It all started with a tweet.
In 2019, The University of Tulsa unveiled their “True Commitment” plan, a proposal which attempted to gut the liberal arts and eliminate the degree in philosophy. Dr. Jennifer Frey, then a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina, couldn’t hide her disdain, and regularly tweeted about what she saw as the complete destruction of the liberal arts at Tulsa.
And to her surprise, in the summer of 2021, Tulsa’s new president tweeted back.
It wasn’t the first time that Frey had tweeted about the University of Tulsa, but it was the first time that university president Brad Carson had responded. In his reply, Carson said that he not only agreed about the importance of the liberal arts, but he also invited Dr. Frey to come give a talk on campus to share her point of view.
“I was initially, of course, not very interested in visiting the University of Tulsa, a university that I thought had killed philosophy,” said Frey. “But we got to chatting, and I ultimately decided that I would go and give a talk on why a university needs to be fundamentally committed to liberal learning and why philosophy is always at the center of that endeavor.”
If all of this wasn’t surprising enough (rarely do Twitter spats end up in collaboration), Frey was definitely not prepared for what happened next.
“It was the first time I’d ever been to TU or Oklahoma. I gave my talk, President Carson and I had a few good conversations, and then he mentioned that he wanted to start an honors college focused on the study of great books–a kind of mini St. John’s. I told him that was a great idea, and then he asked me if I was interested in being its inaugural dean. That was unexpected to say the least!”
On January 5, 2023, Frey announced that she would be leaving South Carolina to serve as the inaugural dean of the new honors college.
“I had no plans on moving to Oklahoma. I had no plans of going into administration. I was really happy with my life and my career and my research. But I also felt like I was being given an unrepeatable opportunity to do something meaningful in higher education rather than just complaining about how things are falling apart.”
What does liberal learning look like at Tulsa’s new honors college? Built around helping students discover the true, the good, and the beautiful, the curriculum centers the study and discussion of some of the most influential texts of the liberal arts tradition – including works by Aristotle, Homer, Rene Descartes, Virginia Woolf, Frederick Douglas, and Toni Morrison.
“In liberal learning, we’re not trying to tell you what’s true, or what’s good, or what’s beautiful,” said Frey. “Rather, we’re inviting students to enter into a great conversation that has been carried out across the millenia, and we’re encouraging our students to form their own vision through dialogue with the mighty dead, their professors, and one another.”
This dialectical exchange is formative, and so the honors college focuses on trying to cultivate those virtues of mind and heart that are necessary for this sort of study and conversation to go well. In addition to studying classic texts together, students in the Honors College also live together in the honors dorm and participate in honors college events and traditions. Frey emphasizes that their approach to student life is unique. “We actively strive to create an intellectual community in honors that seeks wisdom, virtue, and friendship as common goods–this mission animates everything we do, from our trips to the opera to our movie nights and lectures.”
Alongside the great books curriculum, students also form their vision in active service to others, doing a minimum of 25 hours of community service each semester.
“We think that service is incredibly important,” said Frey. “It’s not intellectual formation, at least not directly, but it is the shaping of vision because it forces students to focus on other people and their needs. And that changes their perspective, broadening it in a way that we think is an integral part of forming a vision of our shared humanity.”
Starting an honors college does come with its challenges. Among the most important, as with any new program, is getting students to buy in.
“It’s a lot of extra work,” acknowledged Frey. “And of course you can graduate without doing any of it, and so people will ask, why should I make the extra effort? Frankly, some of these students you are going to lose because they have been so habituated into thinking that college is just about credentials and careers. The challenge is getting students to see that there is more to a university than just vocational training–that is a preparation for a flourishing and meaningful life.”
It is this final point, showing that college can be more than just vocational training, that the honors college has set out to make. Ultimately, Frey hopes that Tulsa’s honors college can serve as an example to others of an approach that thinks about the connection between liberal learning, the cultivation of virtue, and human flourishing and fulfillment.