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UW System Deans hosted in River Falls for Reimagining the Liberal Arts

November 20, 2019

As the liberal arts have been under pressure both at the national level and in the state of Wisconsin in recent years, universities have begun to have campus, community, and system wide conversations on what a liberal arts education means for students life after college. Recently, 19 deans from the UW System met in River Falls, WI to discuss the future of these fields of study 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. Students and parents are often career-focused, he said, 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 College of Arts and Sciences Dean, Dean Yohnk, after 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, 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 we can share ideas and insights, best practices, what worked, what didn’t work. And really having a collective body of deans from across the UW System who are honestly and sincerely sharing those kinds of projects, feedback, recommendations, suggestions is invaluable.”

This two day meeting had deans sharing updates from their campuses on strategic plans that gave insight on the status of liberal arts and STEM programs. There were deans attending the meeting from campuses that include: UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse, UW-Oshkosh, UW-Platteville, UW-River Falls, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Superior, and UW-Whitewater.

“We all share the common goal of the Association of American Colleges and Universities Liberal Arts and America’s Promise LEAP initiative,” said Yohnk. The AACU LEAP initiative began in 2005 as an advocacy 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.”

“What I see the deans meeting doing is connecting us by all 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,” said Nicholas Danz, Dean of Academic Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

“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 kind of course skills that you get from the liberal arts,” said Yohnk.

“We share strategies, practices, in terms of how we might address particular issues on our campus,” said Martin-Stanley. At UW-La Crosse, 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 to politics these days and some can easily be turned off from hearing it connected to higher education. “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.”

UW-Superior is recovering from a recent set back on the liberal arts when 25 academic programs were suspended on October 31, 2017. Liberal arts related programs that were a part of the suspension included broad field science, communicating arts media studies, history, journalism, political science, sociology, and theater. Since that time, the administration leadership has been working to reestablish good relations with the faculty who were impacted by these program suspensions the most.

“Even though we have a lot of students and we are committed to those students too on the career prep side, there has always been a strong commitment to the liberal arts,” said Danz. This has been a strategy UW-Superior has been working on for almost two years now. When the program cuts from October, 2017 occurred, there were many people, from students on campus, to alumni, and even on the Superior City Council, that believed the value of these liberal arts programs were not being seen from the decision makers on the suspensions.

“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 UW-River Falls, 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, such as neuroscience, elementary education, or dairy farming.

“Those are very practical and applied programs, which of course, 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 provide 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 to move into a new decade, deans from across the UW System continue to develop ideas on how they will evolve the liberal arts into an adapting world focused on more STEM based career fields.