New Yamanashi liberal arts college seeks to put students in 'zone' of critical thinking

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Michael Lacktorin, founding dean of a unique new college at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, says his most important role as an educator is to help students discover where their passion lies, and to find out what they really want to do with their lives.

The International College of Liberal Arts opened last week. The new department is modeled after American liberal arts colleges, where students are exposed to a wide range of knowledge with the aim of providing a more holistic education.

“Education of the whole person — the mind, spirit or soul, and the body — is important,” said Lacktorin.

Japan’s current system of higher education is unable to produce a generation of entrepreneurs capable of helping to resuscitate the economy, he said.

“I want to help students discover the location of their natural aptitude or talent,” the 64-year-old said.

The intersection of passion and natural aptitude is “the zone,” he said, adding that his purpose is to help students “live as much their life as they can in that zone.”

“That’s happiness,” he said. “There, students can be most successful, because they are operating with passion and their natural ability.”

Yamanashi Gakuin University is well-known for a long-distance intercollegiate relay race and has produced 42 Olympians in its nearly 70-year history, but Lacktorin said it is now all the more important to bring academic rigor to the university.

The new college offers a full range of courses, from dance, music, acting and sculpting to mathematics, physics and economics.

Lacktorin said the liberal arts curriculum helps students connect the left and the right brain through lectures that link disparate subjects, as well as experiential workshops and a unique writing-across-the-curriculum program.

“The latter is our primary mechanism to institutionalize the connectivity of knowledge,” he said.

Developing the new college from scratch “was really tough,” Lacktorin explained, a process that included welcoming 26 new faculty members and creating 140 new courses.

“When building a new college, the first year is especially difficult when you don’t have a brand or have a brand that is different from the parent institution,” he said.

According to Lacktorin, 85 percent of the faculty are non-Japanese, which he says is the highest ratio among all the universities in Japan.

Ninety percent of the classes are taught in English, with a maximum of 20 students per class. The college enrolls 80 students per year and aims to eventually host a student body that’s half Japanese and half non-Japanese.

The university has two entry periods, in April and September. The spring semester began with 37 students, including nine exchange students from abroad.

Noting that Japan is behind many other countries in educating university students, Lacktorin said that nurturing “a critical mind” is one of the core aspects of the new college. And “critical” doesn’t necessarily mean negative, he said.

“The Japanese word for critical thinking does have a negative connotation,” he said, but “It’s more about questioning.”

Lactorin also said that too many universities are teacher-centered, and they tend to give lectures without seeking student participation.

He said the new college will try to form a student-centered curriculum, where the students can think “critically, creatively, independently and globally.”

Lacktorin did not begin his career in education, but in the world of finance. Born and raised in Minnesota, he was brought up by parents who wanted him to become a medical doctor. After serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam at age 19, he returned to Minnesota and entered a university as a pre-med student.

When he came to Japan as an exchange student in 1977, he decided to switch his major to economics. He worked as a financial analyst at Ford Motor Co.’s world headquarters, assistant vice president at Nomura Securities International’s M&A unit on Wall Street, and as vice president and head of merchant banking at Citibank Japan Ltd.

He gave up his financial career at age 43 after discovering his passion as an educator, teaching part-time in the evenings while working at Citibank.

“I never got goose bumps in the banking business, but frequently got them in the classroom,” he said, explaining that he found excitement and passion in teaching.

In 2003, he was one of the founding members of Akita International University, or AIU, where he taught economics, finance and corporate strategy for seven years, and served as director of the Global Business Program, dean of international affairs and head of Japan studies.

He said he left Akita in 2011 to look for an opportunity to take liberal arts in Japan “to the next level.”

By serendipity, he met the head of the university, Tadahiko Furuya, 72, and the two came up with the idea of creating a new college inside the university.

Lacktorin said he wants to maximize the unique potential of each student at his college.

One way the college tries to achieve this is by requiring all students to study abroad for a year. Lacktorin said that requirement helps the students see the world through a wider lens.

“One of the wonderful things about a good liberal arts education is that students learn how to see things from different perspectives, which provides hints about new ways to solve problems,” he said. “It fosters creativity and broadens students’ thinking.”

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