Our History

Bringing Theory to Practice is nearly two decades old. Our mission has remained constant: the transformation of higher education guided by the core purposes of higher education. But our work has evolved in response to new contexts, new challenges, and new ideas. Here’s a brief history.

Don Harward and Sally Engelhard Pingree launched Bringing Theory to Practice in 2003, alarmed by growing indicators of disengagement among college students. Undergraduates were instrumental in their studies, disinterested in civic life, and from the evidence of binge drinking, depression and anxiety, distanced from their own well-being. For Don and Sally, these forms of disengagement were deeply intertwined. Yet academic institutions –– siloed between academics and student life, withdrawn from their communities –– failed to address them systemically. BT2P was the response: an initiative to renew engaged, holistic learning in engaged, holistic institutions.​

Over the next fifteen years, with support from the Charles Engelhard Foundation, The Endeavor Foundation, and others, BT2P funded 550 projects on some 350 campuses. The projects fostered community partnerships, student health and well-being, and active, engaged learning. They included curricular experiments, integrative first-year experiences, student-life initiatives, faculty development, and research and assessment. In effect, they constituted a loose national laboratory in undergraduate innovation. At the same time, BT2P shared the work of this network and reflected on its implications for educational change. It hosted more than twenty conferences and workshops, launched a triannual newsletter, and published seven books on undergraduate reform, civic education, and student well-being.

BT2P’s framework evolved along the way. Our initial focus on battling student disengagement grew into a more comprehensive call for renewing the greater purposes of college. These purposes included not only the original triad of civic development, student well-being, and engaged learning, but also more deliberate attention on education for meaningful work and on equity and inclusion. But two themes continued to define BT2P’s work. One was the conviction that the core purposes of college had been orphaned by the fragmented, transactional culture of most institutions. Transformational learning required institutional reform. The other was that reform depended on unified, campus-wide action by administrative leaders, faculty, and staff. Holistic innovation, campus by campus, would drive systemic change across higher education.

Over the fifteen years of Don Harward’s leadership, this framework produced a broad network of campus change-makers, a rich trove of research and practice-wisdom, and significant publications. Since 2018, we’ve continued to build on these achievements — but we’ve also continued to evolve. We’re focused less on stand-alone campus innovations and more on networked collaboration and organizing a national community of change-makers. And we’re more invested in amplifying the voice, values, and practices of that community in the national conversation about higher education.

These evolving priorities have led to new initiatives, which you can explore throughout the website. They include our Multi-Institutional Innovation Grants, our PLACE and Well-Being+Equity collaboratories, and the biweekly letter Bringing It and the BT2P Blog, which serve as forums for sharing work, information, and ideas from our larger community.

BT2P’s history will continue to evolve, guided by our commitments to foundational purposes and transformational change. As higher education (and American society) enter a period of ongoing crisis — marked by pandemics, economic recession, a reckoning with systemic racism, deepening inequality, and climate change — these dual commitments are more essential than ever.