UW-System deans at the dean meeting in UW-River Falls
Photo by Theo Tollefsen

By Theo Tollefsen

As the liberal arts face pressure, both at the national level and in the state of Wisconsin, universities have begun to discuss what a liberal arts education means for students after college. On Oct. 31, 19 deans from across the UW-System met in River Falls, Wis. To discuss the future of liberal arts on their campuses.

“We’re trying to educate folks in terms of the value in the liberal arts,” said Charles Martin-Stanley, associate dean of the College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (UWL). According to Martin-Stanley, students and parents are often career-focused and tend to look for majors that appear to lead to specific jobs. “What some people do not realize is that there are experiences and skills in the liberal arts that are transferable.”

The Reimagining the Liberal Arts initiative was started by Dean Yohnk, dean of the College of Arts and Science at UW-River Falls (UWRF). A group of faculty and staff at UWRF began to have discussions on how the campus has defined the liberal arts in the past and present in order to help define the changing landscape of the liberal arts for the future.

Yohnk spoke on the topics and importance of these meetings, saying, “they may be about challenges our campuses are facing, or initiatives that are coming forth, or

[the sharing of]

ideas and insights, best practices, what worked, what didn’t work. Having a collective body of deans from across the UW-System who are honestly and sincerely sharing those kinds of projects, feedback, recommendations, and suggestions is invaluable.”

The two day meeting involved deans sharing updates from their campuses on strategic plans that give insight on the status of liberal arts and STEM programs. Campuses involved at the meeting included UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Platteville, UW-River Falls, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Superior (UWS), and UW-Whitewater.

“We all share the common goal of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative,” said Yohnk. According to the AACU, the LEAP initiative began in 2005 as an advocacy program to promote the importance of the liberal arts for students on the national level to help them prepare for, “a nation dependent on economic creativity and democratic vitality.”

Nicholas Danz, Dean of Academic Affairs at UWS, thought that the meeting helped to keep the universities connected. “What I see the deans meeting doing is connecting us by getting in the same room periodically and sharing how we are individually committed to the liberal arts, which can only spark us to do similar things on our own campuses.”

“I find these meetings to be very beneficial because it gives the deans within the UW-System an opportunity to talk with colleagues, to collaborate in terms of identifying pressing issues or issues on the horizon,” said Martin-Stanley.

“We are all advocates for the continuation of America’s long tradition of liberal arts education, that also have elements of applied practical career focus, that are naturally embedded in liberal arts. For example, effective communication skills, critical thinking skills, working collaboratively and creatively in groups, those are the kind of course skills that you get from the liberal arts,” said Yohnk.

Martin-Stanley added, “We share strategies and practices in terms of how we might address particular issues on our campus.” At UWL, one of these strategies is to redefine the liberal arts with less use of the word “liberal” in the title, as people find the word to be too heavily attached with politics. “We learn about how things are done on other campuses, what strategies they use. It’s a really good support for deans to be able to share and collaborate and partner with other deans.”

UWS is recovering from their own recent fall back within the liberal arts. On Oct. 31, 2017, 25 academic programs were suspended. Programs including history, journalism, political science, and theatre. Since that time, administrative leadership has been working to reestablish good relations with the faculty most impacted by these suspensions.

“Even though we have a lot of students, and we are committed to those students on the career prep side, there has always been a strong commitment to the liberal arts,” said Danz. UWS has been working on this strategy for almost two years. Many people, ranging from students to members of the Superior City Council, believe that the value of the liberal arts was not being seen by decision makers.

“One big goal on our campus is to clarify what it means, because there is this confusion, it’s status is in doubt might be another way of putting it. We will always do the liberal arts to some degree, we need to crystalize what our commitment is and be clear and proud about it,” said Danz.

At UWRF, one of the major goals is incorporating the fundamental needs of liberal arts in career paths that are not necessarily found in the College of Arts and Sciences. These include neuroscience, elementary education, and dairy farming.

“Those are very practical and applied programs…we acknowledge that we need to have as we prepare people for their work lives in the future. However, the goal would be that the campus provides that robust liberal arts education that gives them the foundational, essential liberal arts skills that they are going to need for all of those jobs and in their daily life,” said Yohnk.

As the world begins moving into a new decade, deans across the UW-System will continue to develop ideas on evolving the liberal arts into an adapting world focused heavily on STEM based fields.