administrators

Sustaining the liberal arts requires organizational restructuring (essay)

Over the last few years, there has been no shortage of news coverage and commentary remarking on the seemingly real or perhaps only greatly exaggerated death of the liberal arts in American higher education.

We are not alone in thinking that the debate about the relevance of the liberal arts is tired and simplistic. To our minds, the liberal arts are as relevant as ever -- as a means of enriching lives, developing engaged citizens and nurturing foundational professional skills.

But if the public, rightly or wrongly, is becoming increasingly skeptical of the value of the liberal arts -- and enrollment trends at certain institutions would suggest that they may be, at least in some measure -- then schools of liberal arts will have to accept some share of the blame themselves.

Undoubtedly, public pronouncements arguing that we need “more welders and less philosophers,” as former presidential candidate Marco Rubio claimed late last year, irk many in the liberal arts -- and not solely because of Rubio’s poor use of grammar. This notion that liberal arts graduates are terminally unemployable is achieving a kind of -- to borrow Stephen Colbert’s famous neologism -- truthiness. And that kind of misinformation can be particularly frustrating to faculty members and students who have devoted their energy and enthusiasm to these fields of study, and enjoyed successful careers as a result of it.

The fact is, as researchers in the field of employability will tell you, a great many organizations have a real interest in hiring college graduates possessing communication and reasoning skills blended with technical expertise and strong character. In an Inside Higher Ed commentary from early 2016, Burning Glass CEO Matthew Sigelman argued that his firm’s research on labor demand has shown that many of the fastest-growing jobs are hybrid in character, requiring “people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.” Few would argue that the liberal arts don’t have a contribution to make in producing these sorts of graduates.

Still, frustrating though they may be, news headlines and political commentary aren’t the real obstacles to sustaining the future of the liberal arts. That challenge has less to do with media perceptions or careless politicizing than with the traditional organizational structures and curricular approaches of schools of liberal arts themselves. Here’s what we mean.

Departmental structures can be inflexible and inhibit creative responses to changing market expectations. At a number of liberal arts institutions we work with, faculty express great interest in interdisciplinary work and other forms of innovation. In some respects they find organizational structures -- the proliferation of schools, departments, divisions, units -- just as frustrating and inhibiting as administrators do. But when faculty become uneasy with the tenor of the public debate about the contribution of the liberal arts and feel threatened, they often rely on these structures as a bulwark against change. Others may resist on principle any movement that might be perceived as moving in the direction of vocationalism or focusing on work readiness associated with linking the liberal arts to professional programs.

In both cases, the result can be the same: faculty hunker down. They look at the growth of faculty lines in engineering or business and argue that their departments would grow, too -- if only similar investments were made in their faculty. Of course, increasing capacity doesn’t automatically increase enrollments. Yet for those individuals, the fight for resources is viewed as a zero-sum game, and some faculty members and department chairs would seek to preserve the structures that they know rather than risk reorganizing in ways that merge departments or explicitly require collaboration with the professional disciplines -- even if such changes might deliver more value to students. But of course, such mergers and collaborations are possible where adjacent disciplines complement one another -- such as writing and English programs or communications and performing arts. Restructurings of these sorts can not only avoid unnecessary redundancies in staff positions and other organizational overhead, but also foster the development of a more contemporary curriculum and enrich the student experience.

Departmental structures can constrain the evolution and effectiveness of general-education curricula. As the volume of majors in the liberal arts disciplines continues to fluctuate, general education programs may be seen as an increasingly powerful mechanism to promote traditional liberal arts values. But they can also offer students new forms of interdisciplinary intellectual exposure via minors or other ways of bundling sequences of courses.

For departments with declining majors, general-education course enrollments are frequently seen by faculty as crucial evidence of their value. As a result, there is often resistance by faculty members and department chairs to restructuring general-education programs in ways that might deviate from the more immediately measurable performance models based on numbers of department majors -- even if such restructurings may lead to more relevant and flexible curricula for students. For example, while the contemporary student may derive significant value from experiential learning components and interdisciplinary capstone courses, their inclusion in general-education programs is often met with resistance by faculty as they fall outside the traditional disciplinary or departmental structure.

