On a warm evening in the summer of 2012, University of Chicago faculty and students streamed into the auditorium at the Gleacher Center to hear soon-to-be graduates of the Master of Liberal Arts Program present their theses. The topics were a diverse lot. A surgeon spoke on the artistic elements of performing intricate operations on the human hand. An architect applied techniques for the analysis of buildings to the study of literature. And Daniel Geiter took the stage to unveil his remarkable and ambitious project: the design of a college readiness program for minority and low-income adult students organized around the study of the Liberal Arts.
“Training in the Liberal Arts defines how we live our lives,” Geiter explained. “It shapes how we appreciate and criticize the world. It determines how we consume and appropriate knowledge. To me, the Liberal Arts are the bedrock of life. What I have found in my research is that low-income people and people of color are less likely to experience this training in general; and those who experience it less, are less likely to be successfully assimilated into society, and less likely to understand the rules of social engagement.”
Geiter was proposing a new kind of community college, one that would work to improve lives and accelerate social change. It would do so through a method that was at once traditional and, in these times, innovative: the provision of a classic Liberal Arts curriculum. And now Geiter, equipped with a post-MLA Ed.D. from Benedictine University, is making the vision he proposed four years ago a reality. With the support and encouragement of faculty from a range of local universities, including several professors at the University of Chicago, Geiter recently submitted an application to the Illinois Board of Higher Education to open Ward College, a non-profit community college on the South Side.
Geiter’s conception of Ward College’s mission has evolved and sharpened. A central aim of the college, he now plans, will be to provide education to former convicts. He intends the school to able to help former offenders transition into jobs and new lives. For all of Ward’s students, the focus will be on inculcating the values of criticism and reflection central to the Liberal Arts tradition. “For me, in building Ward College,” he says, “if we do nothing but build the critical and logical thinker, then we will have succeeded.”
The MLA Program was a pivotal moment in Geiter’s journey to becoming an educator, leader and activist. He began his life in the same way as those Ward College now seeks to reach. A convicted felon as a young adult, Geiter spent two decades carving an upward path through work and education. His higher education began at Moraine Valley Community College. He then transferred to Saint Xavier University to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in English. At Saint Xavier, he found a life-changing mentor in Sister Susan Sanders, a Professor of Public Policy and alumna of the University of Chicago. It was in conversations with Sr. Sanders that Geiter first broached the possibility of starting a community resource center in Englewood that would offer parole services, college readiness courses and food assistance to local residents. Excited by the idea, Sr. Sanders urged Geiter to apply to the Graham School’s MLA Program. She told him that if he could work with Richard Taub—a University of Chicago sociologist studying poverty, social aspiration and community development—he would find the tools he needed to set his idea into action.
The MLA Program proved to be just the catalyst Sr. Sanders hoped it would be. “Upon realizing that the MLA Program involved nine courses, including the keystone project that was the Master’s thesis, I knew it would be the perfect opportunity,” Geiter recalls. “I would be able to learn from faculty who were unparalleled in their fields, teaching in the program because they had a passion for it. I looked at MLA as my best preparation for graduate school, and it was a magnificent choice. It was the great bridge that sped me to where I am now. And wow, did the MLA prepare me for doctoral work. It really did.”
Geiter enrolled as a full-time student in August 2011. He approached his first day on campus with curiosity: “I had started at a two-year public community college and attended a private religious school for my Bachelor’s Degree. The University of Chicago, a Level 1 research institution, was a new academic environment.” He attended a course on Cosmology taught by Edward “Rocky” Kolb, Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences at the University. Geiter saw that the classroom’s tables were arranged in a “U” shape, a sign that “this was going to be a totally different format for learning” from what he previously experienced. “The professor said ‘Don’t call me doctor. Just call me Rocky,” Geiter remembers. “He sat around the ‘U’ with us, and we all started discussing, agreeing, disagreeing, and having really strong and positive conversations.”
Geiter’s fellow students brought to the U-shaped tables richly diverse life experiences. He remembers “sitting next to a guy from Morningstar, who was in charge of a $300 million investment account. In any other format, we would never meet. Our paths would never cross.” Despite its students coming to the classroom from vastly different backgrounds, Geiter felt that MLA program provided “a sense of inclusiveness, a sense of everyone reading the same book, but recognizing and even appreciating everyone’s viewpoint, as long as they could rationally state it and back it up with some type of data from what they are reading.”
