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Faculty meet to discuss liberal arts academic future at RLA event

May 8, 2019

The Reimagining the Liberal Arts initiative has been an ongoing project in the College of Arts and Sciences throughout the 2018-2019 academic year. A few panels have been hosted, featuring current UW-River Falls students and alumni speaking on the importance of a liberal arts education after college.

The most recent event on Monday, April 29, starred faculty speaking on groups they have worked with to bring in new ideas and propositions in changing the future liberal arts curriculum.

These groups have worked under the guidelines and suggestions of the Association of American Colleges and Universities program called the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). The groups have focused on categories such as equity, diversity, and inclusion in higher education, high impact practices, and new directions in integrative learning.

“When Dean Yohnk told me that we were going to do this I thought, ‘this is your first year on campus right’? This is a very very ambitious plan and I think it’s amazing how well it has come off,” said Provost David Travis on his thoughts of the Reimagining the Liberal Arts initiative.

“If it wasn’t for a snowstorm,” Travis continued. “Every one of our events would have happened. The event we had planned will be rescheduled for the fall as a part of a deans meeting from across the UW System.”

Each group focused on current challenges the university faces with their respective category on campus. For the group focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion in higher education, they found four distinct challenges.

These challenges provided different experiences for white students and students of color, with the campus climate showing more discrimination and bias faced for students of color while white students were commonly found to be resentful and defensive with issues of race on campus.

Other issues included overloaded work expectations, superficial approaches to diversity and inclusion as well as alumni attack and threatening to withdraw donations to the campus if certain approaches are taken to UWRF to improve the equity, diversity, and inclusion on campus.

“The group first started looking at what we are already doing here on campus course requirement wise, academic programming, and what are resources on campus that we have for working towards equity, diversity, and inclusivity,” said Doug Margolis, an assistant professor in the English department. “As we were brainstorming that list, we were like, well actually, we also could be doing stuff to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion on campus.”

“I have been here since 2002 and every year we say we have to do more for inclusivity, equity,  and diversity. The fact that every year we have to say that should be telling us something, that we’re probably not doing as good as a job as we should be,” said John Heppen, Professor and Department Chair of Geography.

The group presented suggestions for how the campus faculty, staff, administration, and students could all improve with equity, diversity, and inclusion in the near future. The suggestions included motivating faculty and staff to make a more welcoming and inclusive community. Cultivating student openness to other cultures and perspectives (ethical and engaged citizens). Increase belonging for all students and develop an Offense Strategy for Handling White Nationalists and other other extreme right wing attacks on inclusivity and equity activities.

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, High-Impact Practices is, “the teaching and learning practices that have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds, especially historically underserved students, who often do not have equitable access to high-impact learning. These practices take many different forms, depending on learner characteristics and on institutional priorities and contexts.”

Types of high-impact practices in higher education are first-year experiences, learning communities, undergraduate research, community based-learning, internships, and a number of other practices. There are many universities affiliated with the AACU that have adopted three of these high-impact practices as essential, for UWRF, “The Big Three,” are international education, undergrad research and internships.

Integrative learning is connecting skills and knowledge from multiple sources and experiences, and applying them into practice in different settings that have diverse and contradictory points of view. Integrative learning has become more desired by business for hiring students after graduation as many believe that problems are discussed and figured out by bringing together people who have been trained in different fields.

According to findings by UWRF faculty and staff who have worked on the integrative learning committee for reimagining the liberal arts, Wisconsin is the 10th most exposed state with jobs currently performed by humans that could be replaced by machines that have already been invented down the line. Approximately 47.5 percent of jobs Wisconsinites work are at risk of being replaced by machines in some form.

The UWRF faculty and staff who have worked on the integrative learning committee have recommended that UWRF, “Review how Integrative Learning meshes with other Reimagining subgroups. Conceptualize how Reimagining fits within new Strategic Plan & Academic Plan initiatives. Make a concerted effort to identify connections between courses and to ask students to make these connections in all courses rather than a separate selection of courses.”

The initiative for reimagining the liberal arts will have its final panel featuring deans from across the UW-System during the early fall 2019 semester.