Former University President James Duderstadt, University President Mary Sue Coleman and University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, a former University provost, presented speeches and answered questions Thursday night during a panel in Rackham Auditorium as part of a national conference, held from May 22 to May 24, on the value of liberal arts within large research institutions.

During his speech, Duderstadt told an anecdote about being in an hour-long argument with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder about the value of a liberal arts education at research universities.

He said Snyder, who has four degrees from the University, is “someone who should know better” than to dismiss the value of a well-rounded education.

“(He) believes that we should be turning out experts on big data and analytics rather than broadly educated citizens capable of adapting to the world of rapid change,” Duderstadt said.

Large research universities across the country have been under mounting pressure, often from state governments, to refocus education around “meeting contemporary work force needs.”

Phil Hanlon, another former University provost and future president of Dartmouth College, moderated the panel and spoke briefly on his thoughts on the matter.

The conference, and Thursday’s panel presentation, was attended by more than 50 deans and multiple presidents from major research universities across the country.

Coleman opened with a speech on the value of liberal arts.

“I could not do what I do today … without a liberal arts background,” Coleman said. “I know that I am preaching to the choir when I say a liberal arts education is excellent grounding for a career in any field.”

She said the University has always attempted to offer to stay true to “our mission and heritage of academic excellence” by offering a “liberals arts experience that draws on the offerings of a major research university,” especially since LSA teaches 80 percent of the credit hours offered.

Coleman then put forward three ways in which she felt that the University was fulfilling its mission: the Sophomore Initiative program, which offers sophomores the chance to take rigorous liberal arts courses geared specifically toward their class, a $50 million initiative entitled “the Third Century” which aims to develop multi-disciplinary approaches to teaching and $30 million of funding for 101 new tenure track positions that will focus on collaborative work.

“The idea (behind the Third Century) is to build a culture of intellectual engagement that stretches beyond the technical demands of engineering,” Coleman said. “(And with the Sophomore Initiative) we want to engage (students) and show them the depth and rigor of the academy.”

Hanlon echoed Coleman’s sentiments by discussing his appreciation for a course the University offered on clowning, saying that it provided many generally applicable intellectual skills such as analysis, creativity, learning how to fail and getting comfortable taking risks in front of others.

“There has never a better time for our graduates to understand the power of the mind and the power of deep thinking,” Hanlon said. “It is imperative that research universities continue to be the leader in active liberal arts education.”

Duderstadt said, despite how hard it might be to teach liberal arts, they should remain central to any university’s agenda.

“I believe very firmly, that as difficult as it is to define, and as challenging as it is to achieve, the elusive goal of liberal learning remains the best approach to prepare students for a life time of learning and the capacity to both adapt to and thrive (in) change,” Duderstadt said.

He added that there is much difficulty in doing this work, considering the emergence of new technologies that mandate an increasingly connected work force and a shifting education landscape, specifically with the development of massive open online courses.

Sullivan, the last of the panelists to speak, said many undervalued the contributions of universities, commenting on how many are the engine for research and fuel the development of many large industries in the U.S.

“We have gradually stripped ourselves of ways to do research any other way,” she said. “We know many of our most successful industries exist because of innovations in the university.”

Sullivan added that those in the U.S. with a bachelor’s degree have an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent while those without are unemployed at a rate of 8.3 percent.

She said colleges must better promote to the public and government the importance of providing higher education, especially in the liberal arts.

“I think it is useful for us to stand up and say, from time to time, what those values are and that values and cost are not always the same thing,” Sullivan said.

She said a college education provides something more than students can get by “sitting at a computer screen 15 hours a week.”

“We are not just content providers … there is indeed more to a university education than the transmission of didactic information,” she said. “We do something more than that and we have to articulate that.”

After speaking, the panelists also answered questions from the audience, including questions on student debt and efforts to increase diversity at universities.

On the matter of student debt, Sullivan said it is a problem that many schools don’t offer aid other than loans and federal Pell grants, adding that the average student is $25,000 in debt.

She said although her university caps financial aid packages based on loans at one year of tuition, she cannot control the fact that many students take on loans for other expenses, such as paying rent.

“I do think more in the way of financial counseling is necessary for students as they don’t always understand what they are getting into,” Sullivan said.

Coleman said though the amount of debt held by students was often vastly overestimated, she said the University was working to do better.

“Everyone is working extremely hard to make this manageable for young people and I think we do a pretty good job,” she said.

However Coleman added that she partially faulted the state for its declining investment in higher education.

“I am so appalled at that lack of willingness at the state level to take this seriously and reinvest,” she said.

Coleman also acknowledged that the cost of education limited opportunities for those of a lower socioeconomic status.

“It is certainly not the case that people at the lower level of the income spectrum have the same kind of opportunities,” she said. “They don’t.”

The panelists also answered a question about their universities’ commitment to diversifying. Coleman and Sullivan both agreed that they should do more to reach out to diverse, talented students earlier on in their academic careers.

“We have not been aggressive as we should be in earlier stages in K-12” Coleman said.

Sullivan said universities should market to these students that college is a possibility and they need to finish high school strong.

“We need to start identifying talented students early before they lose hope,” Sullivan said.

Debasish Dutta, associate provost and dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said he thought the panel presentation made a strong argument for the value of a liberal arts education.

“They made it very clear that even though we talk a lot about technology and science and so forth, the liberal arts education is going to be critically important even in this technology driven society,” he said.

Dutta said conferences like these helped in his university’s efforts to ensure the long-term future of liberal arts in higher education.

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