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13 November 2015

So You Think You Work at a Liberal Arts College

I work at an institution that is designated as the state's public liberal arts institution. From the first time I visited campus for an interview nearly seven years ago, it became apparent that there were several discrepancies between the common notion of what a liberal arts institution is, what the official mission of our institution is, and what actually happens here. This year, our provost has decreed the we engage in a Liberal Arts Renewal Project (LARP). As seems to be a dominate theme in my life these days, I find myself ambivalent. On the one hand, there are definitely cultural and organization disconnects that need to be resolved, but on the other hand, I haven't really heard any administrators clearly articulate exactly how a series of campus discussions will be translated into actual, lasting institutional change. My skepticism has kept me from attending any of the faculty discussion meetings yet, but I did want to go through the exercise of delineating the majors problems that I see separating the concept of a liberal arts institution from the doing of our "liberal arts" institution. Without further ado:

How can you call yourself a liberal arts institution when you...
  • ...offer graduate programs?
    • It's been explained to me that our graduate programs exist as a means to generate revenue since we really can't bring in much money from tuition or research grants. This seems like an institutional problem. The Board of Regents says, "Yes, you can be the state's liberal arts institution," but then holds us to the same kinds of revenue and growth expectations as R1's and regional universities. We simply can't do both. (Don't get me started with the corporatization and business-speak creeping in with the focus on "high impact," "revenue generation," and "growth.")

      There are other institutions in our state system that generally do better at graduate education. We exploit our students when we tell them to apply to our program instead of the better program at the flagship institutions.
  • ...offer professional majors and programs?
    • It is decidedly un-liberal-artsy to offer professional programs (e.g. Accounting, Athletic Training, Business, and Nursing), and we offer a lot of them. At most, true liberal arts institutions could offer pre-professional tracks within the traditional liberal arts disciplines. For example, a student who wanted to go into "business" could major in economics, psychology, or sociology and tailor her classes and minor to prepare her for a job in the business world (i.e. the world) or for an MBA program.

      This of course opens up a bigger discussion about what college is for. Many parents and students want to know what you can "do" with a major, as in what kind of jobs this particular course of education prepares students for. The liberal arts approach, however, sees education as self-evidently beneficial, irrespective of what kind of or even whether it leads to gainful employment. I think that it is incumbent on liberal arts institutions to explain to potential students and their parents that what we do is different. If you want a generic business degree, the bigger state school is just up the road; if you want to critically examine business and have a breadth of knowledge at your disposal to be both a good employee and a good citizen, we're your place.

      I would argue that a liberal arts degree is distinctive for this reason. If I'm looking at job applicants, and I have a pile of resumes all listing business degrees, the applicant with a sociology degree would stand out to me.
  • ...allow undergraduate enrollment to increase?
    • Generally, liberal arts means small. We need a cap to protect the sense of community that only smallness can engender.
  • ...allow relatively large class sizes?
    • As noted above, the liberal arts means small. This means direct, meaningful, egalitarian, lasting, and helpful contact with one's professors, instead of mediated interaction via a graduate teaching assistant or fleeting contact with faculty. The current actual average number of students per section for my program is 19.8. The university advertises the institutional averages as a 17:1 student/faculty ratio and 24 students per section. All of these numbers are indefensibly high for a supposed liberal arts institution. In my time here, the only official limits on class size have been the number of desks/seats that can legally be crammed into a classroom. We need an official cap on class size.
  • ...signal that faculty research expectations are increasing without offering increased institutional support?
    • Liberal arts institutions are teaching oriented institutions. That does not mean, however, that research is not valued. Research informs teaching and vice versa, but faculty have limited time and energy. We cannot both claim to be a liberal arts institution and try to be a research-intensive institution--especially not without a serious increase in institutional support for research.
  • ...have relatively large teaching loads?
    • The mandated teaching load here is a 4/4. There are two problems with this. First (and ironically), such a relatively high teaching load is contrary to a teaching-oriented mission. To have meaningful interaction with my students, I cannot be overwhelmed by the sheer number of students. My time is constrained, and if I can spend 10 minutes meeting with a student instead of just 5 because another student is waiting outside my office, I can better serve both of those students. Second, the more time I spend teaching, the less time I can devote to research and service. All three are essential, but a 4/4 load severely restricts my ability to do anything else.
  • ...threaten courses and majors that have low enrollment?
    • Our programs, majors, and departments are constantly asked to defend our existence through initiatives such as "Prioritization," "Progress and Planning," and "Assessment" among others. Forgetting for a moment that such exercises distract us from doing our actual jobs, let's consider the perversity of such demands. As I note above, small section sizes are ideal for a liberal arts institution. However, section sizes and major numbers below a certain (though unspecified) number are routinely questioned and critiqued by administration. Small, however, should be the goal, not the enemy! Programs, majors, and departments should exist because they are essential or beneficial to the liberal arts mission, not because they are popular with students who are, by definition, ignorant (in the non-pejorative sense of course).
  • ...offer courses, and indeed entire degrees, online?
    • We are a brick-and-mortar institution. A liberal arts mission implies that face to face interaction is beneficial. While there is arguably a place for online pedagogy in higher education, it is not what we do. As with graduate programs, it has been explained to me that our online programs exist as a means to generate revenue and to compete with other institutions, both within our state system and outside. If our liberal arts designation is in fact unique, we should not feel the need to compete on these terms, and if our designation is in fact genuine, we should recognize online programs as unethical. Moreover, for these reasons, online programs are tantamount to shooting ourselves in the foot.
In closing, I would like to offer what I think is an illuminating hypothetical. Imagine if our new employees were asked to sign a loyalty oath to the liberal arts mission instead of to the state and Constitution. Wouldn't that send an interesting message?

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