The Liberal Arts in Currents of Change: Report of a GLCA Consortial Colloquy

Greg Wegner, Director of Program Development, Great Lakes Colleges Association
January 14, 2018

Introductory Note

This essay derives from discussions involving faculty members and others from 13 independent liberal arts colleges who gathered for two days in February 2017 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  The purpose of that meeting was to take account of changing circumstances that can affect these colleges and liberal arts education more broadly.  The dialogues yielded questions for consideration and helped inform the work of the GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching and Learning through the past year. 

The essay that follows offers reflections that were broadly affirmed through the discussions of that Colloquy about the impacts that changing forces could have on our institutions and the professional lives of faculty members who deliver the liberal arts mission.  Based on notes from the discussions, the essay was written by Gregory Wegner, Director of Program Development at the GLCA, who sought to give expression to themes that resonated widely with the participants in the consortial meeting.  The first-person plural “we” is used to emphasize that the reflections conveyed were broadly affirmed among the faculty who participated in the dialogues.  The essay is not meant to reflect absolute consensus but to represent key points that stirred pronounced interest and concern among faculty.

This essay derives from a conversation, and it seeks to provide a basis for further discussion at the next GLCA Consortium for Teaching and Learning, which takes place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, February 9-10, 2018.  If you are a GLCA faculty member with an interest in these themes, we invite you to send us your thoughts, which could help inform the 2018 Consortial Colloquy.  Please write to Steve Volk (steven.volk@oberlin.edu), or Greg Wegner (wegner@glca.org) if you have comments about this essay.


 

Liberal Arts in Currents of Change

We gathered as some 30 faculty members and others from 13 independent colleges, including one international institution, that provide higher education in the liberal arts tradition. Our purpose was to take account of changing circumstances both in society and in our liberal arts colleges. We found the world substantially altered from earlier times in terms of the prevailing conception of higher education in the liberal arts.  The shifting attitudes toward colleges of our kind create a sea of uncertainty.  Navigating these waters successfully will call on our institutions to be more attentive than ever before to external constituencies, including students and parents, political leadership, the media and the general public.  At the same time, faculty members of our colleges face pressures from expanding responsibilities in the realms of teaching, research, and service to their institutions.  Faculty members, particularly in early stages of their careers, must navigate turbulent waters to continue momentum toward career advancement by traditional criteria for tenure and promotion, while also preparing for the possibility of seeking a next job if they are released for purely budgetary reasons.

Defining and Affirming the Liberal Arts  

We began by affirming what we believe are primary aims of higher education, as practiced at liberal arts colleges especially and some other four-year baccalaureate degree-granting institutions.  Our discussions emphasized skills and knowledge commonly associated with education in the liberal arts tradition: the ability to think clearly, communicate effectively, and be authentic in the use of evidence. As colleges, we seek to  foster intellectual skills and habits in students that equip them to be independent learners, and to form and attain goals for their own progress through a life of inquiry. 

Among ourselves, we conceive that what we stand for as educators in the liberal arts tradition represents a compelling force of societal good.  We continue to affirm the broad values that informed our own pursuit of education through the baccalaureate degree and graduate-level study.  The goals of higher education in the liberal arts tradition encompass the development of literacy in the broadest sense – that is, the ability to gain historical perspective and consider different ways of inquiring and approaching issues.  Education of this kind strengthens the ability to draw on the methods and knowledge of different academic disciplines, to apply lenses that offer different ways of seeing the world, to ask good questions, develop an openness to other points of view, and instill a tolerance for ambiguity. 

Closely related to these skills, our own educational journeys taught us that higher education in the liberal arts works to foster an acceptance and understanding of differences among people – including differences in nationality, culture, language, ethnicity, and gender, as well as differences of thinking and belief.  Higher education in the liberal arts tradition seeks to develop students’ sense of responsibility to things larger than themselves, to recognize that their actions have an effect on others, and to feel a commitment to others’ well-being.  We agreed that a core educational goal of the liberal arts is to contribute to the enduring strength of citizenship in society, to prepare graduates to become ethical leaders, with a capacity for empathy and willingness to work constructively with others to solve complex problems.

Not least, we believe, higher education in the liberal arts aims to provides its graduates with foundations for an effective and fulfilling life following college, not just through engagement in the arts, culture, religious, or athletic programs, but also in the course of a career.  Beyond the provision of core knowledge and skills for students preparing for graduate or professional school, higher education seeks to provide students with skills to be successful in a career trajectory, whatever occupations they may choose in the years following graduation. 