Departmental structures can necessitate organizational workarounds, such as the creation of interdisciplinary liberal arts centers or institutes, to find a home for innovation. While interdisciplinary centers or institutes can serve as vital catalysts for innovation and collaboration across the disciplines, merely establishing them will not necessarily overcome the force of decades of departmentally focused priorities. As a result, these interdisciplinary centers can sometimes evolve into isolated interdisciplinary silos. Indeed, the lack or perceived lack of incentives for faculty involvement, a misalignment with departmental promotional criteria and the absence of clear expectations with respect to the roles that particular departments or disciplines are meant to play in these centers can all contribute to their eventual marginalization and failure -- which can make it even more challenging to recruit and retain high-potential faculty. Paying lip service to interdisciplinarity isn’t sufficient. In fact, it just exacerbates tensions between units and can make numerous departments less productive. What’s required is a commitment to interdisciplinarity and the centers that promote it as hubs of cross-discipline engagement, for faculty and students alike.

Our view is that the liberal arts matter. Why? Because they prepare students to reason and solve problems, because they develop critical communication skills, and because they teach students how to engage in a process of discovery -- whether it be intellectual discovery, self-discovery or professional discovery. If schools of liberal arts put these same skills to work in examining their own efforts and organizational structures, the liberal arts might well flourish.

Such schools would be more apt to bring together data analytics and the study of literature, or revolutionize the way they think about the role and contribution of general-education programs, or promote liberal arts minors for engineers and biologists in lieu of fighting for more majors within the liberal arts. They might, in other words, rethink the longstanding organizational structures that have housed -- and for many years nurtured -- the liberal arts, but which have now begun to constrain and limit their impact.

Peter Stokes is a managing director and Chris Slatter is a manager in the higher education practice at Huron Consulting Group.

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Geophysicists: Evolution 'Must Be Central' in Science Ed

The American Geophysical Union has reaffirmed its position on teaching Earth history and evolution. “Scientific theories of Earth history and biological evolution are fundamental to understanding the natural world, are supported by extensive evidence and are noncontroversial within the scientific community,” the union’s updated statement says. “These principles of scientific understanding must be central elements of science education.”

The union says that no “alternative explanations” for biological evolution have been found, and that explanations of natural phenomena that appeal “to the supernatural based on religious doctrine -- and therefore cannot be tested through scientific inquiry -- are not scientific, and have no place in the science classroom. … To deny students a full understanding of the theory of evolution in the context of Earth history is to deprive them of an important part of their intellectual heritage.”

Jana Davis, chief scientist of the Chesapeake Bay Trust and chair of the union's Position Statement Task Force, said in a separate statement that “Just as scientific theories are subject to revision as knowledge and research grows, [the union’s] position statements are regularly revisited to ensure they’re in line with current understanding. … As a leader in the Earth and space science community, it is important for [the union] to be a strong voice for communicating accurate science to young audiences and inspiring young people to pursue advanced study of the sciences through early exposure to Earth and space science.”

The union also revised its position statement on K-12 science education to reflect new teaching standards from the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Achieve, saying that citizens “require a solid understanding of the Earth and space sciences to address responsibly many of the issues confronting society, such as climate change, natural hazards and resource availability.”

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Wesleyan Settles With Professor Who Alleged Harassment

Wesleyan University in Connecticut settled with a professor who accused it of botching a sexual harassment claim against a former dean. Lauren Caldwell, an associate professor of classical studies, sued Wesleyan earlier this year for allegedly mishandling her report of sexual harassment by Andrew Curran, a professor of romance languages and literature. Curran was dean of arts and humanities at the time of the alleged harassment, which Caldwell said included inappropriate sexual references and calling her “white trash.” The university did not follow protocols in dealing with her complaint, according to Caldwell’s suit, and she was eventually singled out for disparate treatment both by Curran and other administrators in retaliation for coming forward. A judge dismissed Caldwell’s suit after lawyers reported the settlement, according to the Associated Press. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. A Wesleyan spokesperson declined comment.

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37 Nigerian students sue Alabama State

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Thirty-seven Nigerian students sue Alabama State University over scholarship funds.

West Florida Rejects Politician as Its Next President

The board of the University of West Florida voted 9 to 4 Thursday to make Provost Martha Saunders the university's next president, the News Service of Florida reported. The vote was a surprise to some because another finalist for the job (who received the four votes that didn't go to Saunders) was Don Gaetz, a state senator who had strong backing from some political allies but who was opposed by faculty members and others for not having appropriate academic experience.

