Liberal Arts in Jeopardy?

At a national gathering of arts and sciences deans, educators worry that a growing emphasis on employability and the bottom line might threaten their programs.
November 13, 2009

BALTIMORE — As colleges across the country continue to cinch their belts, both administrators and students have been forced to decide which sorts of programs are good investments and which are now unaffordable luxuries. And with students sweating a cutthroat job market that favors specific skills, many in higher education have been left wonder how the recession stands to affect the liberal arts.

That was much on the minds of liberal arts leaders gathered here at the annual meeting of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences. How to maintain the appeal of “an education for wisdom and virtue” as families and institutions fixate anxiously on their bottom lines was the question of the day.

“We need to think about how it is that we preserve the things that are important,” Dan Wakelee, associate dean of the faculty at California State University at Channel Islands, “so that when things stabilize, we’re in a position to accommodate students and continue to offer liberal arts programs that have made us distinctive in the past.”

Liberal arts institutions must take an active role in convincing students and parents that pursuing a liberal education will enrich them as people without compromising them as job-seekers, said Kristin Fossum, an associate dean at Pomona College.

“We need to make the case that a liberal arts education is not less but more valuable in a faltering economy,” she said, “especially in an economy that is likely to falter and change several times during a student’s lifetime. We need to make clear to others … that such an education is the best preparation for knowledge, critical thinking, communication skills, adaptability — not specific technical skills, but habits of mind.”

Matthew C. Moen, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Dakota, said that as college becomes more expensive, students and parents have increasingly come to expect that it pay immediate, measurable returns. “[Higher] tuition means students emerge laden with debt,” Moen said. “And so I think part of what we see is that they act in a more calculated, careerist fashion, choosing majors with the promise of jobs — and who could blame them?”

Moen, who served as president of the council last year, suggested that institutions need to help students recognize what the broad curriculum of a liberal arts education can prepare them to accomplish in the long term — to focus not on the jobs they hope to land in immediately upon graduating, but the jobs they aspire to hold when they are 30, 40, 50 years old.

Several attendees offered examples of how they are assuring students of the relevance of the liberal arts on their campuses. The University of Alaska at Anchorage has started a lecture series where professors from different liberal arts disciplines give talks aimed at attracting a popular audience. Utah State University has invited successful alumni back to talk about how their liberal education shaped their careers.

But it’s not just students who need to be recruited into the liberal arts ethos, said Jeffrey Lynch, a dean at Eastern Illinois University. It’s the policymakers who control the money, and the public they answer to. “We do a terrible job of that,” Lynch said. “We talk to one another very meaningfully about this stuff because we’re all initiated, but talking to your taxpayer — I mean, who goes out to the Rotary Club and talks about the liberal arts? It’s just not done, and I think we’ve got to do that.”

And then there is the issue of backing up all that talk with high-quality liberal arts programs while budgets everywhere are being slashed. The College of Arts and Sciences at the California State University at Stanislaus, for example, has lost 16 percent of its full-time faculty since last November and has struggled with a $13.5 million budget cut, said dean of humanities and social sciences Carolyn J. Stefanco. The college has instituted furloughs, reduced enrollment (the college loses money on each student), increased fees, eliminated its winter term, and is planning to create for-profit programs to help shore up its budget.

Even still, Stefanco said she anticipates more cuts in the near future, in which case some programs in the college might have to absorb others. “If anyone knows the roadmap to follow,” she said, “please let me know."


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