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2015 Committee lays out goals for a smaller, nimbler College of Liberal Arts at U of M

In an age of declining state appropriations and shifting budget priorities how will the CLA preserve its heart and soul and prepare for a leaner future?

In an age of declining state appropriations and budget priorities shifting to the next whiz-bang scientific breakthrough, how does a College of Liberal Arts preserve its heart and soul and prepare for a leaner future?

Late Friday afternoon, an eloquent 21-page report arrived in the email of faculty, staff and students in the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA). Someone forwarded the email to me from a home address. These are sensitive times.

“The Future of the College of Liberal Arts,” an interim report [PDF] prepared by the CLA 2015 Committee, is frank about the outlook: The college’s “budget is shrinking, and it will continue to shrink under nearly every plausible scenario.”

‘Pretty good is not good enough’
The report, prepared by a 30-member committee of faculty, staff and students from the Twin Cities campus, lays out 14 goals and recommendations for a smaller, nimbler college that focuses on students yet shares the university’s overarching goal to become a top research institution.

“Put another way, and with apologies to the residents of Lake Wobegon, pretty good is not good enough,” according to the report. “CLA does not accept mediocrity, or even pretty good; CLA aims for distinction in everything that we do: teaching and learning, research and discovery, outreach and service.”

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The College of Liberal Arts, according to its website, currently is home to 553 tenured or tenure-track faculty, 16,716 students, 45 programs and departments, and countless staff.

In February, the 2015 Committee recommended about $5.6 million in cuts to deal with the immediate budget crunch. Then members turned their attention to the future.

“I think it’s (the report) part wakeup call, part vision statement and, we hope, part of a unifying call to action,” committee co-chair Christopher Uggen said in an interview this weekend. “We want to make some smart choices and have a clear-eyed understanding of the rough patch that we’re going to hit, but then also have a vision for emerging on the other side stronger and unified.”

Beyond the spreadsheet
Though Uggen (pronounced you-gun) says that higher education is frequently “confronted with short-term budget problems,” this time around it’s not possible to simply “turn your collar up to the wind and ride it out.”

Christopher Uggen
Christopher Uggen

“I think the core working belief of the committee we held fast to is that we need to do things for academic and scholarly reasons,” said Uggen, a Distinguished McKnight Professor and chair of the sociology department. “Yes, we’re looking at finances, and we need a sustainable economic model, but it is in service of our academic mission and our scholarly vision. That is a much different orientation than pulling up a spreadsheet and saying, ‘Where can we cut?’ ”

The report notes that fewer degree programs likely will be offered but it doesn’t spell out which ones are on the chopping block. That’s a decision Dean James A. Parente Jr. faces in coming months. No doubt Parente and the 2015 Committee will be pressed for details at the town hall Tuesday morning in the Regis Center.

A ‘student-centric’ approach
“The college needs not just fewer programs from its current portfolio, but also new programs that address the questions that will become important,” according to the committee’s report. “The programs must not be burdened by legacy structures, but instead be organized in a student centric fashion. A successful future will arise from cooperation in creative ways that forms a new critical mass and new value for the college and our students.”

The report recommends looking hard at duplicative liberal arts education not only within CLA but also in other colleges at the U — and across the state of Minnesota.

“The state needs both the University and MnSCU [Minnesota State Colleges and Universities], but neither the University nor MnSCU nor the state can afford duplication,” the report notes. “One current example of this is the duplication of liberal education and, more generally, liberal arts curriculum across the colleges in the University of Minnesota. There must be coordination within and across institutions so that every entity has a well defined mission and the needs of students and the state are met as efficiently as possible.”

This issue also was raised by President Robert Bruininks in his recent state of the university speech [PDF]. “Today, colleges that once complemented each other’s offerings are now competing with the same degree programs for the same students, and campuses in every legislative district are competing for scarce capital funding,” Bruininks wrote.

I asked Uggen if he has observed insecurity among colleagues, that unnerving feeling of having targets on their backs.

“I think that’s all unavoidable, and I think that’s one of the reasons we, as a committee, want to operate with transparency,” he said. “We want people to know exactly what we’re thinking, exactly what we’re talking about … because of those anxieties. I certainly feel them when I’m wearing my department chair hat. How is this going to affect the staff in my unit? How is this going to affect my undergraduate and graduate students and my faculty?”

Defining a liberal arts education
But how do you explain the importance of a liberal arts education and define it to a public looking to science and technology for future jobs? The outcome is not readily visible, a source explained recently: “We don’t have hearts growing in jars. We don’t have solar cars.”

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And that issue shows up in budgeting. The report notes that most other colleges at the university receive “considerably greater state support” per student ($3,350 in CLA vs. $10,000 in the College of Biological Sciences, for example).

“While it is often said that sciences subsidize the humanities, it seems that at Minnesota, the humanities subsidize the sciences,” according to the report’s first footnote.

The CLA report is worthwhile reading, particularly for this passage on the role of a liberal arts education:

“The liberal arts remain essential subjects for a productive and participating citizen in modern society. They ask difficult questions that demand broad understanding and address some of the most important issues that confront our nation and the world. Examples are easy to find. You need an understanding of history, culture, religion, and language to appreciate and navigate the shifting ground of diplomacy and politics; leaders who lack that understanding affect war and peace around the world. You need to understand economics to survive in the current climate, and economics without ethics has led to a world-wide recession. Justice and equality; belief and truth; the beauty of the written word, a work of art, or a musical passage; these are how we find a life worth living and search for its meaning — these are the liberal arts in the 21st century.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post said the town hall would be held in Rarig Center, according to the 2015 Committee’s report. The town hall will be in Regis Center. The post has been updated with the correct location.