Report from the Joint Meeting of the American Conference of Academic Deans (ACAD) and the Phi Beta Kappa Society (Milwaukee, June 23-25, 2016)
by Carrie Klaus, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Modern Languages (French)
The Liberal Arts Are Not In Crisis… And So What If They Are?
Are the liberal arts in crisis? Dr. Georgia Nugent, President Emerita of Kenyon College and interim president of The College of Wooster, responded with a resounding “No!” at a recent joint meeting of the American Conference of Academic Deans and Phi Beta Kappa Society. Liberal arts colleges, Nugent reminded the gathered members of these organizations, have always educated a small sliver of American society (we don’t have the capacity of large, land-grant institutions) and have always been pre-professional (most were created to train clergy, not scholars). However, she added, liberal arts colleges have also always been arrogant. We have assumed that our value is self-evident. It is eminently reasonable, Nugent observed, for liberal arts colleges to be asked to articulate this value to the larger public.
Even if we do believe the liberal arts are in crisis, Nugent remarked, we would do well to reject a defensive posture and to respond instead with curiosity, asking, in best liberal arts fashion, “Why is this going on? Isn’t this interesting? What does this mean? How can we understand it?”
It is true that the demographics of our student body are changing, and that liberal arts colleges, like all institutions of higher education in the United States, will continue to see a welcome rise in enrollments among Latinos, African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, and students who identify as multiracial (all of these students making up what is coming to be known as the “New Majority”), as well as among first-generation and international students. Part of our response to these significant demographic and cultural shifts, which are not unique to higher education, must involve renewing our dedication to preparing students to be informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens. Another part must involve embracing the role that we as members of institutions have to play on an American and, indeed, global stage. Central to that role is expanding access to higher education, which remains a driver of upward mobility. As Dr. Chad Berry, Academic Vice President and Dean of the Faculty at Berea College put it, “If we don’t take steps [to reduce the widening achievement gap between rich and poor in the United States], we’re doing not only our country, but also our students, a great disservice, from the standpoint of basic human dignity.”
Berea College and Xavier University of Louisiana provide aspirational models of small colleges that can have a large impact. Xavier University, the only predominantly black Catholic University in the United States, enrolls only 4000 students each year but ranks first nationally in the number of African American students who earn undergraduate degrees in the biological and physical sciences and first nationally in the number of African American graduates who go on to complete medical school. Xavier’s “formula” includes faculty development for K-12 teachers, outreach to rising ninth graders at its main feeder schools, summer science programs for high school students, a close integration of STEM fields with other areas of the liberal arts, and a strong advising program that includes the development of an individual career plan for each student that takes into account every semester and summer. Like Xavier University, Berea College, whose mission is to serve the underserved, expands its focus beyond the four years of undergraduate study, developing “bridges into, through, and out of” the institution. Programs include housing for families for prospective student visits; a single-parent initiative; subsidies for internships, graduate school visits, and preparation for graduate school admissions tests; a professional clothing allowance; and funding for job interviews and relocation. Berea has strong yield among accepted applicants, high persistence, and, like Xavier, is ranked highly as a college for African American students and as an undergraduate source of graduates who go on to earn PhDs. Although Berea and Xavier differ significantly from DePauw, we may wish to consider some successful components of their programs as models.
One area in which DePauw may be well positioned to contribute is in providing opportunities for more students to take part in “high-impact practices” such as engaging in research as undergraduates. According to a report released in 2013 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices these practices matter most to underserved students.
We are also well positioned to foster interdisciplinary collaboration. As Dr. Earl Lewis, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, remarked at the ACAD-PBK meeting, “Scientists need humanists, and humanists need scientists.” When considering a truly global problem such as climate change, for example, Lewis noted that different fields (geosciences, economics, political science, anthropology, women’s studies…) ask different questions, and therefore develop different kinds of knowledge. “Each of these perspectives,” Lewis argued, “is necessary, but not sufficient.” Fortunately for us, interdisciplinarity is one of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. What we must do is think more intentionally about how to design interdisciplinary teams that encourage true collaboration, beginning at the undergraduate level. One intriguing model is at Grand Valley State University, a much larger institution (whose library we have admired, which has recently created a College of Interdisciplinary Studies that exists alongside a more traditional College of Arts and Sciences but provides for collaboration with the University’s professional schools as well.
Just as we encourage students to cross disciplines, so we must realize that professional preparation is not antithetical to a liberal arts education and that, as Dr. Charles Westerberg, Associate Provost and Director of the Liberal Arts in Practice Center at Beloit College, put it in a session at the ACAD-PBK meeting, equipping students for their working lives “does not sully the pursuit of truth.” The Liberal Arts in Practice Program established in 2009 at Beloit College offers another worthwhile model for DePauw. It includes a curricular requirement for in-class and out-of-class learning, ongoing advising, financial support (e.g., venture grants and subsidies for unpaid internships and individual projects), and structured reflection. Such a program at DePauw might build upon existing strengths of our first-year programming, academic advising, and Hubbard Center, while increasing equity by bringing these opportunities to all students and enhancing experiences and outcomes through the reflective component.
Working for broader access to our institutions, expanding opportunities for faculty-student and interdisciplinary collaboration, and reflecting deeply on learning all sound like pretty good ways to respond to (what’s not) a crisis.