Dr. Barbara Oomen took office last week succeeding Hans Adriaansens as dean of Roosevelt Academy. The renowned human rights expert now talked to ScienceGuide about the future of Dutch liberal arts and her academy's role in it.
1.) How did you "find the courage" to succeed Hans Adriaansens? Isn't it quite a daring challenge to follow in the footsteps of such a Liberal Arts pioneer?
I really never considered it as a challenge, but rather as an honour. Over the years, I have become very enthusiastic about the value of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) education, just as I have developed a great deal of admiration for Adriaansens' pioneering work in this field.
I do see Dutch LAS-education moving into a new direction.
Whereas Hans always compared the university colleges to Greenpeace boats trying to alter the course of higher education, you now see that this has happened. The strategic agenda for Dutch higher education is all about liberal arts and excellence, a trend set by the colleges. At Utrecht University you now see the law faculty opting for an organization with four colleges, each with their own identity. In that sense, LAS colleges have the wind in their sails and can decide on their own course, instead of battling against trends in higher education.
2.) Roosevelt Academy is one of the pioneers in Liberal Arts of Dutch higher education. Why do you think is this concept so appealing to students and teachers? What makes you different from traditional universities?
Certain features are unique to all university colleges, and certain features make University College Roosevelt Academy (RA) stick out from other university colleges. Unique features of the university colleges include a broad liberal arts and sciences background that truly allows students to explore many different interests in great depth. I am convinced that the fact that so many of our alumni do so well in master programs ranging from physics to medicine to music and law, has everything to do with the fact that they really opted for that master after thoroughly exploring many options.
In addition, the program allows them to become well-rounded academics, critical thinkers who pose life's big questions and have gained the intellectuals tools to answer them. The small-scale with no more than 25 students in a classroom (at RA) and a strong sense of community amongst the 600 students who do their bachelor program in Middelburg is a unique feature as well. This is a treat for teachers as well: in a 30-session class they really get to discuss the topic of their interest at depth, and engage with students on the big questions in their disciplines.
There are students who do a track in virtually every field offered here, and thus take 6-8 we courses and do independent research. As a teacher this is great to see because this is howto contribute to 3) The emphasis on excellence in the Dutch academic culture. Many students and staff experience it as a relief to actually be encouraged to enjoy learning and striving towards greater understanding.
While this applies to all university colleges that I know, the RA distinguishes itself in a number of ways:
Firstly, the dedicated faculty and staff: people actually move to Middelburg to live and teach here, and are available on campus for their students. To me, this explains our high rankings in terms of 'accessibility of teachers', and why students miss us so much after moving on to Oxford, Cambridge or other universities.
Secondly, the ability that students have to 'shape their world'. Students not only get to put together their unique program, but also contribute to a very lively community, in music, poetry, sports, debating and a host of other societies. I understand from students that the responsibility that they get - and take on - here is much stronger than in other places.
Thirdly, our connections with the city of Middelburg, and the province of Zeeland. We have a wide range of research projects, internships and social projects with a variety of partners in Zeeland. An example would be a research project on Alzheimer, or on the life of lobsters, or partnerships with the local anti-discrimination bureau. Our music and theater nights, and culture week, are well visited by the local populace. To me, it is not without reason that America's top colleges are always to be found in small towns: here, one can foster those connections that allow for intellectual growth and civic engagement.
Last but not least, our undergraduate research program: over the past years, many of our students have engaged in original, shoulder-to-shoulder research with their instructors. Our alumni survey shows that 10 % of our graduates end up in a PhD program. I believe that this could well be because they - as one alumnus put it last week - 'got struck by the research virus' here.
3.) The Liberal Arts concept has been very successful in the
Netherlands with 6 university colleges already set up and at least
one more starting up in Rotterdam in 2013. Is there
something in the Dutch mentality, culture and higher education
development in the last 15 years that explains this
Why are other European countries slower at picking up this idea?
You do find university colleges in other countries, from Sweden to Slovakia. The Ecolas-network that we are part of brings these colleges together. This being said, it is clear that many Dutch students and academics are very enthusiastic about LAS; this might have to do with our international outlook. The majority of our graduates continue to a master program abroad (70 % at top-100 universities) and a LAS-bachelor, in many ways, forms a great springboard for such a career.
4.) What is the role of Liberal Arts for human rights, your area of expertise?
Classically, liberal arts colleges strive towards strengthening critical democratic citizenship. Martha Nussbaum, in books like 'Cultivating Humanity' and 'Not for Profit' makes a strong argument for this part of liberal arts and sciences. Students with a LAS-background have learned to look critically at the world, analyze it from different disciplinary perspectives, build strong arguments and listen empathically to those of others. This also makes them into the type of global citizens who play a key role in the realization of human rights.
We explicitly seek to strengthen this dimension of our program as well, next to merely offering excellent education. In the Going Glocal program, for instance, our students teach about global citizenship at schools in Zeeland, and - after an intensive course - do a summer program in Namibia and Mexico. They include their findings into projects to be set up with 'their' schools (see www.goingglocal.nl). In addition to that, we organize lectures and an information market on education for global citizenship and human rights education for teachers in Zeeland.
5.) At the moment Roosevelt Academy accommodates talented Bachelor students. What are your ambitions to expand your programs to Master and PhD tracks? Do you also consider expanding with education offers abroad?
I would first want to consolidate what we do well here, before looking into the possibility of opening other colleges or setting up master programs. So much work can still be done in offering excellent bachelor education, and it is really a forgotten part of the academic formation (which is strange, considering that it concerns three years). Of course, many of our professors supervise PhD research, and are generally involved in research (80 % of our instructors has a PhD).
6.) With the next 'G20 of education' coming to the Netherlands next year, what do you think is Roosevelt Academy's main message to the world what excellent teaching looks like?
Excellent teaching is engaged teaching, with engaged teachers, engaged students and an engaged university.
7.) In June, you will organize the next Roosevelt-Harvard workshop on excellent teaching and learning. What are your expectations for this year's seminar?
There is already great interest of teachers in higher education, and I expect it to be as inspiring a course as it was last year, with lots of room for recent insights on what makes for student learning, but also for the exchange of experiences between dedicated teachers.