One strand of criticism against liberal arts education is that it distracts students from what many consider the task at hand, which is to learn necessary skills to succeed in a specific career.  Critics contend that a liberal arts degree is a bad return on investment, citing as proof the salary earned by liberal arts students in the first year after graduation.  In fact, we believe the return on investment is borne out not in the salary earned in the first year – or the second, or fifth year.  Research on earnings shows that the value of a liberal arts degree registers in substantially greater earnings through the course of a lifetime compared to those with some or no college education.  More than the early salary numbers, the advantage of a four-year baccalaureate degree consists of the habits of mind and motivations that students have acquired from the campus and residential learning experience of a liberal arts college.  The telling measure of success is the hunger for learning that a liberal arts education has instilled in its graduates — a passion for new discovery and innovation that allows our graduates to thrive amid changes in work and careers, and to find new opportunities in the evolving landscape of employment.   Liberal arts education prepares its graduates to find success in a current job, and also to prepare for the next.  At the same time, it provides its graduates with foundations for pronounced engagement in the civic well-being of their communities, as well as engagement in cultural and artistic achievements, and in their innate satisfaction in living a fulfilling life. 

Environments in Transition

Liberal arts education exists in a world that is changing in many ways.  There are changes occurring in society as a whole, in our colleges, in students, and faculty.  Teaching well in our kinds of institutions entails a consideration of changes that are occurring in each of these realms.  The shifting currents pose challenges to our institutions and to the kind of education we and our colleges have affirmed.

However apparent the value of our learning programs may seem to ourselves as faculty members, our concern is that the appeal of liberal arts education from colleges like our own is declining in public opinion.  As a sector, we are losing our ability to explain the value of the education we provide.  We have ceded control of our narrative to those who criticize the growing costs of four-year education and question the value of what students learn from the liberal arts curriculum.  There is intensified societal focus on the need for education that leads directly to jobs.  In this environment liberal arts education has become a harder sell, and the growing cost of attending colleges of our kind is a further disincentive for many.  We have claimed as colleges that a liberal arts degree provides a grounding in cultural knowledge and intellectual skills that allow graduates to succeed in a range of careers and environments.  We have affirmed that education is a great equalizer and an engine of societal well-being, a key both to individual opportunity and to the functioning of an effective democracy.  The narrative we have used to describe the value of our mission conveys a message of universal good, though in fact many students who enroll in college should not be there and do not succeed.  These facts together undermine our claim that a liberal arts education is an essential tool for the improvement and advancement of society.

 

Changes in Society

The environment in which higher education institutions, including small independent colleges, now function has changed significantly through the past 20 years.  Public criticism of higher education has become more pronounced.  In many respects the current political leadership in Washington, D.C. represents a repudiation of educational values that liberal arts education seeks to advance.  The very concept of seeking truth and choosing courses of action through a free, independent examination of factual evidence is under assault.  It is ideology more than evidence that determines decisions and policy.  In advancing the value of free inquiry and critical thinking, it is likely that higher education will continue to become more politically charged.  Moreover, as costs of higher education continue to rise, there will be more emphasis on the utilitarian outcomes of higher education, stressing direct routes to practical employment as students and parents seek timely return on educational investment.  If rising costs cause the public to perceive higher education as simply access to privilege, colleges of our kind could come to be regarded increasingly as bastions of elitism and exclusion.  Some of the educational values we affirm as universal benefits to individuals and society are in fact politically charged; they are not perceived as being politically neutral or universally good.

Colleges and universities had traditionally served as repositories of knowledge; their libraries were places that contained major collections of knowledge in several domains.  Technology has now largely supplanted the role of higher education as a primary gateway to knowledge.  Partly as a result, our colleges focus more intently on teaching students to evaluate the quality and integrity of information, and to engage critically with evidence in order to expand both knowledge and understanding.  Achieving this educational goal may require a broader range of educational strategies than before. 

  • As faculty members, how can we help make the case for liberal arts education in more compelling ways that counter critics who attack our colleges as expensive, elitist institutions that do more harm than good to society?
  • What actions can our colleges take to impress the value of liberal arts education on an increasingly skeptical public?
  • How do we address the charge that our institutions do more to solidify the advantages of the economically privileged than to create opportunities for all through education?
  • What further steps can be taken to emphasize the value of a liberal arts degree as preparation not just for a first job but also for many career steps throughout life?

