Q&A: Grant Cornwell

The President of Rollins College on community and belonging.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

This article originally appeared in Marie Christie Quarterly’s summer 2019 issue. It is republished here with permission.

Four years ago, Grant Cornwell moved to Florida to become the president of Rollins College. The decision, while very intentional, had nothing to do with the weather. The former chief academic officer of St. Lawrence University and president of the College of Wooster was seeking an institution that would serve his devotion to the liberal arts in both philosophy and geography—a place, he says, aligned with the world his students would be entering.

Rollins is in the quintessential college town of Winter Park and has been rated one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. But of larger value to Cornwell was its close proximity to Orlando, a global city with a rapidly growing, diverse population. The college’s trustees had been seeking a leader who appreciated the opportunity this location held at a time when higher education was becoming increasingly more diverse.

Grant Cornwell was just the guy. 

A philosopher with a background in human rights theory, Cornwell has long worked in the area of globalization with a focus on multicultural democracies. He believes that embracing diversity and global engagement is critical to fulfilling the mission of a liberal education. Since his arrival, Rollins has continued to make great strides in this area and is beginning to reimagine itself as a truly urban liberal arts college with all of the opportunities that entails.

It is clear from our conversation that Cornwell is a visionary leader with deep views on education and society. In developing strategy, he says, “You want to figure out what you’re very good at and invest in it—and then figure out what you need to be good but are falling short in, and also invest in that.”

When it comes to student health and well-being, Rollins is experiencing the same challenges as most schools trying to keep up with the demand for services amidst escalating rates of anxiety and depression. But in discussing community and belonging at Rollins, Cornwell sees an advantage to living on the small, residential campus bordering Lake Virginia. Whether it is trying to have it both ways or just benefiting from the best of both worlds, Rollins seems to have figured out its sweet spot.

Here is an excerpt from our interview.

Mary Christie Quarterly: What drew you to Rollins? 

Grant Cornwell: There were a number of things that attracted me to Rollins but at the top of the list was the idea of serving, if you will, a traditional American liberal arts college in the center of a dynamic global city; a city with a rapidly growing and diverse population; a city with a rapidly expanding economic structure and job opportunities, with all of the richness of diversity and multicultural influence that I think is both highly relevant for the kind of education we provide, but also highly desired by students of this era.

I served for over 20 years as a professor, dean and chief academic officer at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, and then spent eight years as the president of the College of Wooster in rural Ohio. While they are both fine liberal arts institutions, I believe that for the liberal arts to be relevant in this global era, we have to fully embrace diversity and global engagement. Trying to do that in small, white, rural towns is profoundly challenging.

MCQ: How has this vision played out at Rollins thus far?

GC: We are an urban liberal arts college with all the intimacy and community you get from a small, liberal arts college and that’s the strategy we’ve been pursuing. We are very close to being a minority-serving institution. We’re over 20 percent Latinx, over 30 percent diverse, around 10 percent international. With our students, faculty and staff, we are quickly becoming demographically aligned with the world our students are entering when they graduate and I think that’s a very healthy environment for our style of education.

MCQ: You’ve written and spoken a lot about the role of liberal arts in today’s world. What is your theory around that?

GC: It goes way back for me. I’m a philosopher by training and have always been interested in the question of cultural relativism and how different cultures have different ethical and political beliefs; and what happens when they intermingle. My work as a philosopher was in human rights theory, with a focus on how race and racism are understood in different nations and different points in history.

I became especially interested in how multicultural democracies are possible. I was simultaneously asking, “How does the basic philosophy of liberal education stay relevant in this rapidly globalized, digital world?” I think the answer is it is the best education for working, living, voting, leading, and thriving in a globalized multicultural society.

What is different about a liberal arts college like Rollins is that all the learning takes place in the context of human relationships. There is more mutual accountability and more immediacy than is even remotely possible in online learning environments or those dominated by large, impersonal lectures.

It’s a much more rigorous approach to education because so much of the work we are doing, so many of the learning goals that we espouse, have to do with a student’s ability to listen to people who think differently and collaborate with them to create new and shared insights.

That’s what we do every day at Rollins. You sit in a seminar of 15 students, working out difficult issues, listening to people who think really differently with no buffer to block people who don’t think exactly like them. That is what prepares our graduates for the world of work and civic life after graduation.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

MCQ: Do you worry that liberal education is vulnerable?

