Monday, March 31, 2014

The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century

A recurrent theme in the contemporary conversation about higher education is the need for more research and more graduates in disciplines associated with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Rightfully so. These are critical areas of knowledge for facing and resolving the global challenges of our time.  Furthermore, a compelling case is readily made that such disciplines are crucial to economic competitiveness and job creation.  Finally, creating the necessary understanding of the difficult challenges and choices ahead will depend upon increased scientific and quantitative literacy.
Less well understood, I think, is the equally critical importance of education in the liberal arts.  We are no longer merely a part of the global economy; we live in an increasingly global society. Thomas Friedman (of “The World is Flat” fame) makes the point that we now live in a “hyper-connected” and “interdependent” world.  Consequently, the global society thereby created is exceedingly complex. It is a shared, 24/7 society layered on an enormous and frequently incompatible array of cultures, languages, histories, religions, and governments.  In such a world, studies of history, religion, philosophy, economics, sociology, communications, languages, and numerous other subjects commonly thought of as comprising the liberal arts, are important components of higher education.  The skills of critical analysis, expository or thematic writing, presentation, research, and communication are essential for success.  Music, art, literature, and their manifestations on the global web are increasingly the means by which culture is translated, assimilated, and understood.
The ways in which we teach and engage students with the liberal arts must necessarily adapt. John Dewey presciently observed: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”  The global context should be at the forefront of our pedagogical strategies. Many entering students sense that a global perspective is important in areas such as economics, political science, and history, but may be less aware of the connections and impacts in other domains important to their studies, their lives, and their futures.  Uncovering and illuminating the rapidly expanding connections and relationships among cultures and nations is an important role of liberal arts education in the 21st century. To achieve this goal, education in the liberal arts needs to be both rigorous in its exposition of the nature and contributions of the various disciplines involved, and consistently interdisciplinary in its approach to the new reality of an interdependent world.
The University of Rhode Island is making excellent progress toward this global vision for liberal arts education.  For example, it is a key feature of our academic strategic plan and of much of the scholarship and creative work conducted in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts.  The Harrington School of Communication and Media has a global orientation and emphasis for all its programs, and views communications in the 21st century as an interconnected, interdisciplinary realm of expertise and activities.  Our emphasis on the study of language in combination with other disciplines, going well beyond introductory language instruction to include literature, cultural studies, and time abroad, is an exemplary approach for students to gain true global competencies.  URI’s increasing success in bringing students from across the world to help build a diverse community on our campus is essential to develop resilient multicultural understanding.
The nations, societies, and cultures of our world are now intimately connected and mutually dependent. Misunderstanding and miscommunication can be catastrophic. Peace, health, and economic prosperity depend on people and places that were once remote, but are no longer. The study of humanity – its history, behavior, thought, and creativity – which is the focus of the liberal arts, has never been more important than in the world of the 21st century.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Focus on the Why

At this year’s ACE national conference an interesting question came up, which (paraphrased) was: How can universities make the changes required to adapt to a rapidly changing (and increasing) set of challenges and opportunities?  The answer provided: “focus on the why”. 
This could mean a lot of different things, depending on precisely which “why?” question is posed.  There are several relevant and important questions in this category. To name a few: Why should students and their families pay the current tuition to attend URI? Or: Why should the state legislature and the Governor provide additional support to URI? Or: Why would faculty and staff want to work for URI now, and in the future?  Here’s one I deal with very frequently: Why should alumni and other potential supporters give to URI?  These questions, and the associated answers, are clearly central to the vitality, quality, and future of the University of Rhode Island.
As important as they are, not one of these is the most important question.  That question is: Why are we here?  The answer is known to all of us: To educate students. It is, ultimately, about them, and not about us – the faculty and staff. The University of Rhode Island has multiple important missions, but education at the undergraduate and graduate levels is the heart and soul of the university and the foundation of all of our missions and endeavors.  In the midst of everything we are involved in, it is both good and necessary to remind ourselves frequently about why we actually exist. 
Certainly, the University of Rhode Island exists to conduct research, scholarship, and creative work. However, we do these things, at least in part, to provide new knowledge to our students, and to engage them in these very activities.  URI is very service oriented, but, again, we serve the people of the state, our nation, and the world to create a better environment for our students, our graduates, their families, and the societies in which they live.  We focus on economic development for the same reasons.  The phrase “student-centered” is not a slogan, a marketing strategy, or camouflage.  It is the essence of why we exist.
Accordingly, we should test all of our decisions, and assess all of our priorities, in light of what would be in the best interests – both short- and long-term – of our students.  Indeed, it is in the best interests of the university and its faculty and staff to do so.  This does not mean providing students with all that they desire, reducing the rigor or demands of our curricula, or having low standards for their academic work or behavior.  Just the opposite.
The relationship is reciprocal. If we – the faculty, administration, and staff  – have high expectations for our students, it is fair and right for the students to have high expectations of us.  Based on what I observe around campus and hear from students and alumni, I think the University of Rhode Island has long exemplified both a broad understanding of why URI is here, and the benefits of mutual high expectations.
The University of Rhode Island is moving assertively to provide an even better education for its students at the graduate and undergraduate levels.  For example, the Academic Strategic Plan, with its emphases on experiential learning, internships, research and scholarship, globalization, diversity, and community provides an outstanding framework for the future.  The faculty has been working diligently and productively to frame and implement a much needed new general education program.  There is an intensifying focus on what knowledge, competencies, and experiences our students need to be competitive and successful in the 21st century. 
In the end, all that we are and all we do at URI benefits from an unrelenting focus on why we are here. Universities with such a focus will attract talented and committed people  (students, faculty and staff), new resources, and the gratitude of those we serve.