‘New Liberal Arts’ or Not-So-Liberal Arts?

Ohio's Hiram College stakes its future on ability to attract enough students willing to embrace a new, more interdisciplinary, experiential curriculum.

May 2, 2018
 
Photo by James Cross
Lori Varlotta

Like many other small, tuition-dependent liberal arts colleges, northeastern Ohio’s Hiram College is puzzling over how to maintain its liberal arts heritage while attracting a new generation of career-driven, tech-savvy students.

President Lori Varlotta has taken to championing what she calls the “new liberal arts,” a more integrated, interdisciplinary and experiential version of the traditional curriculum that combines study in philosophy, math, literature, languages and the like with “high-impact experiences” and a dose of “mindful technology.” She maintains that the liberal arts will infuse new majors, such as computer science and integrative exercise science, that aren't traditional for liberal arts colleges.

Hiram is staking its future on its ability to attract enough students willing to embrace a new version of a very old idea.

The college has already moved in this direction: in 2014, it modified degree requirements to mandate that all students complete an internship, study-abroad trip or guided research project. Last October, it began a full academic redesign that will play out over the next few years, potentially trimming (or bolstering) several of its 29 departments.

Varlotta, whose operating budget is $30 million, has said the college also needs to cut $1.2 million to better align revenues with expenses.

Last fall, Hiram’s full-time faculty stood at about 80, with five instructors saying they’ll retire this spring. It also employs more than 50 mostly part-time faculty teaching adult undergraduate and graduate students.

Varlotta expects to announce programmatic changes by May or June. In the meantime, she has written extensively about the effort on the college’s website and elsewhere. Late last month, she told students and faculty members that she envisions Hiram’s academics as being organized around five interdisciplinary schools focused on:

  • science and sustainability
  • health and community advocacy
  • business and information analysis
  • education and civic leadership
  • exploratory thought, creative arts and languages.

Students, she wrote, will eventually choose a major within one of the five schools, but they’ll take courses cross-listed with other majors. They’ll also commit to addressing an “urgent challenge” like climate change, the opioid epidemic or immigration and refugee issues, among others.

Hiram has already begun handing each student a high-end iPad with the aim of teaching them how to use technology “creatively and critically.”

Not to be accused of technophilia, it has also given each student a pair of high-end hiking boots to encourage them to get out of dorm rooms and explore their surroundings, iPads in hand, to record their encounters. Varlotta, who wrote about her affection for walking around campus for Inside Higher Ed, calls the effort Tech and Trek.

It’s supported by a $2.1 million donation from alumnus Dean Scarborough, who chairs the college’s Board of Trustees. He made the donation in February 2017, along with his wife, Janice Bini -- at the time, it was Hiram’s largest ever. Then last month, the couple broke its own record, donating $6 million to assist the “new liberal arts” effort.

Enrollment is looking up, Varlotta said, noting that fall 2018 enrollment at Hiram's Traditional College is 28 percent higher than the previous year; last fall, 292 new freshmen and transfer students enrolled, up from 220 in 2016. Last fall's total enrollment, which includes Hiram's professional and graduate schools, was 1,221. Hiram's overall discount rate was 55 percent.

Catherine Augustine, a senior policy researcher at RAND, which has been assisting the college -- via another donation -- said the organization had recently been digging more deeply into academic redesigns. Its own graduate school, in Santa Monica, Calif., went through one, and in the process RAND studied trends in college-going, careers and what employers are looking for. One of the conclusions: students should be prepared for unexpected changes and multifaceted problems by learning via an “interdisciplinary lens,” she said.

A small liberal arts college like Hiram is well positioned to retool and offer such a program, Augustine said -- its instructors are already team teaching, and the school has dabbled in experiential learning. “This approach was not foreign to them.”

The RAND proposal didn’t recommend getting rid of majors -- it recommended getting rid of entire departments.

Like a lot of small, struggling liberal arts colleges, Hiram is searching for a way to figure out “what their niche is and how they’re going to survive,” she said. “They can retain a lot of what they have been and provide a strong liberal arts education in this new design.”

In an interview, Varlotta said the liberal arts have always helped students contextualize complex ideas and see the relationships between disciplines. She wants the new version of Hiram to offer “a more coherent path of study,” with more purpose within that tradition, offering students a more individualized schedule than it did just five years ago.

A philosophy major in college, Varlotta said those who insist that the liberal arts must remain “static and eternal” are mistaken. “They have been changing, not only for decades but for millennia.”

She plans to lay out in more detail her plans for the redesign in coming weeks, saying faculty are “still very much in the middle of gathering information” on what they’ll keep and what they won’t. For now, Hiram offers traditional liberal arts majors, as well as majors in subjects like computer science, accounting and financial management and integrative exercise science -- decidedly not liberal arts disciplines.

Varlotta said these nontraditional programs have been purposely designed as bachelor of arts degrees rather than the bachelor of science degrees commonly awarded in these areas. She said the only non-B.A. degree at Hiram is in nursing -- and noted that humanities courses in biomedical humanities major are built into the nursing curriculum.

