Colby College blazes an AI trail in liberal arts education, with the launch of the Davis Institute

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed April 8, 2021 Audio version
Liberal arts education faces a difficult future, yet too many colleges cling to their status quo. Not so at Colby College. Here's what I learned about their groundbreaking initiative to integrate AI and ethics into their program, via the Davis Institute.

Colby College - AI program
(A chat with Colby College on AI education)

We've seen plenty of viral articles about higher-education-in-trouble. It's officially "disrupted." Liberal arts colleges, in particular, are on the chopping block - in a full-blown crisis, some say. The shrill articles are piling up.

As a liberal arts grad myself (Hampshire College, in my case), I find this state of affairs brutally ironic. Why? The essential skills we need to stay ahead of the robots are integral to a supposedly out-of-touch/endangered liberal arts education. 

And yet, these critiques have the sting of truth. To survive and prosper, liberal arts colleges do have to change. Alas, many are ill-prepared or unwilling to do so - an unbecoming lesson I've seen firsthand.

I've personally made the following case to several colleges in transition: yes, the core of your liberal arts education is deeply relevant. But your assumption that students are digitally native because they are better at smart phones than you are is wrong. Your missed opportunity is to fuse AI, ethics, deep mathematical competencies, and yes, coding -  into your curriculum.

AI is transforming society - colleges must respond

For whatever reason, my case didn't resonate. Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, to be offered the chance to interview Colby College, and learn more about how Colby founded the Davis Institute, "the first cross-disciplinary institute for artificial intelligence at a liberal arts college." In fact, Colby College says the Davis Institute is the first major artificial intelligence program at a liberal arts college. I can't verify that, but they are universes ahead of the other schools I've talked to. Soon enough, I'm getting the inside story from Margaret T. McFadden, Provost and Dean of Faculty at Colby College.

We started from the position that AI is transforming basically every element of our society. So if we're trying to educate students to go out and be great citizens and great contributors to society, they actually have to understand AI's role.

Yes, we're going to need plenty of engineers. But that's not all we're going to need. McFadden continues:

We're not just training technologists. We're not trying to compete with MIT's engineering schools. We have a great Computer Science program, so it's not that we aren't doing this work. But the ways we're doing this work is in the broad liberal arts context.

And how would McFadden describe a "liberal arts context"?

It's always asking the questions; the ethical questions that are raised; the social questions that are raised by the existence of this incredibly powerful technology. This tech can be used, of course, for incredible good, to promote medicine to create vaccines, that kind of thing. But we also see all the ways that it can go horribly awry, and really damage society.

What we're interested in is: making sure our students have a great grounding in this important, ever-changing field, while making sure they're bringing to it all of the context, all of the interdisciplinary training you get with a great liberal arts education.

A worthy ambition - but you don't get there overnight. So how did this begin? McFadden:

Our faculty gradually started work in these fields. It was starting to sort of grow up organically on campus. Our President David Green, was in conversation with Andrew Davis, one of our former trustees, and an alumn who's made a number of incredible impacts - gifts that have impacted Colby. 

As McFadden told me, Davis posed a potent question:

What's the next transformative thing that you really need to do?

Enter the newly-created Davis Institute:

Where we landed is that this is really the future. This is why we needed to do this. We have a whole group of faculty who were involved in creating it, and figuring out what it's going to be.

Next up: hire a Founding Director, who will hire six faculty members. Those faculty members won't just be Computer Science professors. They could be historians, economists or sociologists:

It really depends what departments can make a great argument for how they can contribute to a broadly interdisciplinary AI initiative.

AI's real-world implications - "we need to make sure a diverse group of people is in the room"

The Davis Institute formally kicks off in the fall of 2021, but Colby College is already laying the groundwork, with a few courses already in the works. Faculty working groups are looking at how this can be added to the Colby curriculum and discussing industry partnerships. As McFadden told me: graduates from the Davis Institute will need a real-world context. If these are just intellectual conversations, the program won't succeed. Navigating the right industry partnerships should help - though I expect debate about how "real world" and practical this program should be.

So how does McFadden respond to my view that liberal arts needs to change in the era of AI and automation - and not just re-assert the liberal arts core? 

You're speaking to exactly what we're concerned about. We actually believe deeply in fostering all of those core liberal arts capacities.

As McFadden puts it, "The AI world was built by a very small demographic of people." Its creators weren't necessarily thinking about the cultural impact. Nor should we assume that smart-phone-savvy students understand AI's implications:

I'm thinking about things like deep fake videos, and facial recognition - you know, the civil liberties implications of facial recognition software, and the effects of that on women and on people of color, who don't seem to be recognized well because of the algorithms, all those things. I don't need to tell you; this is your world. One of my colleagues in Computer Science is teaching our first-ever computer ethics class. She's saying, "What we're trying to do is create an ethical sensibility in students who are going to go out and be working with these tools - and they need to be asking these questions from the get-go."

We need to make sure that who's in the room when these conversations are happening is a diverse and representative group of people. So we're excited about that.

My take - liberal arts colleges must change; Colby provides a new model

Even those who defend a liberal arts education acknowledge the dangers of cultivating elitism on the one hand and excluding others based on the cost of admissions on the other (scholarships help, but aren't a cure-all for the substantial costs).

If liberal arts colleges intend to survive, changes are coming. Why not get out in front as Colby College is doing? Mix bold ideas into the core, and prove the relevance. Bard College is another example, with its prison initiative sparking a memorable docu-series, College Behind Bars, produced by Ken Burns (a fellow Hampshire grad). The recent $500 million donation to Bard by George Soros is another indication: the money to sustain liberal arts can emerge - if the program is bold enough to energize donors.

But aren't Colby College's faculty threatened by these moves? McFadden says no. Faculty across departments are already pursuing AI questions, from English department professors doing data mining of medieval texts, to sociology professors thinking about immigration patterns with AI. Public policy professors are doing the same with AI and voting patterns.

George Sopko, Director of Media Relations for Colby College, told me they are in the process of producing thirty videos with faculty members, discussing the possibilities with the Davis Institute. But Colby College doesn't want to keep this program to itself in Waterville, Maine, where the college has resided since 1813. The Davis Institute will be offering a summer "boot camp" for members of other institutions to bring the ideas home with them.

Another thing that must change in liberal arts land: shying away from the practical pre-occupations of career relevance. McFadden tells me that the initial student enthusiasm for the Davis Institute is high. Here, Colby also has a track record, via a prior Davis project, DavisConnects, which sets Colby College students up with relevant internships, global activities and research projects.

We don't need any more digital consumers, salivating over the chance to stream 5G Netflix while our coastal cities gradually slide into the ocean. We need informed data citizens and digital creators - and I'm not talking about going live on Instagram. I find the Colby College example inspiring, but, as Colby's leadership would surely concede, it's early days for the Davis Institute. As I always say, judge a school by the caliber of its graduates. We'll find out soon enough.