GC: There is some vulnerability, but it’s not new. The liberal arts college is one of America’s great inventions and contributions to the world. The irony is that, over the last decade, the question of whether or not a liberal arts education is viable and relevant is being asked here and in Washington—but not around the world.

Just as we’re doubting the value of our own invention, other nations are asking how to do it. Places like China and India are asking, “How did American higher education come to be the powerful giant that it is and how has it fueled the ascendancy of America as a global power?” The answer they’re coming to is its commitment to liberal education—broad education for all citizens, rather than technical education for an elite few.

MCQ: Do you see this questioning as part of the “devaluing” of higher education that’s become part of the political rhetoric?

GC: We’re in a period when facts are less salient than ideology. All you have to do is look at the facts of employment and earnings and there’s no question that the economy needs as many people coming out of college with four-year degrees as we can possibly produce. So you have to think this is profoundly ideological and has a lot to do with the anti-intellectualism of the current political climate.

MCQ: Rollins’ student body, intentionally, is becoming more diverse, and that means you are getting students with varying levels of income, primary education, and preparedness. What does that mean for you?

GC: I think this is the challenge of the moment for higher education. How do we teach the students we have, as opposed to the students who maybe we somehow wished we had or believe we used to have? We shouldn’t bemoan what they lack or what they struggle with. These are our students now and we have to fully embrace them, meet them where they are, and bring them along.

I think that’s where all higher education is right now and it is to be celebrated because, really, what we’re seeing is the democratization of higher education access. We are getting students from every background of our society and we have to figure out how to be successful with every one of them. I don’t think we’re cutting-edge in this regard and we have much to learn from our colleagues at other institutions, and especially at community colleges. We’re simply paying attention to the best ideas that are out there right now on how to do that.

MCQ: Do you see it as ironic that, as four-year degrees are being questioned, first-generation students and students of color are seeking degrees at such high numbers?

CG: It is rare to meet a parent who says, “I don’t care if my child goes to college or not.” It doesn’t matter what background you come from. The family understands that access and prosperity and thriving are all a function of education, so the behavior of the market does not reflect the rhetoric. Try asking those who make the case that not everyone needs a college degree what they want for their own children. You only get one answer: a college degree.

MCQ: What is your/Rollins’ view of your students’ emotional and behavioral health? What role does the school play here?

GC: When we accept a student, we have the ethical obligation to support their success and that means their emotional and behavioral health as well. We believe that. Our faculty believes that. But the need greatly exceeds our capacity to serve every student in every way that needs to be served and we simply do our best.

So there’s a state of trust and challenge, which is frustrating because we all want more.

That said, I think that our mission helps in that we see it as our duty to nurture our students towards thriving, not just as students, but as human beings. We educate students not only to have good jobs but to have good lives and a good life means you are happy—not just in the psychological sense, but in the Greek sense that you are thriving as a human being.

There’s also a great sense of belonging here. It is very hard to be isolated or anonymous in a residential liberal arts college; you’re always in some kind of relational context which, of course, brings its own challenges.

MCQ: What are some of the big, new initiatives at Rollins and how do they relate to what we’ve been talking about?

GC: We are very proud of our mission to educate students for global citizenship and responsible leadership and we wanted to make that commitment more manifest and intentional. At Rollins, we see liberal education as profoundly pragmatic, actually as the most practical course of study available.

We are long-practiced at helping students realize this for themselves through experiential learning and civic and global engagement—all of which are a kind of learning that prepares students to put their education to work in the world.

Next fall, we will be opening a new building in the middle of campus that is actually our old library that will now be home to all of the programs we might call “Applied Liberal Learning.” We’re co-locating all of these into a kind of nexus we’re calling the Rollins Gateway—as each of these programs provides a gateway into preparing students for the world.

Another initiative aims at expanding our capacity for residential housing on campus, which is something students really want. We’re relocating facilities to make room for a new residential commons right on the shores of Lake Virginia that will add 500 new beds. This will allow many more students to live on campus, but the really significant factor here is the whole complex is developed around wellness and thriving. There will be a fitness center with a yoga studio and meditation room and a kind of “Whole Foods” market with a teaching kitchen. The entire living, learning community is designed around promoting mental health and well-being and we’re super excited about that.