In short, she said, every student at Hiram "studies the liberal arts in great depth," no matter their major. All students, including the accounting and financial management majors, will encounter two interdisciplinary courses, writing across the curriculum and "a strong core/liberal arts general education."

"Liberal arts is in everything we do," she said. "You cannot escape it if you come to Hiram College."

Victor E. Ferrall Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College and author of the 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, said he understood the need for Hiram to expand its offerings.

“It’s tough trying to run a liberal arts college -- it’s very tough,” he said. “If that’s what it takes to save Hiram, that’s what they’ve got to do. Who can fault them for that?"

But, he said, flatly, “It’s not very good for the liberal arts.”

More and more critics now consider the liberal arts an "extremely expensive elitist luxury," he said, an idea that colleges must work together to combat. Offering accounting or exercise science may bring in more students, but it weakens the overall effort.

“The essential strength of a liberal arts education is that you study things that are useless, and you focus on the act of learning, not what you’re learning,” he said. “When you’re studying accounting, what you’re learning to do is take notes and put the assets on the right side of the balance sheet.”

He conceded that Hiram may well push to infuse the liberal arts into other majors, but said it comes at a cost. "They’re still doing liberal arts. They’re just doing less of it, that’s all.”

Students arriving this fall will likely encounter a curriculum that looks much the same as the present one -- faculty plan to phase in the new program slowly, said Nicolas Hirsch, an associate professor of biology and faculty chair.

“If you come for a biology major, there’s still going to be a biology major,” he said. Actually, few of the 30-plus majors will change anytime soon -- “and certainly not the ones that are bringing us students.”

Hirsch said most of his colleagues remain “cautiously optimistic about the changes.” While many would prefer business as usual, they realize that they need to change to keep Hiram sustainable. As a result, he said, many have gotten behind the academic redesign: after Varlotta asked for proposals, they submitted more than 60 “very well-thought-out responses” for new majors, interdisciplinary study and other ideas.

He and others are pursuing more concrete plans surrounding about half a dozen of the most promising ones.

“We need to admit to ourselves that survival in the 21st century for the liberal arts may require some changes,” Hirsch said.

Going forward, he said, Hiram instructors must not only teach Plato and Beowulf, but also help students formulate business plans, think critically, communicate more effectively and improve their research skills, helping students discern good sources from bad.

“I don’t think we’re giving up on the liberal arts,” he said. “I think they’re more important than ever. But I think we need to change how we go about it.”

Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University English professor who is not connected to the Hiram effort but who writes widely on American higher education and the liberal arts, applauded Varlotta and her faculty “for recognizing we need the liberal arts -- we need to revitalize them.”

But he predicted that the effort is “going to fail” unless Hiram makes sure it invests in quality teaching.

“The only ground for the humanities is the books, the masterpieces, the sublime and beautiful objects,” he said. “That’s the only thing that will keep them vibrant on a college campus.”

Author of the 2009 book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30), Bauerlein said great teaching, not a grand plan to create global citizens, will get the job done.

“Do you think any student majors in the humanities because they think to themselves, ‘This will make me a really good critical thinker’? That is not what drives a 19-year-old.”

What drives them, he said, is the beauty of the content: a Jane Austen novel, a Milton poem or a Miles Davis solo, brought to life by a great teacher. “It’s the materials, not the skills development, that’s going to draw students in.”

But Bauerlein said most instructors fall short. “Our problem in the humanities is a personnel problem.”

Identity politics -- a preoccupation with multiculturalism, as well as issues of sexuality and racial identity -- Bauerlein says, have turned many an otherwise good college teacher into “a great big downer. They’re incapable of inspiring 19-year-olds on how great this stuff is.”

As for Varlotta’s bid to tie study of the liberal arts to larger issues of sustainability, poverty, immigration, public health or other “urgent challenges,” Bauerlein said he’s skeptical. Tying the study of great works to the pursuit of “certain beneficial, moral resolutions” is invariably going to narrow them, he said.

Varlotta said she agrees with Bauerlein about the importance of good teaching, noting that many Hiram students choose classes or even a major based on “the good things they know (or have just heard) about the professors. For this group, it is the type and quality of the professor with whom they study that matters most.”

For others, she said, the material itself “pulls them in and keeps them going.”

Still others choose courses or a major based on what the course of study will “do” for them and how it will prepare them for their life and career.

Hiram’s “new liberal arts” model must accommodate all three types of students, Varlotta said. “We want to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the pack, but we also want to be true to our mission as a liberal arts college.”

Beloit's Ferrall said that in a way the need to differentiate is the enemy of these colleges' bigger, and perhaps "hopeless," mission: to defend the liberal arts, no matter where students enroll.

​“Obviously you want to say this is a great school and you’ll be happy as hell and the winters aren’t as bad as people say. If you’re trying to preserve a college, that’s a great idea. If you’re trying to preserve the liberal arts, it’s a problem.”

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