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How is it possible for instructors in the liberal arts to teach most of the undergraduate classes in the typical institution and still feel like second-class citizens? Maybe that’s the source of the problem — teaching general education to all those majors in other colleges of a comprehensive university.

Liberal arts are important, particularly because they instill critical thinking across the disciplines. General education — cornerstone courses in English composition, economics, history, modern languages, philosophy, psychology and sociology — is an essential part of the college and university experience.

However, the aim here is not to tout the humanities and social sciences but to approach the issue of second-class citizenry from a curricular standpoint so that institutions realize the cost of general education and the toll it takes on low-paid colleagues, with little demand after graduation for their majors, including ones with advanced degrees.

In a 2007 piece about low salaries for history professors, Stanley Katz, president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies questioned whether (a) universities were "systematically discriminating against the humanities in setting compensation" and (b) the humanities were "a throwaway part of the faculty and curriculum, to be less valued than income-producing ideas and behaviors?"

"Yes" and "yes," Scott Gerber seemingly answered in a 2012 Atlantic Monthly essay, "How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America," asserting:

We keep telling young Americans that a bachelor's degree in history is as valuable as, say, a chemical engineering degree — but it's just not true anymore. All degrees are not created equal. And if we — parents, educators, entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders — maintain this narrow-minded approach, then we are not just failing young indebted Americans and their families. We are harming the long-term vitality of our economy.

Last year the financial news outlet 24/7 Wall St. reported the best and worst college degrees, defining both best and worst by average salaries upon graduation. Predictably, the "best" majors in ascending order were "Physical and Related Sciences," "Computers, Mathematics and Statistics" and "Engineering," with annual salaries ranging from $80-91K. On the bottom in descending order were "Literature and Languages," "Liberal Arts and History," "Psychology" and "Visual and Performing Arts," with salaries from $50-58K.

The duties of liberal arts deans are more complex than those of any other university officer, including the president. They are tasked not only with overseeing a complex unit often the size of a regional university at flagship institutions; they also must rely on a budget model that rewards the number of classes and non-majors that they teach — rather than the popularity of their own majors — so that basic education can be vended to the masses.

At public research universities, this also requires huge graduate programs and ever larger classes. Thus, there is little incentive for liberal arts departments to focus on enrollment, recruitment and retention of their own majors.

Of course decreases in enrollment bring repercussions, as we shall see later.

To fulfill their mission, liberal arts deans have to ensure that their professors do not feel like second-class citizens, especially when it comes to curriculums. After all, faculty members own the curriculums and those in the liberal arts should be free to innovate and experiment with new courses just as their counterparts do in more specialized professional and technical colleges.

Sooner or later, however, the astute dean realizes that you can generally educate other majors only if you restrict curricular growth in the humanities and social sciences because the typical budget model will not allow you to teach non-majors and expand your degree programs.

At that point, most liberal arts deans fathom what they have gotten themselves into as they try to manage departments as diverse as African-American studies, anthropology, communication studies, creative writing, economics, English, French, German, journalism, Latino/a studies, music, Native American studies, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, sociology, Southeast Asian studies, Spanish, speech, technical writing, theater, and women’s studies. Add to that the advising office, the language lab, the multicultural center, the multimedia center, the writing center, the student newspaper and television station, and the multiple emphases, sequences, options, tracks and degrees associated with each of the above disciplines.

Unluckier deans also oversee colleges of liberal arts and sciences. So now add basic courses for all students in astronomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics, each requiring adjuncts, support staff and assistants in addition to lab space for the entire institution.

The most unlucky liberal arts deans also are asked to house and advise all undecided majors, taking responsibility for what should be a university college. Now add assessment, recruitment and retention to the position responsibility statement.

Just as salaries in the humanities and social sciences lag behind others, liberal arts deans also typically earn less than their counterparts in other colleges. According to the 2012 survey of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, the average salary of liberal arts deans at doctoral institutions is $180,000, thousands below that of counterparts in agriculture; business; computer and information sciences; engineering; and veterinary medicine.

Small wonder, then, that liberal arts managers last only about 4-5 years in their positions while university presidents enjoy an average 8.7 years’ tenure, according to a study by the American Council on Education.

An article by Susan Resneck Pierce cites that study, emphasizing the exhaustive list of duties assigned to the dean of liberal arts and sciences at Lewis & Clark College, where she once served as academic vice president. The list required 216 words, condensed here to 52:

Inspiring leadership, progressive management, promotion of excellent teaching and research, development of external partnerships, articulation of institutional goals for growth, side-by-side fund-raising with the president, compelling visions to attract a wide array of donors, astute financial management skills, and leveraging of budgetary systems to enable long-term strategic planning.