 

Changes in Liberal Arts Colleges

As residential liberal arts colleges, we stress our commitment to teaching students well and to ensuring their successful learning.  We affirm the value of individual mentorship of students and of small student-faculty ratios.  We incorporate technology as appropriate to enhance the student learning experience. 

Yet colleges of our kind face undeniable challenges, among them the increasing competition for students.  Because the stated tuition price exceeds that of public universities and two-year colleges, many students intuitively turn to those lower-priced options without exploring the opportunities for financial assistance that independent colleges make available.  Students bring a more pronounced utilitarian perspective to their studies, with an expectation that their undergraduate degree will lead directly to employment.  The concept of the multiversity that Clark Kerr had coined in the 1970s to describe the complex functions of most academic institutions has expanded beyond the provision of education to include a growing array of services. As institutions, our colleges are in an additive model; we address challenges by creating new programs and offerings, very often without a corresponding reduction in other areas.  These additions generate costs that contribute to the rise in tuition, making this kind of education more expensive for everyone and less accessible to disadvantaged students. 

  • How might faculty members contribute most constructively to institutional discussions of balancing the addition of new programs with reductions in other areas to help curtail the growth of costs?


Changes in Students

Many liberal arts colleges have experienced significant changes in student demographics.  The student body has become more diverse in terms of educational and economic background, as well as in ethnicity and family circumstance.  There are more students who are the first generation of their families to attend college.  In some cases, students need to work while pursuing their schooling and send money home to their families. 

Prospective students exhibit a more pronounced desire to make educational choices based on very specific short-term goals related to a career.  For many, the value proposition of liberal arts education – providing graduates with skills for a life of learning and career adaptation – seems unfamiliar and counter-intuitive, particularly in light of the cost of four years of education. 

Most students have grown up highly connected to technology and to online environments.  They exhibit greater savviness in the use of digital platforms and often seek information from sources that differ from those that many faculty members would naturally consult.  In some cases students have little experience of the process of research beyond typing a word or phrase into Google and following the first results that appear. 

Whether a student has met the cost of attendance through significant financial aid or family resources, one result of the growing price of education is that students become more vocal in declaring what they seek to learn and how they want to be taught.  Most U.S. students today have come of age in the years of No Child Left Behind.  The emphasis that program had placed on rote learning and testing as dominant educational practice in K-12 schooling has conditioned many students to regard a high score on a test as the essence of educational success.  Liberal arts colleges often find it hard to convince their students of the value of learning in ways that stress independent inquiry, critical thinking, and the development of individual thought and expression on a topic.  Many students exhibit an aversion to risk taking, despite examples we may cite in which trial and error lead to breakthroughs in learning and discovery.  Often students convey discomfort at seminar-style discussion or active learning as modes of achieving greater understanding of a subject.  Many express a conviction that they paid a lot of money to be taught, and it is the job of a professor to communicate what is important in the material – to signal what will be on the test.  Students majoring in competitive scientific fields particularly have a decided preference for traditional lecture -and -test formats.  In non-quantitative fields, students often regard a seminar-style discussion as a sign that the instructor does not have a firm command of the material.

Many faculty members find a growing challenge from the disparate level of preparation students have for college-level work.  The disparity that exists in students’ understanding of calculus, or in their command of writing skills for expressing thought, makes it difficult to achieve a common level of engagement in an introductory-level class.  As one observes, “A teaching challenge that is relatively new for us is a segment of students who are unprepared for the level of academic work.  Our courses tend to move at a fast pace and by the time we discover which students need remedial help, we may be halfway through our term.  In the past, very few students needed this amount of extra attention.  Now, it seems that most classes have a small group of students whose exam scores are far below average.  Many of them end up withdrawing from the class (and perhaps retaking it later); this is not ideal.”

Another characteristic of students that differs from earlier times is the greater number of students with mental and emotional challenges.  An issue of growing concern among faculty of our colleges is the number of students in need of support for mental and psychological issues.  Reflecting on this development, faculty members often feel that they simply lack the training to address student needs of this kind. 

  • What strategies may show promise for helping students who are less well prepared for college-level work to succeed?
  • What approaches can help students who conceive education as consisting of lecture, memorization, and testing to appreciate other approaches to their professors’ teaching and to their own learning? How can students be encouraged and motivated to appreciate the skills of reading, thinking, and expression of independent thought as keystones of their educational success – in effect, thinking beyond the grade earned on a test?
  • What steps can faculty take to encourage students to take risks as an element of their learning?

