Liberal Arts Declining or in Metamorphosis? Survey Reveals University Leaders Divided

Posted By Terri Williams on May 20, 2016 at 5:02 pm
Liberal Arts Declining or in Metamorphosis? Survey Reveals University Leaders Divided

Either the days of Liberal Arts are numbered, or reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Or perhaps, the truth is somewhere in between these two predictions. But first, the bad news:

According to a survey of 539 provosts/chief academic officers at both liberal arts and non-liberal arts colleges and universities, the outlook does not look rosy.

The 2016 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Chief Academic Officers reveals the extent to which provosts agree with the following responses:

% of liberal arts provosts agreeing % of non-liberal arts provosts agreeing
Politicians, presidents and boards are increasingly unsympathetic to liberal arts education 68% 62%
I feel pressure from my president, board, or donors to focus on academic programs that have a clear orientation toward careers 39% 61%
Liberal arts education at all types of institutions in the U.S. is in decline 44% 52%
I expect to see the number of liberal arts colleges decline significantly over the next five years 50% 60%


Programs leading the way in transforming liberal arts education

Overall, the provosts sound less than optimistic. However, several liberal arts programs are undergoing a metamorphosis, breathing new life into their programs by merging arts and science.

For example, Stanford University offers a joint major that combines computer science with a humanities discipline. Known as the “CS+Humanities Joint Major,” the program allows students to blend computer science with a variety of choices, such as:

  • CS+Philosophy
  • CS+Comparative Literature
  • CS+Linguistics
  • CS+Iberian and Latin American Cultures
  • CS+History
  • CS+German Studies
  • Art Practice+CS
  • CS+Music
  • CS+Classics
  • CS+English, French, Spanish or Italian
  • CS+Slavic Languages and Literatures

The unique nature of the program ensures that the two disciplines are well integrated to the extent that the joint major would not be confused with a double major, dual major, or a major and a minor.

Carnegie Mellon University is another school taking a different approach to liberal arts. The school has an Integrative Design, Arts & Technology Network (IDeATe) that merges technology and arts. Students can minor in one of eight areas:

  • Media design
  • Animation and special effects
  • Game design
  • Sound design
  • Learning media design
  • Entrepreneurship for creative industries
  • Intelligent environments
  • Physical computing

And other schools, like Lehigh University, offer an Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts and Sciences (IDEAS). These types of programs can increase the number of students who take classes in the liberal arts.

Are the liberal arts risking irrelevance?

Are schools that don’t try to reinvent themselves in danger of becoming an unnecessary – and obsolete – part of higher ed?

Not necessarily, according to Timothy M. O’Donnell, associate provost for Academic Engagement and Student Success at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He tells GoodCall, “Those who suggest that the liberal arts are ill-suited for the 21st-century world of work aren’t listening to employers.”

O’Donnell says survey after survey indicates that employers are looking for the precise skills and knowledge that define the liberal arts experience. “Technical competence and mastery of disciplinary knowledge may qualify students for prospective jobs, but employers are increasingly saying the skills, characteristics, and habits of mind inculcated by the liberal arts curriculum distinguish candidates who thrive in their careers.”

And that sentiment is shared by James Winebrake, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Over the past few decades, we have learned that technology alone can’t solve the world’s most pressing problems, and in fact, technology creates new problems that we must be prepared to address.”

And Winebrake believes this is where liberal arts grads can add tremendous value. “At most levels, important decisions about complex problems require knowledge and problem-solving skills beyond those traditionally found in technological fields.” In fact, he says that companies need individuals with the ability to make decisions and solve problems while factoring in different cultures and viewpoints.

“Both employers and society-at-large are searching to find individuals who can synthesize input from a variety of sources to formulate solutions to complex, interdisciplinary problems and to think critically about the causes of these problems,” he says. “The liberal arts provide this kind of undergraduate education.”

However, Winebrake admits that the traditional liberal arts degrees of the future may need to incorporate technology-based learning. “At RIT, we have developed degrees such as Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, and also Science, Technology, and Public Policy that do just that.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

You May Also Like