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Many elements beyond financial aid are needed to help underrepresented students succeed (essay)

There is a common expression -- “just throw money at the problem” and it will be fixed. But providing adequate financial support plays only a small part in supporting college students from particular sectors -- underrepresented minorities, those who are first in their families to attend college and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds -- to successfully complete an undergraduate degree.

For such students to succeed, universities need to make a consistent and sustainable institutional commitment toward that goal. They must examine their internal organizational structures and processes to determine those that may need to be rethought or reworked. Senior administrators as well as faculty and staff members should develop what the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education calls “equity-mindedness.” That broad institutional approach accepts responsibility and accountability for student success, as opposed to viewing any student challenges through a lens of student deficiency, ill preparedness, or “the student’s fault.”

This is what the University of La Verne -- a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution with more than 3,600 Latino students, a near majority of first-generation students and more than 1,400 students on Pell Grants -- is doing. It is also what other universities like Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have modeled. This past spring, we were all featured in an Excelencia in Education report that described the tactics that our institutions are using to enroll, retain and graduate more Latino/a students, in particular.

Far beyond only financial assistance, our universities have maintained organizational structures, cocurricular support opportunities and academic curricula that create an environment that helps not only Latino/a students but, in fact, all students to exceed expectations. And all our institutions are in it for the long haul; we introduce many of our initiatives when students are still in high school, provide continuing programs throughout their college years and also offer some initiatives for career and life success after graduation.

Some of the key areas we focus on include:

Recruiting. Support must begin before students apply to college. At the University of La Verne’s annual Latino Education Access and Development conference, high school students and their families meet and engage with Latino professionals, faculty members, alumni and current students -- building rapport and encouraging a sense of belonging among first-generation applicants. Similarly, UC Santa Barbara’s LA2SB program and UC Berkeley’s RAZA Day attempt to demystify the college experience by bringing high school students to their campuses for admissions presentations, tours and meetings with professors. Such programs help all high school students, but they are particularly effective for first-generation students and their entire families, as those students begin to picture themselves as college graduates for the first time.

Retention. It is often assumed that first-generation minority students enter college with the same hopes and expectations as their classmates. Yet they generally arrive with fewer of the skills needed for college success as well as far less familiarity with a higher education environment. It can be daunting for every student to navigate a complex university environment, build college-appropriate study habits, actively seek meaningful advice and counsel, engage in cocurricular activities, and connect with student peers and faculty members. But first-generation, low-income and minority students often face additional challenges. For example, employment obligations are paramount for lower-income students, many of whom are returning to school and are older than the traditional undergraduate age of 18 to 23 years old. Many of these students may also be caring for elderly relatives, siblings or their own children.

UC Santa Barbara and the University of La Verne both employ tactics for continually advising students who are at risk of falling behind in their courses and intervening where necessary. As an example of the need for an intentional focus on those students, consider the first-generation student who gets a D on a biology exam. For most students that might mean, “I need to study more,” or “I need a tutor,” or “I’ll do better next time.” A first-generation student often draws an entirely different conclusion that may sound like, “I guess I really don’t belong in college,” “I am wasting time and money,” or “I cannot succeed here.” Early and active advising stops that thought pattern, boosts students’ self-confidence and helps them develop a sense of belonging. We also offer mentoring programs with a demographic-specific focus, including peer, group and staff mentoring specifically for first-generation students or men of underrepresented populations.

Establishing a sense of community on the campus is also vital. UC Berkeley and Stanford offer Chicano and Latino centers as places to help foster a feeling of belonging among Latino students. The University of La Verne provides a thriving Latino student forum, a first-generation club, a common ground club that promotes religious diversity, a multicultural center and regular programming focused on student identity. We also routinely support events such as the Latino Heritage Month Fiesta, Black History Month Celebration and National Coming Out Day.

Through our signature four-year undergraduate program, The La Verne Experience, we integrate high-impact practices throughout every student’s undergraduate years. Those practices include interdisciplinary, student-focused learning communities intended to increase academic and personal support between student peers and faculty members. Starting in the freshman year, such communities gather entering freshman and transfer students with similar interests into the same set of three linked classes -- two distinct discipline classes and a smaller writing class. Over the following years, a series of cocurricular activities supplement what students learn in the classes. In addition, we offer high-touch/high-tech tutoring and career services in person and through telepresence across the university’s multiple campuses. (Telepresence is essential for the university’s regional campuses and of great value to students over traditional age.)