 

Changes in Faculty

Some of the most dramatic changes in liberal arts colleges are those that involve the faculty.  Within these institutions there are changing conceptions of the responsibilities that attend a faculty identity.  The collective sense of faculty members at all career stages is of a gradual but steady growth in the expectations placed upon them.  Each of these in itself may be a valuable contribution to the institutional mission.  In the aggregate, however, the growth of expectations depletes individual faculty members of the most precious resource available to them:  their time.

There are two related phenomena of the past three decades that contribute to the growth of faulty responsibilities.  One is the intensified competition for students, coupled with the changing nature of the student body as discussed above.  It is not uncommon for faulty members to be enlisted in a college’s marketing efforts, meeting with prospective students, giving talks that exhibit strengths of the institution and its programs of study.  To some degree one could say that the faculty of smaller independent colleges have always had some role in the student recruitment effort.  The increased competition for students in the current age, however, has intensified the need for faculty members to engage with students and parents during the recruitment season. 

Of the students who do enroll, there are several who present a second major challenge that can easily require increased faculty attention – that is, students who are under-prepared for college-level work, as well as students who present an expanded set of social and mental challenges.  As noted above, both of these phenomena can result in the need for faculty to make increased commitments of time and energy to reaching the full range of students in their classes.

  • What approaches could be explored to help faculty members consider the demands on their own time in broader perspective? What strategies can help a college act collectively to achieve a balance among the responsibilities faculty members are expected to fulfill, from the conviction that too many disparate claims on a faculty member’s time ultimately cause a diminishment of quality?

 

Another factor that has increased the expectations on faculty of liberal arts colleges is the changing character of the faculty itself.  Beginning in the 1970s and 80, many of those earning the Ph.D. from the nation’s premier research universities found positions at liberal arts colleges, often with little experience or understanding of these institutions.  Their expectations were to continue conducting research along the same trajectory begun in graduate school, and their presence helped accelerate the transformation of liberal arts colleges from institutions focused primarily on teaching to settings that came increasingly to resemble research universities.  Without diminishing their claim to provide students the individual attention and mentorship as teaching institutions, colleges of our kind have embraced a more rigorous commitment to research on a par with the R1 universities in which many of their faculty were trained.  The difference between small colleges and the larger state flagships or private research universities, however, is in the resources available to support a research mission.  Most faculty of liberal arts colleges have neither reduced teaching assignments nor increased the financial support for research in comparable degree to their R1 counterparts.  Achieving research distinction while teaching six courses per year proves very hard for many if not most faculty to accomplish. 

Pre-tenure faculty often find it challenging to navigate the environment of expectation in a liberal arts college. Faculty in this career stage may have comparatively little experience in teaching, and the challenge of teaching well while also making acceptable progress in the research portfolio can be daunting.  It has always been true that a faculty member’s first experiences with teaching are challenging.  The anxiety surrounding a first teaching assignment may be exacerbated by the fact that most liberal arts colleges have abandoned the premise that command of a subject is the only qualification needed to teach students well.  Newly hired faculty are no longer turned loose in their first class with a pre-assigned text and a “good luck.”  The more likely expectation is that a new faculty member will have thought about running a class and will teach well from the start. 

Pre-tenure faculty members often face a challenge of establishing authority and gaining respect from students in their classes.  In many cases faculty members in their first teaching job are not substantially older than their students, and this fact in itself can make it difficult to establish their command of the subject matter and authority in the classroom. A faculty member teaching a class for the first time will naturally feel less confident about his or her approach to the subject and his/her own persona as an educator.  These challenges are especially pronounced for faculty members who are women or members of a minority group.  Students perceive and often exploit signs of vulnerability in their teachers.

  • How can a consortial organization of faculty from several liberal arts colleges provide a network of mentorship and support for faculty members, particularly those in pre-tenure stages who could benefit from advice beyond their own institutions?

The dilemmas that untenured professors face stem in part from the uncertainty that pervades higher education, and in part from the need to earn positive reviews from their students’ evaluations of their teaching.  It is in the best interests of untenured faculty to keep themselves marketable if they are turned away from a college for financial reasons.  This prospect heightens the sense of urgency to continue their momentum and advancement in research.  And the knowledge that students tend to rate professors’ teaching along fairly well-defined traditional standards reinforces the tendency to teach in ways that conform to student preferences for lecture and entertainment over formats that require students to demonstrate critical thinking and engagement with the subject matter. 

