Friday, June 5, 2015

Liberal Arts of the Future: A Thought Experiment

Source: Dr. Roopsi Risam
"Colleges of arts and sciences are going to have to evolve a bit."
--Dr. Larry Singell, Executive Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences," Indiana University, Bloomington

As this recent Inside Higher Education article highlights, colleges of arts and sciences/liberal arts at public institutions are in a state of crisis around the country. This so-called "Crisis of the Humanities" has been developing for many years, slowly but surely. Faculty and administrators in these colleges have been remarkably slow to recognize the seriousness of the crisis and its multiple causes; and to develop coherent and effective strategies for addressing its causes. Instead, in the face of reduced instructional budgets and cuts in soft money (the kind of money that is used to fund graduate students as well as lecturers and adjuncts. It is also used to fund faculty/grad travel to conferences, research assistantships, etc.), the prevailing strategy has been to institute cuts in hiring of all sorts (tenure track faculty but also lecturers and adjuncts) and to reduce the size of graduate programs. In addition, faculty and staff have received scant raises in close to six years (with the exception of promoted faculty, who received outsized raises in the past two years, effectively placing their salary among the lower-paid full-professors and completely leap-frogging over the senior associate professors).

If these budget shortfalls were a short-term problem, this approach might make sense. It would cause some temporary difficulties for departments but those problems would be reversible once the funds were restored. In the past, this was how it worked: in lean years, hiring freezes were instituted, no merit raises were given and everyone waited for better times. Inevitably, those better times came. This was the pattern of my first 6 or so years at my university. Then, when the economy collapsed and legislatures aggressively cut allocations to public universities (in part, at least, using the economic collapse as an excuse for these cuts), everything changed.

Now, some 7-8 years later, we have to face the fact that things aren't going to return to normal. In addition, faculty in the humanities/arts and sciences need to come to terms with the fact that part of what has happened is a deliberate reallocation of institutional resources, with liberal arts on the losing end. The result: colleges of arts and sciences that are starving for resources while facing ever-growing declines in enrollment. Some blame the widespread implementation of the Responsibility Centered Management (RCM) budgeting model, in which each unit has to pay for itself. Cross-subsidies and/or distributions of supplementary funds from the provost's office are a thing of the past. In a lot of ways, RCM is a good model. It encourages units to be fiscally responsible, strategic, and entrepreneurial. The downside is that, in effect, it pits colleges within the university against each other in a competition for students. This competition for students is far less of a problem at schools whose admissions offices make an effort to ensure a good distribution of admits for all colleges. If that doesn't happen, however, inequities ensue.

In the past, however, colleges of arts and sciences could rely on the fact that, even if more students majored in engineering or computer science or business, they still had to take several courses in the arts and sciences to fulfill graduation requirements. Even if public colleges of arts and sciences have little to no control over admissions and so tend, they could count on the fact that they could keep their enrollments up by offering a plethora of service courses. Thus, at most large, public institutions, every department offers several introductory level, large enrollment courses for non-majors. These courses meet some general education requirement and the students are predominantly non-majors (in my courses, approximately 35% are liberal arts students of some ilk).

So now we get to the real problem for colleges of arts and sciences these days: enrollments in our courses by non-liberal arts students (and even non-major liberal arts students) have dropped precipitously in recent years, especially the past 3-4 years. This drop isn't minor, and it is increasing at a nearly exponential rate with each passing year. What is happening? In basic terms, two things: first, non-liberal arts students are finding other sources of courses to fulfill their graduation requirements (AP exams, credit by exam, dual enrollment, online, community college, even other 4 year university courses). With the dramatic increase in the availability of introductory online courses in arts and sciences, campuses have taken a major enrollment hit.

It is critical to understand what motivates students to seek out these alternatives to our campus courses. It is often said that they are just looking for an easier class and, certainly, that is sometimes the case. More often, though, it is for other reasons. First, flexibility. Especially STEM students with lab courses have tight schedules and appreciate the flexibility of an online course, especially asynchronous online courses that nevertheless have *some* structure to help them stay on schedule. Secondly, students are taking their required courses during the summer. In the past, they would take these during summer sessions on campus. Now, faced with rising costs and a desire to avoid taking on more debt than is absolutely necessary, many students are working in the summers and cannot take courses that are scheduled during the day. Many of them return home to live rent-free with their families. These students are also taking courses that are offered online or at community colleges at a time that fits their schedule (and are less expensive than courses at the university).

