Emory’s decision to shut down several programs should not be so shocking as it represents the trend in US higher education to follow, not lead, American society. The decision reminds us that even established, prestigious institutions like Emory are not free from the influence of “the market”. Although Emory’s decision is understandable on practical grounds, this should set off alarms for educators everywhere.
If you haven’t read about this yet, Emory is shutting down undergraduate programs in visual arts, health and physical education, and journalism, and graduate programs in economics, Spanish, and liberal arts. The importance of these particular choices is stunning given the world we live in today.
I am not suggesting that all universities should offer all degree programs. I am wondering though about the significance of a university with established programs, presumably of high quality given Emory’s reputation for excellence, shutting down intensely relevant degrees in in order to shift resources to programs with larger enrollments.
The need for well-prepared individuals in the fields Emory is phasing out has never been greater. Obesity affects somewhere between one-third and one-half of the US population. American journalists today provide entertainment and misinformation rather than well-researched analysis. The American economy is, well, kind of a disaster. We need university graduates who can repair the damage that has accumulated during recent decades to public health, public information, and economic policy, graduates with solid, well-designed preparation to confront these challenges.
Spanish-speaking citizens represent the most rapidly-growing sector of the US population as well as the language of most of a continent that few Americans know anything about, not to mention, a region with increasing global economic influence. How is it possible that Emory cannot convey to prospective students the value of graduate study that will allow them to engage these communities and cultures in a range of professional roles?
In today’s interdependent, international economy service industries are employing larger numbers of people, especially people who have highly developed communication skills, preferably in more than one language! In a complex world, successful workers will need to draw on a broad base of skills, precisely the kind of education that liberal arts programs offer. It is worth noting a growing interest in liberal arts programs throughout the world as many countries with a long tradition of highly specialized professional education are recognizing that this kind of education does not develop the range of human capacity that modern societies require.
We read more every week about the importance of innovation to economic development that, from where I sit, means more interdisciplinary study, more exposure to disciplines that are inherently creative. Does anyone really believe that a world filled with individuals who have specialized degrees in business administration, law and medicine will find the solutions needed to advance the international economy or solve complex global problems? To paraphrase Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid, innovation starts at the crossroads of science and humanities. I fear we are now neglecting both. Can we repeat too many times that Steve Jobs insisted that Calligraphy was the most important class that he ever took?
To return to my original point, should universities follow market trends or lead them? Should Emory abandon programs because enrollment is low or is there a better response? We have a generation of young people throughout the world who approach university with limited orientation to future career possibilities and limited awareness of the skills they are most likely to need to adapt to a world that will change rapidly during their working lives. It is not surprising that they make predictable career choices that they do. But if universities truly intend to prepare young adults for the future, then better career orientation is critical. And it would go a long way towards preserving critical areas of study that will provide the broad range of skills future graduates will need, the foundation knowledge for future innovator, and the human capital that contemporary societies need.