Frequently Asked Questions


1. Why create a consortium of innovative institutions?
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s gave rise to a wave of experimentation in higher education as college enrollments swelled and educators sought alternatives to the traditional a college or university. Many of the “innovative” or “progressive” schools founded during that period have either disappeared or abandoned their original mission to join the mainstream. Those that have survived, with their founding philosophy more or less in tact, are distinguished exemplars of continued experimentation in teaching, assessment, interdisciplinary and experiential learning, campus governance and institutional structure. Their status as innovators just outside the mainstream makes them both valuable resources in higher education and an endangered species as the forces of homogenization exert their leveling effect. Therefore, like its predecessor, the Union of Experimental Colleges, CIEL was created

  • to provide mutual support among these institutions
  • to provide exchange and push continued development of best practices
  • to optimize the national level leadership that such institutions can provide.

2. What opportunities and benefits does the consortium provide?
For its members, CIEL offers deep collaboration among faculty, administration, and staff. Annual meetings and other gatherings offer opportunities for sharing what we know and reflecting on what we could do better or differently. This is a very different kind of learning activity from the kind of professional interaction that takes place at disciplinary or higher education conferences. Sharing of institutional data such as NSSE material helps to provide a common focus and raise useful questions. CIEL maintains flexibility to respond to emerging areas of interest, such as a Spring 2005 meeting at Alverno College on electronic portfolios.

Other benefits include participation on accreditation teams so that institutions with a distinctive profile have the benefit of knowledgeable reviewers and a known pool of faculty and staff who can assist each other on their home campuses in designing and implementing new programs or policies.

For students and faculty, exchange agreements are in place. The consortium is exploring the use of technology to facilitate team teaching across campuses and appropriate forms of distance learning to leverage faculty and curriculum resources. The consortium hosts an annual student symposium in which top students present their academic work, and it sponsors an on-line student journal on its website as another avenue for sharing student work and offering publication opportunities.

For non-members, CIEL presents regularly at national meetings such as AACU and maintains an archive of writings by its members and other materials of use to educators on our website.

3. What do you mean by innovative environments in learning?
Members of CIEL share an institutional-level commitment to progressive educational practices in the Deweyian tradition. While most colleges and universities have innovative programs, often on the margins of traditional practices, CIEL schools put innovation and experimentation at the core of their mission, organization, and everyday work. Though each school is distinct, each shares a commitment to the following goals and practices:

    • interdisciplinary teaching and learning
    • experiential education
    • an emphasis on collaborative learning and team teaching
    • active student engagement and reflection
    • a robust approach to assessment that is embedded in the learning process through such approaches as narrative evaluation and electronic portfolios,
    • a deep commitment to diversity in its student, faculty, and staff populations as well as in its academic programs
    • a globalized curriculum with extensive opportunities for international study
    • individualized learning with a heavy emphasis on self-sponsored study,
    • a deliberate and seamless integration of theory and practice, particularly through community service and involvement
    • a commitment to teaching and learning for social responsibility and social justice

4. What is your mission?
CIEL’s mission is three-fold:

  • Mutual support among consortium members for continued improvement and innovation in student learning
  • Institutional sharing defined in the widest way, including sharing of information and practices, accreditation and consulting expertise, team teaching, collaborative research among faculty and students, student collaboration, leveraging of resources
  • Outreach to higher education to provide national-level leadership in best practices and institutional transformation

CIEL exists because each member is strengthened by its participation in a network of similar schools and because collectively we believe we have something vital to offer to that national conversation on higher education.

5. How can I become involved?
From its founding core of seven institutions, CIEL is following a slow-growth path to reach a membership of approximately 20, all schools whose mission and practices hold to progressive, experimental, innovative work. New institutions are elected by the leadership group and join CIEL by invitation. If you are interested in becoming a member, contact Jim Hall, CIEL Convener, at

You can also attend CIEL presentations at higher education conferences. Also feel free to make use of the CIEL website–the Resources for Educators page is useful and provocative.

6. How does the consortium sustain itself?
Member institutions pay an annual fee to support certain operating expenses. It pursues external grant funding as appropriate to its work. Expenses for conferences, consortium meetings, student participation are the responsibility of the individual members. Primarily, though, CIEL sustains itself through the hard work, imagination, and dedication of its leadership group, campus faculty and administrators, and students, who believe that the schools in the consortium preserve an essential vision of American higher education and represent the very best of its future.

7. In what directions will CIEL be headed in the future?
CIEL is an active and energetic group with interests reaching in a variety of directions. Among the topics we will continue to address in some detail are these:

  • Further development of electronic portfolios
  • Teaching for social justice and responsibility: its implications for curriculum, organizational structure; professional responsibilities for cultivating critical thinking without indoctrination
  • Creating opportunities for student leadership
  • Creating opportunities for collaboration in teaching and research among faculty
  • Advancing assessment practices
  • Leveraging curriculum strengths across institutions in the consortium
  • Broadening opportunities for active, experiential learning
  • Increasing participation in student and faculty exchanges