As a result, faculty members in the stages leading to tenure often find that they could benefit from mentorship and advice from others – including faculty beyond their own campuses – who might offer practical advice in addressing teaching challenges. 

While such connections with others can help provide a sense of direction, it cannot alleviate the sense among faculty members that they could adopt alternative teaching methods that strengthen students’ learning of liberal arts skills as we have outlined them above.  The two-fold risks of the research imperative and the consequences of a negative student course evaluation often discourage untenured professors from realizing their full capabilities as teachers.

  • What strategies might be employed, both within and across liberal arts colleges, to encourage faculty members to engage in alternative pedagogies and seek to gauge their impact on their students’ learning? What can we do as a consortial group of faculty across several colleges to increase the motivation and ameliorate the risks of trying alternative pedagogies that could lead students to deeper and more impactful learning?

A fundamental challenge that all faculty face in the current age is to counter the disposition within society and the current political leadership to attack and undermine the values and goals that inform liberal arts education.  Today’s political environment in the U.S. and much of the world disparages the value of educating young people to pursue truth, to seek knowledge, communicate, debate, and make decisions based on an independent critical examination of facts.  Faculty of virtually all higher education institutions, including our own colleges, bear responsibility for instilling a renewed commitment to truth, to factual evidence, and to the dispelling of lies as a basis for the continuing vitality of democracy in our own and future generations.

  • What actions can we take as faculty members from a consortium of liberal arts colleges to affirm the values of truth, of critical inquiry, and of free expression based on independent analysis and thought, as fundamental principles of liberal arts education to the functioning of a democratic nation?

The character of the faculty itself is changing.  The traditional definition of a faculty member as a tenured or tenure-track professional who is both an educator and a contributor to knowledge is giving way to one who teaches specific courses on a contract basis with few benefits and no job security.  In the nation as a whole, the proportion of tenure-line faculty is now less than 30 percent.  Though that ratio of full-time, tenure-line faculty is much higher for most liberal arts colleges, our settings do include some number of adjunct, largely contingent faculty.  Their presence in whatever degree underscores the fact that higher education has a two-tiered teaching workforce.  

  • What steps can be taken within and across our colleges to help adjunct and temporary faculty members feel more strongly aligned with the academic community they inhabit and the institutional mission they help to deliver to students?


Looking Forward

These are the topics we discussed and the questions engaged in the Consortial Colloquy that the GLCA Consortium for Teaching and Learning convened in February of 2017.  Though convened nearly a year ago, the themes articulated in these conversations seem no less acute today than in the time of our original conversations.  The purpose of that discussion was to identify topics and generate questions that could inform our thinking as a group of liberal arts faculty members across our GLCA member colleges and the extended range of institutions that constitute the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA). 

What we did not discuss in that conversation or express in this essay are specific recommendations based on the themes we had outlined.  That is part of the work of the next Consortial Colloquy, which will take place February 9-10, 2018 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  If any of these are themes that you regard as essential questions that have bearing on the continued vitality of our colleges and of liberal arts education, we invite you to send us your thoughts.  In addition, if the experience of the past twelve months, in liberal arts colleges, higher education, or society itself, have given rise to additional issues not included in this summary from last year, we encourage you to write us with your reflections.  The responses we receive may be featured on the web site of the GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching and Learning, and they could provide themes for further discussion at the upcoming Consortial Colloquy of 2018.

The purpose of that meeting is to set the agenda for the GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching and Learning for the foreseeable future.  Our expectation is that the substance of our conversations will form the basis of a strategic plan to guide the Consortium for Teaching and Learning into a next stage of support for continued excellence and innovation in liberal arts teaching and learning. 

Please write to Greg Wegner (wegner@glca.org) or Steve Volk (steven.volk@oberlin.edu) to comment on themes of this essay or pose questions that could help structure discussions at the next Colloquy of the GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching Learning.

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  • Excellent article. It reflects many of the issues and concerns that I have faced or currently facing as an eary career non-tenured professor. These are concerns, regarding the students as well as the institutional structure of higher education, in which I was unable to articulate and pinpoint before reading this. Thank you for speaking so adroitly.