My own university--and department--has seen a precipitous dropoff in summer enrollments, yet has made few if any changes to the curriculum. We do not offer tuition discounts; we continue to offer most courses during the workday instead of in the evenings; we have few online courses on offer. Similarly, we've made few changes to our regular semester curriculum. We are beginning to offer online courses, though most are synchronous and require students to log-on for a quiz each class period at a certain time. The basic strategy to prop up enrollment tends to be to create obstacles for students who are bringing in outside credits rather than to create positive incentives for them to take our courses.

The other cause of the enrollment hit in colleges of arts and sciences is more obvious: fewer students are choosing to major in our degree programs. Some of this may have to do with the students who are admitted. I don't know statistics for my own university, but a common complaint is that admissions offices admit more students who want to major in professional degrees like business; or STEM fields rather than arts and sciences students. This means that, from the start, colleges of arts and sciences are at a disadvantage. In addition, it is becoming more common for colleges and schools within universities to aggressively recruit majors to their degree programs in order to increase their enrollments (and, thus, their share of the pot of institutional funding).

Source: Dr. Roopsi Risam

It is common for colleges of arts and sciences to claim "critical thinking" as its value proposition. This is not incorrect. Our courses and degree programs do, in fact, emphasize training and practice in critical thinking. Employers are clear that this is an important job skill. Yet, for some reason, we liberal arts folks have not been very good at moving beyond the "critical thinking" claim to more fully rationalize why it makes sense for an undergraduate student to major in English or History or Classics when entry-level jobs are hard to come by even for biology and chemistry majors.

In general, we do a terrible job of articulating distinction between short-term, jobs based skills and first jobs; and longer term, "soft" skills (like written communication, problem solving. creativity) that, over time, result in equally lucrative careers for liberal arts majors. We need to do a better job at tracking our graduates over time and tracking salaries. We need to be able to argue our case from data rather than anecdote. At the same time, we do need to pay more attention to equipping liberal arts majors for an increasingly competitive job market. It's all well and good to talk about long-term benefits, but that means little when you can't get a first job, can't pay the rent or buy food despite having a college degree.

If Larry Singell is correct that colleges of arts and sciences must evolve, as I think he certainly is, then what does/should that evolution look like? One approach that has already been taken is to add new degree programs that are more pragmatic and likely to appeal to job-focused students (and their parents), things like neuroscience, health sciences, data analytics.  We also need to offer a wider range of courses, from first year seminars to upper division electives, that might appeal to majors in other disciplines.  To give just one example, a friend of mine who teaches in an English Department is offering a Race and Cyberspace seminar for first year students at her university.  The students are all computer science majors. There are all sorts of ways that we can broaden our offerings, whether through collaborative teaching or simply by spending some time to design a new course that is likely to appeal to students outside of our department or college.  [And, ideally, any course development would be adequately supported by the university....]

Digital Humanities clearly has some role to play, and Institutes or Centers for Digital Humanities (or, alternatively, Digital Studies) are already thriving on many campuses. Digital Humanities won't save the humanities (or arts and sciences more broadly), but it is certainly one way to make the work we do in liberal arts more appealing and accessible to our students. It is also a way to equip our undergraduate and graduate students with key digital skills that are transferable to any number of careers. I don't want to over-emphasize the value of undergraduates (and graduate students) attaining some training in digital research tools as well as, for graduate students, digital teaching and learning--but these are both areas where we could do a lot to both better prepare our students for the realities of the jobs markets; and also open their eyes to new ways of thinking about familiar research questions and developing new research questions that emerge from these new ways of "seeing" data.

We also need to pay more attention to integrating such skills as project management, teamwork, and oral/written communication into all of our courses. We do pretty well, most of us, with oral/written communication in smaller classes, less well in large classes. We need to devise creative ways to get our undergraduate students involved in our research. This is a major challenge in liberal arts, and it has something to do with the kinds of research we do, the kinds of questions we ask. I'm not suggesting that we entirely re-formulate our research to make it possible to integrate undergraduates into a "research team;" rather, I'm suggesting that we get creative. For example, I've found that one of the best ways to have undergraduates doing significant research work in my field is to have them work with me on course development.

