Pres. Herzberger shows some love for Liberal Arts Education

Cecilia Scott
Originally published in Poetinis web magazine

*This article has been updated to include more current information as of Feb. 17.

I am sitting in the corner of Whittier College President Dr. Sharon D. Herzberger’s office in Mendenhall. Heavy curtains are drawn across the wide front window, dimming the afternoon sun and dulling the traffic noise from Painter Avenue.

Looking back, she says she felt unprepared for both graduate school and the world outside the academy because she didn’t have the small, liberal arts education provided at schools such as Whittier College. “The education here is so personal and so much richer in the sense of being an active learner rather than passively sitting there and taking notes and then regurgitating them on the exam,” she explained. “The professors here get to know students so well. Our biggest draw at Whittier is our small class sizes and liberal-arts education,” 

After achieving her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Pennsylvania State University and earning a doctorate in social psychology at the University of Illinois, Herzberger taught psychology at Northwestern University.

The school with large class sizes that left Herzberger feeling disconnected from her students. 

She soon left Northwestern to teach at Trinity College— a small, liberal arts college in Connecticut. There she fell in love with liberal-arts education, which she wrote about in an essay for The Huffington Post in 2013. “[A liberal education] is one that helps students learn to think critically and communicate effectively,” she wrote. “It teaches students to recognize the complexity of problems and to offer innovative solutions, and it provides opportunity to apply learning in work settings and across the globe.”

She taught at Trinity for 25 years until a headhunter called her and told her about a perfect position waiting for her at Whittier College. Then in July 2005, Herzberger became Whittier’s fourteenth president. “I was thrilled as soon as I came here and learned about Whittier’s values and the kinds of students we serve,” she said. “It was spectacular.”

The awareness of student success and her background in teaching small classes prompted her to start her signature “Walk and Talks with the President.” These walks give students the opportunity to chat with the president. “I wanted to find a way that I could connect with students and hear about their lives on a regular basis,” she explained. “I always enjoy hearing about their lives and who their favorite professors are and any problems they’re having and it’s been wonderful.”

Herzberger expressed how amazed she is that more students didn’t use the walks to air grievances. “Occasionally I’ll have a student who wants to make a suggestion, but they’re not using it as a complaint session to gripe about things.” Surprisingly, it’s mostly first-years students who brave the brisk and early-morning (7:30 a.m.) walks. “I think they’re just intrigued with the notion of getting up and walking with the president as I get to hear about their excitement and being at Whittier and their classes, so it’s very fun.”

In deference to students who aren’t early risers, Herzberger has started experimenting with opening her office to students once-a-month. Attendance has been light so far, but Herzberger is confident that the word will spread and more students will begin to show up. “It’s so fun to see the confidence they’ve developed and their expertise on some subjects. That’s the best part of my job.”

For the past few weeks and in the coming months, Herzberger may not be as available for reaching students as she had previously liked to be. Recently, in a school-wide e-mail, she shared that she had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system which is a part of the body's immune system. Her writes that her doctors anticipate she will make a full recover; however treatment will continue throughout the next four months.

Herzberger leaned back in her chair as she begins to talk about the hardest part of her job: renovating the venerable campus. “When I arrived, I knew the education was great, the faculty-student relationship was fabulous  —  the big problem was that we have a 125-year-old campus and the facilities were in pretty bad shape,” said Hertzberger.

Recent projects have included the renovation of the Ettinger Lounge and the Science and Learning Center (SLC). In an article for the Quaker Campus, Herzberger, was quoted saying that she really took the time to go through student feedback when planning the Ettinger Lounge. 

Students said that Ettinger was too loud, so she incorporated sound-dampening materials in the renovation with the goal of creating a community space for students to gather in, whether it’s for studying or just fun; a “living room” for students, as she puts it.

The $46 million Science and Learning Center, which now promotes labs for both teaching and research, a rooftop lookout deck, and multipurpose classrooms, has been the school’s largest capital improvement project in years.

One of the main challenges to renovating campus facilities that people may not be aware of is that the City of Whittier often designates buildings more than 50 years old as historic. “After 50 years, which is kind of unbelievable because 50 years goes by pretty quickly, it’s kind of like there’s the presumption that it’s a historic building,” says Herzberger, adding that the city has been accommodating to the college. “And we are faced sometimes with the issue of, ‘Do we tear it down in the Forty-ninth year, or are we willing to live with this building forever?’”

At a small college such as this, the demands of funding top-notch faculty, staff and facilities while providing a world-class education at the best value possible is never far from the President’s mind. “My biggest worry is that people will stop supporting higher education. I hope that there’s someone out there who wants to leave us $100 million,” she laughs, before striking a more serious tone.

She admits she’s concerned about the trend of less money being allocated for education these days, citing cutbacks in public funding support such as PELL (federal) and CAL (state) grants, in an age of rising student debt and the increasing cost of college.

Following the 2016 election, Herzberger found herself reaffirming Whittier College’s values and sense of community. She joined with more than 100 other presidents of leading U.S. liberal arts colleges to sign a letter to President Donald Trump that spoke of the “core values of our democratic nation: human decency, equal rights, freedom of expression, and freedom from discrimination,” and which asked the president-elect to “condemn and work to prevent the harassment, hate, and acts of violence that are being perpetrated across our nation.”

Herzberger says that her ultimate goal is to provide the kind of experience here that makes students want to give back when they are able. “Whether it’s financially or whether it’s coming to talk with students about how they got into their careers or offering an internship to a student,” said Herzberger. “I hope they will do so.”