In CLA dean transition, liberal arts must defend themselves

Some students choose majors based on job prospects, others on their passions.

English and literature graduate teaching assistant Katie Sisneros compares Chaucer and Beowulf with her Historical Survey of British Literature class on July 1, 2013, in Follwell Hall.

Emily Dunker

English and literature graduate teaching assistant Katie Sisneros compares Chaucer and Beowulf with her Historical Survey of British Literature class on July 1, 2013, in Follwell Hall.

Hailey Colwell

In an unstable job market, some college students are turning to majors that assure job security after college.

But it’s still important for colleges to make the case for a liberal arts education, according to a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts transitions from the leadership of longtime dean James Parente — who stepped down at the end of June — some professors say it’s an opportunity to change the way the University advocates for the liberal arts.

Although the public has increasingly placed more value on training for a specific career, according to the report, colleges and universities have a duty to defend a humanities education.

As the only Ph.D. granting research school in the state, the University has a responsibility to promote a liberal arts education, said Raymond Duvall, CLA’s interim dean.

The next CLA dean will play a crucial role in bolstering public support for the liberal arts by reaching out to stakeholders outside the University, Duvall said. This can be done by approaching business, professional and civic leaders around the state who have liberal arts backgrounds, he said.

“We have a good opportunity right now to use this search for a new dean,” said creative writing assistant professor Peter Campion, “and that can make a difference.”

‘Doing something you enjoy’

A liberal arts education may not always point to a specific job, Campion said, which in the current economy isn’t uncommon.

“Everybody has trouble finding jobs right now,” he said.

There’s not going to be a “magic fit” between what humanities majors learn in school and the job they get, said English and history professor John Watkins.

“The only thing that’s going to make our students better prepared to get jobs is an upturn in the economy,” he said.

Computer science and engineering sophomore Ashley Suchy chose her major because she knew she’d be able to get a job with good starting pay. Suchy said she didn’t consider pursuing a humanities degree because “it just doesn’t seem useful.”

“If I were to go for English,” she said, “I could be a teacher; I could be a writer, but … a lot of the jobs that are higher-paying are in the sciences.” 

Even with economic pressures, civil engineering professor Roberto Ballarini  said it’s a dangerous idea to cut funding in the liberal arts just because they don’t have an immediate return on investment.

Sociology and cultural studies and comparative literature senior Jordan Duesterhoeft said he came to college planning to start an engineering degree. He switched to his current major, he said, because he’s passionate about the subjects.

“I don’t want to study something that didn’t interest me,” he said.

Although he doesn’t see himself getting a job right after college, Duesterhoeft said he feels prepared to enter the workforce because his majors have taught him different ways of looking at the world.

“The general viewpoint that a liberal education gives you is useful in itself,” he said.

Vice President for Research Brian Herman said to start tackling challenges like poverty, public health and energy dependence, it’ll be necessary to integrate the humanities and the sciences.

Although there’s a common perception that more applied skills lead to better jobs in the short-term, Herman said, he still believes the liberal arts have great value.

“They teach us about who we are,” he said.

Ballarini said his overall philosophy is if students work hard and study what they’re passionate about, they’ll be good at what they do.

“You’re better off making a little bit less money doing something you enjoy,” he said.