Geiter suspects that the diversity of viewpoints in conversation at the table is what motivates faculty at the tops of their fields to teach in the MLA Program. “The professors start looking at these points that they have not previously considered, and you can kind of tell. You can tell that they are looking at points of view coming from different backgrounds, different constituents, different ethnic and racial breakdowns, and you can honestly see their appreciation of the new knowledge.”
For Geiter, the most exciting part of his MLA experience was writing his thesis with Richard Taub, the sociologist Sr. Sanders had recommended. Taub has studied issues relating to poverty and social change for more than five decades. Early on, Geiter met with Taub and some of Taub’s graduate students in the Sociology Department, sharing his idea to create a community resource center in Englewood that would centralize a range of social services under one roof. “I was the kind of student Dr. Taub had been fighting for since the 1960s, but never had,” Geiter recalls. “To him, I had started out wrong, but then received the opportunity for an undergraduate and post-graduate education. He appreciated my hunger and persistence.”
Through subsequent conversations with Taub, and as a result of his ongoing coursework in MLA, Geiter’s plan for a community-based organization began to take a more specific shape: providing education. “A high percentage of adult minority students who want to attend college are not ready for college; they lack basic math and English skills,” Geiter explains. “For my thesis, I ended up creating a Liberal Arts program that could be applied to the educational needs of these students. What Dr. Taub and I recognized, once I had completed the project, was that this thesis could become the basis for a community college, and with a doctorate in Education, I might be able to make that happen.”
Geiter received his degree in the summer of 2012. “In the space of a single very intense year,” he says, MLA had helped bring his interests and aspirations into focus. Immersion in Liberal Arts coursework had inspired Geiter to become an educator and powerfully influenced his ideas for community outreach. And it pointed the way forward: as Geiter puts it, “MLA, like a springboard, vaulted me toward an education doctorate.” The project he completed with Taub both secured his admission to Benedictine University as a candidate for a doctorate in education and, ultimately, served as his template for building Ward College.
His year at the Graham School, Geiter says, “took all the questioning of whether I could complete a doctoral program out of the mix for me. After writing a 70-page thesis, and completing my sequence of eight courses with all the reading, writing and discussing that each involved, I was prepared for PhD work. Being at the University of Chicago gives you a great boost.” Geiter affirms that studying the liberal arts didn’t make him “a specialist per se in any area, but to me the experience was so broad, that by the time I arrive at my doctoral program, it all felt easy.”
Geiter obtained his EdD from Benedictine University in 2015; as part of his dissertation, he designed and disseminated to five hundred adult students an on-line Liberal Arts developmental education program. The data Geiter gained from measuring his students’ progress has added to the body of research that informs the governing structures of Ward College, but his original plan remains essentially the same. “When you look at the thesis I completed at the end of the MLA Program with Dr. Taub and presented to the faculty and my colleagues there, and you look at how Ward College is defined in the college handbook, you will see it is exactly my thesis on steroids.”
As a University of Chicago alumnus, Geiter continues his connection with campus life. “I go to the Martin Luther King, Jr. ceremony every year at the Rockefeller Chapel,” he says. The Multicultural Students Association notifies him of special events and distinguished visitors to campus. In the past year, he attended a lecture on the Hemings family by historian Annette Gordon-Reed, and a talk by legal scholar Michelle Alexander on her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. “Being in contact with campus has been great. There are so many positive connections you experience as a University of Chicago alumnus. Having access to all the books in the world at Regenstein in itself is priceless.”
Faculty mentors from Saint Xavier, the University of Chicago and Benedictine, are advising Geiter as he works to open his college to students by the fall of 2016. “What I experienced at the University of Chicago, I want to replicate at Ward College,” he says. Already, Geiter is finding ways to incorporate elements of the MLA Program into the institutional culture of his school, aiming to provide an inclusive environment, encourage the free exchange of ideas and place students at the heart of the school’s universe.
“Most of all,” Geiter says, “the MLA program really made me understand that I am what I put in me; I am not necessarily what others perceive me to be. If you are built as a critical, logical thinker, it does not matter where you go beyond that, it can only lead to success, because you now understand the world and how to engage with it.”