Interview with Scott Sprenger, President of The American University of Rome

Wanted in Rome puts some questions to AUR President Scott Sprenger. 

By Marco Venturini

WiR: What is your personal and professional experience with Italy? 

SS: Before starting my role as president of The American University of Rome in August 2020, my experience with Italy was limited. In a previous role as professor and dean in Utah, I regularly taught a course on Italian cinema and had administrative oversight of a study abroad programme in Siena. One of the most glorious weeks of my life, in fact, was an oversight trip that included several days of cycling around Tuscany. Before that, I had made a few trips to Italy as a student and tourist, including to Rome in 1979, and hitchhiking from Brindisi to France (via Yugoslavia, Greece and Corfu) when I was very young, and when hitchhiking was still considered OK. I’ll never forget the stunning countryside and the experience of meeting kind Italians from various regions and walks of life. 

How did AUR cope with the covid-19 crisis, what measures did it put in place and were they successful? 

AUR coped amazingly well. The sudden plunge into a crisis without existing processes or protocols was obviously a pressure cooker. Fortunately, my excellent leadership team quickly came up with academic, technological and security solutions that served us well for the entire year. Despite AUR’s decision to remain open for business with in-class teaching for the 2020-21 school year, we have had very few disruptions (mainly by governmental decree to close temporarily) and only a handful of infections. I’m very happy with the result and the way the entire community supported our efforts and complied with the necessary protocols and interventions. 

What do you think of online teaching, and do you think it could substitute “in class“ lessons? 

That’s a complicated question. For some institutions and for some disciplines - especially where learning is procedural and focused on information transfer - online delivery can be truly excellent. For AUR, however, our trademark educational experience and value proposition do not align well with the online medium. There are four key reasons: 1) our students want to be in Rome, not on a basement couch, in order to take direct advantage of the city’s on-site resources; 2) our educational value derives from the lateral learning that comes from small, discussion-based classes and close faculty-student mentorships; and 3) we value diversity and the learning that comes from the lively, and often edgy, interaction between students and faculty from across the globe; 4) we have many creative and experiential disciplines requiring on-site presence and/or access to equipment, such as filmmaking and digital media, studio art, archaeology, even language. It’s difficult to teach these courses in any meaningful way online. 

What are, in your opinion, the main challenges the education sector has to face in the post pandemic world? 

Beyond putting a short-term damper on student mobility, the pandemic has in many ways merely accelerated long-term trends already in place. The biggest challenge since the 2008-9 financial crisis has been an intense focus by students and parents on the “return on investment” of a college degree. In practical terms, this focus on ROI means intense price sensitivity and much more emphasis on career-oriented degrees, such business or STEM. A second challenge is the declining student-aged demographics and a fierce global competition for students. That, combined with the emergence of large recruitment agencies, is putting downward pressure on tuition and a higher demand on career-friendly curriculum. Managing these market pressures while staying true to AUR’s liberal arts mission will be the key to our success. 

What are the advantages of having an American education? 

Apart from the most obvious advantage of learning in English - the lingua franca of the global economy - the American system is distinctive in these two ways: we pay very close attention to the learning needs and aspirations of individual students - advising them on how to best align their personal interests, values and sense of purpose with their academic and career choices. The American system also places tremendous emphasis on a balance between specialised learning (the major), broad, interdisciplinary learning (general education) and personalised learning (electives, the minor). While many students want to focus only on a career specialisation, employers and labour researchers tell us that this American-style, interdisciplinary approach to learning is optimal for developing the knowledge, characteristics, attitudes and skill bundles valued by employers and that better serve the students’ interests over the long arc of a life and career. 

Which are the strengths of AUR? What has AUR to offer to potential students? 

AUR’s strengths lie in its tight-knit community, the diversity of its student body and faculty, and the many opportunities for discovery, and self- discovery, as an individual. We are situated in one of the most interesting cities in the world, and we have an outstanding international faculty and a student body with over 50 nationalities represented on our small campus. This diversity of backgrounds, experiences, cultures and viewpoints is at the core of what makes the AUR learning community different and exciting. Our emphasis on diversity and inclusivity and our small class sizes ensure that every voice is heard. 

Would you be looking to recruit more study- abroad or resident students? 

For me, all students who come to AUR are AUR students; all students bring interesting perspectives to the AUR classroom. That said, my first priority this past fall was to develop and launch a new strategic plan to recruit resident students. That effort has already paid dividends in historically high numbers of student recruits for fall 2021. Let’s hope covid doesn’t ruin that. We have also worked in parallel to think creatively about expanding and improving our study abroad partnerships and transfer pathways. The pandemic has made it clear to me that we need to balance our student body between these three cohorts, both for institutional sustainability and for a more enriching student experience. 

Are Italian students a potential marketing target? 

They are already a focus for recruitment. Our differentiating feature from Italian universities, besides the American curriculum taught in English, is a much clearer focus on the individual’s learning aspirations, faculty mentorships and small interactive classrooms. Another is that students don’t need to choose a career path from the outset. The American system builds in an exploratory period and provides flexibility to change career paths without losing time. Italians also have the added benefit of being able to complete a four-year American degree in three years. Around 20 per cent of our current students are Italian and all those who have undertaken their degrees with us in the past have excelled both academically and personally. 

Do you see differences between the two main Italian cities (Rome and Milan) in terms of education offer and would you ever consider launching in Milan? 

I have not given this question any thought. It’s not in our current planning, but I never say never. 

What do you think the role of AUR should be in Rome? 

AUR, the first American university in Rome, should continue to communicate the value of a traditional liberal arts education to Rome, Italy and the world. We also want to be good citizens and strategic partners with local and international institutions. We want to continue to be the go-to institution for expert media commentary on current events and for research partnerships. Finally, as we stated previously, we want to offer an alternative kind of education to Italian students who, like most students, are looking for an inspirational and life-enhancing, if not transformational, experience.