Finally, the dean was expected to develop "the financial resources necessary" for the college to support the above aspirations.

Pierce concluded that these and "a myriad of additional reasons" explain why liberal arts managers usually are short-timers.

To teach all those majors in other colleges, armies of graduate teaching assistants are needed. That would be fine, except there are few jobs for many of those students once they earn advanced degrees. If you consider supply and demand, you quickly come to the conclusion that teaching assistants in the humanities and social sciences are needed from a job market perspective only while earning degrees, not afterward.

It gets worse. As professors in the liberal arts create new and narrower courses, programs and degrees, they must rely on adjuncts, those low-paid master teachers who take over classes that graduate students can’t and/or professors won’t do. Adjuncts, the real second-class citizens, have large teaching loads because so many are needed to cover curricular expansion.

All this worked out in the past before business-driven budget models were introduced, based on demand for a major, and before legislatures tightened appropriations. Add a recession to the mix and a mandate or two, as in this report by the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices, recommending lawmakers persuade colleges “to move beyond their traditional emphasis on a broad liberal-arts education to thinking more about skills for specific jobs.”

The result? When economic benchmarks are used, the humanities and social sciences are viewed as dispensable.

Often they become targets during reorganization when institutions eliminate departments and degrees because insufficient attention has been given to such considerations as curricular glut and declining levels of enrollment, recruitment, retention and placement rates. Other less controversial strategies can lighten the load of liberal arts management and create an even playing field for the professoriate.

  • Work with the dean. Faculty can streamline curriculums, ending sequences and eliminating most prerequisites so students advance more quickly in degree programs. Units can require lower and upper core courses on vital topics with all other classes as electives, rotating them every other year rather than offering them every semester. Professors should help with recruitment of students, increasing undergraduate enrollment to ensure that programs are viable. Faculty advising is essential in retention and placement efforts. Departments can require undergraduate plans of study so their students can finish degrees in four or fewer years and then promote graduation rates to build enrollment.
  • Consolidate departments. If faculty members fail to work with the dean, or if the budgetary situation warrants, it is preferable to consolidate departments and degrees instead of eliminating them. Rather than underwrite numerous academic units, administrations can combine them into schools of humanities and social sciences, thereby honoring tenure of professors. For instance, related academic units — ones that deal with society, say, such as cultural anthropology, political science and sociology — would combine within a collective structure requiring fewer chairs and support staff. Curricular streamlining is essential now, with cornerstone courses across disciplines and specializations in each major. Similar consolidation can be done with all or some of such humanities as history, English, modern languages, philosophy and religion.
  • Recreate university college. If your institution lacks a university college, create one for undeclared majors and locate support centers and laboratories there, along with reassigning to the new dean all responsibility for general education. If your institution has a university college, recreate it to handle general education and remove those responsibilities from colleges of liberal arts and sciences. Pay adjuncts well to teach those courses in the excellent tradition of letters. This will go a long way toward eliminating or reducing need for large graduate programs for which there is little demand after graduation. Over time, without graduate assistants, curricular offerings will decrease because someone has to teach all those courses. Faculty numbers and support staff can be adjusted to meet actual interest in the major, with increased research and grant expectations for continuing professors.
  • Reassign responsibility. Faculty senates can identify general education themes in the arts, communication, ethics, language, natural sciences, and society and then require deans of other colleges to provide them within their own existing curriculums. For instance, a philosophy requirement can be tailored for each college, from "Ethics and Engineering" to "Veterinary Medical Ethics.” Composition classes can focus on topics associated with each college, too, such as issues in agronomy, education, business and so forth. Granted, faculty senates would have to guard against program duplication, restricting these thematic areas only to general education, but deans of other colleges would relieve some of the burden from the liberal arts, again providing that even playing field so that graduate programs meet demand and all professors have similar teaching loads and research expectations.

The root of second-class citizenry is easy to discern. Liberal arts colleges are expected to provide two things while other colleges are not: their own pedagogies plus general education. There may be other venues to resolve this dilemma, but denigrating the liberal arts and their essential basic courses is not one of them. Rather, we should seek curricular and organizational alternatives to revitalize higher education, reducing budgets and with it, student debt, instilling new respect for the rigors, cost and value of general education and recruiting a new class of scholars with research and grant expectations as well as instructional ones.

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