Finally, in the spirit of thinking of degrees more along the lines of a project, we ought to make better use of e-portfolios. When a student graduates with their BA, they should have a portfolio of work that documents their skills and highlights their best work. This work should not just be research papers--after all, it is increasingly true that most of our students will not continue their studies in graduate school. We are not simply preparing students to do research at the graduate level; we are preparing the vast majority of them to enter the workforce in a range of different jobs. It isn't fair to our students to pretend that this is not the case. E-portfolios might also encourage departments to do more to rationalize their curriculum, to connect their different courses and make an effort to have students learn and practice different kinds of skills in a range of major courses. It should be that, at graduation, a student can articulate in clear terms exactly what skills they learned during their college career.

At public institutions, colleges of arts and sciences are in crisis. This crisis is, to be sure, in part the result of deliberate decisions made by legislatures, regents, and even university administrators. But it is also in part the result of a failure to evolve and address pressing issues like declining enrollments. Thus far, the primary response has been to institute cuts--to the number of tenure track lines, lecturers and adjuncts; and to cut the size of graduate programs. As a result, some departments are now unable to staff enough courses to meet the existing student demand--which further drives students to seek alternative sources for these courses. Departments have to choose between staffing lower division courses that tend to be large enrollment; or upper division courses that serve their majors and keep their major going strong. It's a kind of Sophie's choice.

At this point, most colleges of arts and sciences are as lean and efficient as they can get. They cannot withstand further cuts as a response to additional budget cuts. It's already a nearly impossible to keep our department and programs running. There has to be some other, positive and proactive approach to the problem of decline enrollments. It's a tough time to be a faculty member in liberal arts, but it's also--potentially--an exciting time. We have the opportunity to re-imagine and modernize the liberal arts, not just because it will help our graduates find gainful employment but because it will improve our courses and degree programs. Many faculty will resist any kind of change, but we have reached the point that we either change or wither into irrelevance. We need to rethink such basic things as how we offer courses, especially required courses. But we also need to think about how to teach skills in addition to critical thinking.  I'll conclude with a chart that illustrates why we need to teach our students, undergraduates and graduates, to operate competently in technology-rich environments.  This is a challenge for most of us since it's a set of skills many of us don't have and didn't need.  But we need to figure out how to instill them in our students if we hope to attract undergraduates to the liberal arts.

Update 6/12/2015: An interesting essay by Steve Mintz, Director of the UT System's Institute for Transformational Learning, on the need for a more integrative approach to undergraduate education.  From his perspective, the humanities disciplines need to think about how to build bridges to STEM disciplines; and our curricula need to include humanities courses, but in an integrated and rational way (e.g. medical ethics, narrative medicine).  It's still not clear exactly what this would look like, but I do think this is one step that liberal arts colleges need to make if they are going to thrive.

Source: OECD Education


  1. I don't think we have seen the numbers problems you describe at my school, but of course manage of the issues are the same, both in terms of content (I am really depressed at how little commitment I see to the actual TEACHING of writing in humanities courses) and also delivery (it sounds like we have more Gen. Ed. courses online than you do, but they still fill up fast with many students who want to get in, esp. juniors and sophomores; classes fill before they even get to enroll). Personally, I am so happy with my solution, teaching writing-intensive online Gen. Ed. courses. I think online courses are PERFECT for creating writing-intensive courses (I did not take this approach when I taught in the classroom), and I would love to see more of it, but without some real effort to help faculty expand/improve their course design skills, we are not going to see a lot of change. I will keep on promoting my idea of the teaching "mini-sabbaticals"... it may sound crazy, but I think it would work. And we have to do SOMETHING... :-)

  2. Texas is definitely "behind the curve" on a lot of fronts, esp. with development of sufficient numbers of online courses. Also, for a range of reasons, I think we are especially subject to the "college as job training" rhetoric. But yes, for the sorts of changes to happen that need to happen, there is going to need to be significant investments in Faculty Development. I also think one of the issues that is likely to come up is resistance. And then the question becomes, to what extent do you let an important part of the university continue to wither? At what point does someone intervene? If there's an intervention, what should it look like? Really tough issues, for sure. But a lot has to start with faculty getting informed about the reality of things; and committing themselves to learning new skills and taking their teaching seriously.

  3. AGREED. I am still optimistic enough to think that if we get all these smart faculty and students to share ideas, we could come up with some amazing ideas. But if we don't share ideas and be prepared for change, we are going to regret it. Just insisting that the Humanities are sacred is not going to get us very far...