The La Verne Experience also includes mandatory civic and community-engagement activities, bringing curricular theory into practice and keeping students’ interests tied to their cities and focused on the assets of both the students and their home communities. During New Student Community Engagement Day, held on the Saturday before fall classes begin, first-year and transfer students volunteer across more than 20 community organizations. They distribute water and ice cream at Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, meet with incarcerated women and their children in Pomona, paint a mural at the Boys and Girls Club of Pomona Valley, or clean and harvest at the Huerta del Valle Community Garden in Ontario.

Students also become examples to other youth in their communities by demonstrating what is possible when they attend an institution that offers an inclusive environment and is attuned to supporting all students. One University of La Verne student who was raised in the foster care system fulfilled his academic community engagement requirement by volunteering at a group home, where he worked with children who shared his background. He found his own mission mentoring those children, and after he completed his service in his junior year, the organization hired him on its staff, where he continued to work after graduation.

Of course, in some situations throwing money at the problem -- expanding financial-aid opportunities to increase retention -- can be an important and effective strategy. The Excelencia report itemized various creative approaches in the junior and senior year of college. UC Santa Barbara awards some low-income high school graduates $120,000 scholarships to cover all four years of education, which reassures students from the outset that their financial needs will be met through graduation. At the University of La Verne, we offer additional scholarships when students might have to step out of college as a result of an increased or changing financial need. We also hold Starbucks nights at local coffee shops for students and their parents to discuss -- in Spanish, if necessary -- the financial aid that will be available at any point in their education.

Graduation. Career preparedness and workforce connections should be threaded throughout students’ experiences, beginning when they first arrive on campus. For example, The Convergence -- a partnership between our university and local health care organizations -- generates employment opportunities for our graduates in fields where diversity is highly desired. By working together, the partner organizations are more accurately forecasting workforce trends and developing educational programs and campaigns to make sure students are graduating with the knowledge and skills needed to for high-paying, meaningful careers. Just recently, the university launched a physician assistant program in response to the feedback we received about the need for the profession in the region.

We also provide extensive undergraduate research opportunities for all students. Any opportunity to bridge theory, skills and practice -- such as with research, community engagement or internships -- assists students to understand and appreciate the relevance and value of their education.

The results of these and other focused and intentional practices aimed at supporting the student body at our institution have been noticeable. Our four-year graduation rate has increased from 40 percent to nearly 50 percent in three years. The six-year graduation rate climbed from 59 percent to 64 percent in just one year.

Enhancing financial support alone did not achieve this improvement in student outcomes. While scholarships and other forms of student aid cannot be undervalued, it is the responsibility of a university’s leadership, along with the entire campus, to build an academic environment where all students feel comfortable, connected and confident, where they access support and resources are available to them, and where they realize the institution is focused on their ultimate success. You cannot put a price on that.

Devorah Lieberman is president of the University of La Verne.

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Northwestern Extends Grad Students' Parental Leave

Northwestern University’s Graduate School replaced a six-week maternity leave for birth mothers with a more generous 12-week leave for graduate student parents of “all gender identities and gender expressions.” Adoptive parents are now covered by the new policy, which also includes a one-year extension of milestone deadlines, such as exams. Graduate students who are funded, or receiving tuition and stipend at the time of the leave, are eligible for additional funding during the 12 weeks. Alan Cubbage, university spokesman, said via email that the revised parental accommodation “is one in a series of investments Northwestern is making to enhance the experience for our graduate students who are parents, as well as support an inclusive, family-friendly campus culture more broadly.”

Florida A&M President Agrees to Leave Office Early

Elmira Mangum's last day as president of Florida A&M University was Thursday, following approval of an exit agreement with the university's board, The Tallahassee Democrat reported. Mangum was at the beginning of the last year of a three-year term, and agreed that there was no longer a path forward after the board voted in August not to extend her contract. Some board members accuse her of poor communication or leadership, but many students and alumni say that she has been doing an excellent job even though some board members are trying to micromanage the institution.

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Union announces end of faculty lockout at Long Island U

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Union announces agreement to extend old contract, use mediator and reimburse professors for health costs they faced while out of a job.

Syracuse Ousts Dean of Business School

Syracuse University on Wednesday removed Kenneth Kavajecz as dean of the institution's Whitman School of Management and also placed him on administrative leave from his faculty position, Syracuse.com reported. No reason was given for the sudden move, and university officials said that policy required them not to answer questions about the shift. Kavajecz did not respond to requests for comment.

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