tufts, ensuring access is our highest institutional priority, and scholarship aid is based on demonstrated financial need. That said, all of us in higher education need to think about the very real choices that we make. Every resource allocation decision should be tested by how it helps to support the very best students working with the very best faculty.

What is the principal responsibility of a college to a student?

Dr. Marjorie Hass: Each institution owes its students a clear and focused statement of mission and the will to make that mission a reality through its curriculum and teaching. Our focus at Austin College is on undergraduate learning—to engage the student intellectually, as well as in spirit.

Lawrence S. Bacow: In the U.S. we are blessed with approximately 4,000 colleges and universities of all sizes, flavors, shapes, and forms, and they all share a common responsibility: to challenge students to expand their horizons intellectually, socially, and personally; and to provide them with strong moral lessons to lead a meaningful and ethical life.

Dr. Scott Cowen: A university should enrich students’ capacity to think, to learn, to act, to lead with integrity and wisdom, and to develop the habits of the mind and heart to become advanced citizens of the world.

Do colleges have a responsibility to shape students’ character and values?

Dr. Amy Gutmann: Universities do not come into the world with a right to exist. We earn our rights by embracing our responsibility to create and apply knowledge to benefit society. At Penn, we promote local and global engagement and encourage students to integrate studies and service. Each year, more than 4,000 undergraduates engage in sustained service, some in Philadelphia, some in New Orleans to help the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and some in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. Closer to home, last year some 1,500 Penn students developed and implemented solutions to neighborhood challenges based on their classroom work, applying linguistic theories to raise reading levels in local elementary schools, promoting greater understanding of the dangers of lead exposure, and more. The result is healthier and happier citizens, with whom Penn shares West Philadelphia.

Dr. Marjorie Hass: Given the intensity of the experience and the age of its participants, college inevitably shapes a student’s character and values. But for this impact to be most effective, there has to be a clear and authentic campus culture that believes education is not merely for personal benefit, but is the means by which an individual can make a meaningful contribution to the world. Colleges like Austin that pay attention to the moral climate they create allow students to make great strides in their sense of themselves as moral agents.

Lawrence S. Bacow: The role of a liberal education is not just to convey knowledge, but to convey values. Our institutions should be motivating students to become active citizens in the communities they will inhabit. At Tufts we created the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service to ensure that every student is educated to be an engaged and effective citizen who feels an obligation to help repair the world.

Dr. Scott Cowen: Without character and values, an education is either useless or dangerous. One way Tulane University instills values in its students is by making public service a requirement for graduation. Our goal is to graduate responsible, sensible, active citizens who want to make a difference in the world.

What role should religion play in college education and campus life?

Dr. Amy Gutmann: University education should provide an open environment in which students can feel free to explore their own faith traditions as well as other belief systems. At Penn, a nonsectarian institution, student-run religious and cultural groups flourish, from large and vibrant Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish communities to Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, and interfaith groups, providing opportunities for robust, unfettered, and enriching exchanges of ideas.

I also value the academic study of religion, both as a field of inquiry and as a gateway to philosophy, history, science, and the arts. As an example, Penn’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, devoted to postdoctoral research on Jewish civilization, provides an interdisciplinary forum for dialogue among international scholars and houses a library of 180,000+ titles, Judaica, manuscripts, rare early prints, and genizah fragments.

Lawrence S. Bacow: A robust religious life on campus benefits the entire university community. At Tufts, Hillel sponsors programs on interfaith and cross-cultural understanding, its Merrin Distinguished Lecture series focuses on critical social justice issues, and its Read by the River initiative promotes early childhood literacy in our local community.

Dr. Scott Cowen: As religion is a fundamental human experience for many people and a driving force, both historically and in contemporary life, universities should encourage the study and practice of all religions. At Tulane, students majoring in Religious Studies approach various religious traditions from historical, political, sociological, and literary perspectives. Jewish Studies offers an interdisciplinary approach: history, religion, language, thought, culture, literature, and music. The Catherine and Henry J. Gaisman Chair of Judeo-Christian Studies brings noted theologians, scholars, and philosophers to Tulane for public lectures on the common ground shared by Jewish and Christian traditions. And both Hillel and the Muslim Student Association are very active on campus.

What significant trends are you seeing on your college campus?

Lawrence S. Bacow: At Tufts, we see a real hunger among students for meaningful engagement with the challenges facing our complex world. Students in this generation are not only idealistic; they are optimistic. Moreover, they are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved personally—a wonderful development that bodes well for our collective future. On the other hand, colleges also have been affected by what I can only call a consumerist mentality. The pressure from the market has been to provide more and more in the way of amenities. We have tried to resist such pressures. If there is a silver lining for higher education in the current economic downturn, it is that we may once again embrace Yankee thrift as an ideal.

Dr. Scott Cowen: Today’s college students are not simply looking for an education that will guarantee them a high-paying job, but learning that helps them contribute to society at large—a promising trend for the future both socially and economically, as tomorrow’s economy is likely to be driven by social entrepreneurship, green collar jobs, and sustainable growth.

Do you believe you have a special role on campus as a Jewish university president?

Dr. Marjorie Hass: Jewish college leaders certainly serve as role models for Jewish students. At the Lutheran-affiliated Muhlenberg College, where I served as Provost and which has a significant percentage of Jewish students, I was part of a thriving Jewish campus community. At Austin College, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church and has a smaller number of Jewish students, there is a climate of celebration for religious differences that deepens my own observance. My husband and I regularly open our home for Shabbat dinners and holidays to both Jewish and non-Jewish students. We have a special obligation to nurture Jewish life on campus for Jewish students, and also to allow Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim students the chance to learn about our traditions up close.

Dr. Scott Cowen: My Jewish identity defines who I am and what I passionately stand for: learning, advocating tolerance, and making a difference in the world. By embodying these values, I hopefully serve as a positive role model for Tulane students.

Lawrence S. Bacow: Jewish identity and faith can provide a strong foundation for effective, ethical leadership. Personally, I am proud to be the first Jewish president of Tufts. A mezuzah hangs on every door of the President’s House, which is a kosher home. I also draw liberally upon Jewish texts in public speaking: My remarks for one Commencement ceremony, for example, were drawn entirely from the Talmud.

Jewish culture, stories, and traditions are too rich and valuable to keep to ourselves—and they truly have universal appeal. One of our most popular courses is Yiddish Literature, taught by our former provost, Sol Gittleman. Every student who can—whether Jewish or gentile—takes it. In a world where so much divides us, education can bring us together.

Core Contacts

The RJ Insider’s Guide to COLLEGE LIFE is a collaborative project of Reform Judaism magazine, the URJ College Program, and Hillel: The Foundation of Jewish Campus Life. To share this college section with high school and college students: To learn about Reform college programs: visit; for Reform Israel college programs, call 212-650-4070 or visit For additional information about Jewish life on hundreds of campuses, contact Hillel at 202-449-6500.


Union for Reform Judaism.