Campus Highlight: Washington and Lee University: Revamping the Teacher-Scholar Model at Washington & Lee University

Long before Ken Ruscio began his tenure as president of Washington & Lee University, he was focused on redirecting liberal arts colleges’ attention to the teacher-scholar model. Through his own research and experience, he had become convinced that the legitimacy of the small liberal arts college as distinctive among the myriad types of institutions in higher education was dependent upon the teacher-scholar model of the professoriate that is at the heart of this type of institution. In his proposal to BTtoP to become a Leadership Coalition grantee, he wrote, “In an educational world in which increasing attention is paid to undergraduate research, this model of collaborative learning could serve as the ideal means to deepen students’ understanding of the life of the mind, the life of the scholar, and the life of the academy.”

At the Teacher-Scholar Symposium held at W&L on Sept. 20-21, 2009, Ruscio set the tone for the agenda of the two-day event, citing the need to sharpen the articulation of the teacher-scholar model.

Steven Wheatley, vice president, American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), opened the symposium by citing the main theses of a “white paper” prepared by ACLS and the Teagle Foundation. First, students are more likely to learn the value of multiple perspectives and intellectual humility if they are taught by teacher-scholars, who continue to be students themselves and take risks in their research and intellectual pursuits in order to enrich their own learning. Second, while the teacher-scholar model can be found in many different types of institutions in higher education, the culture, practice, and ethos of liberal arts colleges maximizes the effectiveness of the model. And third, the teacher-scholar model embodies the importance of the practice of deep learning, which includes understanding the nature of knowledge, employing engaged inquiry, and sustaining a high level of curiosity that illuminates the expanding boundaries of knowledge.

The symposium featured addresses by William Sullivan, senior scholar, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Carol Schneider, president, AAC&U; Scott Jaschik, editor, InsideHigherEd; and three panels covering such topics as links between student and faculty research; disciplinary differences for teacher-scholars; and career stage differences for teacher-scholars.

In their reactions to presentations, participants discussed a disconnect between what seemed to be the successful practice of the teacher-scholar model and clarity or agreement about the precise definition of the model or evidence of its success. Participants debated such questions as, How do we know the teacher-scholar model is effective? What are the costs of this model?

The Teacher-Scholar Symposium was a central aspect of W&L’s decision to use the revitalization of a four-week spring term as the vehicle to emphasize change and a campus culture attentive to learning. “Students and faculty benefit from a focused learning environment that allows them to devote undivided attention to the subject matter of one course,” Ruscio wrote in W&L’s BTtoP grant proposal. The activities for the new spring term are in part supported by the Bringing Theory to Practice Leadership Coalition initiative. The experimental, intensive four-week spring term focuses on integrated research and faculty-student collaboration, in conjunction with assessment of faculty involvement and student learning outcomes. Washington & Lee educational leaders believe that in this model, faculty will find that their research interests will align with what their students are learning, and an “apprentice” model of teaching will emerge. Students will observe the teacher’s methods of learning as well as teaching—a clear statement of the symbiotic relationship and reciprocity of the teacher/scholar model.

As President Ruscio put it, “Liberal arts colleges must, in the future, prove why we are truly distinctive. The sharpening of the articulation of our models of the teacher-scholar is part of that case.”

For more information on the W&L Teacher-Scholar Symposium, including audio of presentations, reading materials and other resources, and the symposium agenda, please see the Web site,