Thursday, May 01, 2008

Important Questions at the University of Toledo

A number of people have been blogging about what's happening at the University of Toledo. New Kid on the Hallway wrote an especially interesting post, in which she points us to the petition. Here's part of the text of the petition:

We believe that a clarification of the 10-Year Plan is needed to prevent a course of action at the University of Toledo that may jeopardize our ability to meet the strategic objectives of the State of Ohio to improve higher education.

We, the undersigned, petition the Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents and the Governor of the State of Ohio to review and amend the direction and governance of the University of Toledo.

Like New Kid on the Hallway, I'm not sure that sending a petition is likely to make a big difference in any way for the University of Toledo, but I added my name. I encourage you to add yours if you think the issue is important, especially beyond the confines of the University of Toledo, Toledo, or even Ohio.

As I understand it from reading the various links that New Kid and others have provided, along with other public information, the new president of the University of Toledo has decided to change the focus of the university from its traditional comprehensive (liberal arts) focus, to a focus on the STEM disciplines (STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), narrowly conceived, with almost no input from the faculty, students, or community.

The problems at the University of Toledo seem of two types. First is the over-valuation of STEM disciplines and comparative devaluation of a liberal arts education. Second is the importance of shared governance in academic institutions. I'd like to focus on the first issue, for now at least.

Valuing Education: STEM and Liberal Arts Education

I think we in higher education have done a poor job (not only recently) explaining the value of higher education, especially liberal arts education. For a while, we didn't need to, perhaps, and got lazy. First there was the GI Bill; no one needed to explain to GIs coming back from WWII or Korea that getting a college education, especially with government assistance, was a great idea. Their kids, the baby boomers, were a huge generation, and were encouraged to get an education by their parents. And then there was the whole Sputnik panic, and a big government push to educate the next generation of engineers to get us to the moon, with a smaller echo of focus on educating humanists, too.

After the baby boom and end of the Apollo programs, however, we university folks faced two serious difficulties: a smaller population of college students and an increasing resistance on the part of the public to help pay for higher education through taxes. And we didn't do a good job explaining to the public why paying for higher education through taxes is important and valuable. (Similarly, NASA seemed to have a problem deciding where to go and convincing people it was important to get there.)

It's now increasingly more expensive to go to college, and we're facing serious economic problems. Most people don't want to pay more taxes, and lots of us are worried about the environment, technology, and so forth. Students facing large student loans want to be reasonably sure that they'll be able to get jobs and support themselves in a manner that seems reasonable to them. People think of education in terms of "return on investment" and "opportunity costs," and they want to make sure they're spending their resources of time and money as best they can. And the STEM disciplines seem promising.

Is a STEM based education more valuable than a liberal arts education? (Recognizing that a liberal arts education includes math and science majors.) At a quick glance, it can seem that the STEM disciplines are more valuable. We do, after all, need engineers, and they do some great work (I'm especially fond of modern sanitation, for example). But do our liberal arts students learn things that are important outside their specific majors? If so, we need to explain what those things are, and why they're important. But they're "fuzzy" compared to things like engineering skills, and thus hard to explain well.

I'm not at all original in thinking that we need to communicate better about the value of a liberal arts education. One of the leaders in this area of education is the Association of American Colleges and Universities. I realize that I probably sound like an ad for them sometimes, but I've found their materials and information useful, and their media campaign "LEAP" is something worth looking at.

According to the AAC&U, a liberal arts education involves
a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a strong sense of value, ethics, and civic engagement. Characterized by challenging encounters with important issues, and more a way of studying than a specific course or field of study, a liberal education can be achieved at all types of colleges and universities.

I think we need to emphasize the importance of broad knowledge and transferable skills, especially skills in critical thinking, which seem sadly lacking these days. We equally need to teach students to think hard about values, ethics, and civic engagement. If we don't do that well enough, then we need to do better. But if we train the smartest, most tech savvy engineer in the world with no sense of ethics, we've made a mistake.

The AAC&U has two reports about learning outcomes (I hate THAT WORD!) and the liberal arts, and they're worth looking at. The first is "Liberal Education Outcomes: a Preliminary Report on Student Achievement in College." Part of this report talks about why business leaders think the skills students gain in the liberal arts are important, especially skils in understanding human culture and the world, communications and numeric literacies, and civic/social responsibilities. Another part focuses on how students gain these skills through a liberal arts education. The second, "How Should Colleges Assess and Improve Student Learning," focuses almost totally on what business folks want from college graduate employees, and how colleges can help their students get there.

The AAC&U isn't publishing these to satisfy people who want warm and fuzzies, but to convince us that liberal arts studies make good economic sense for our students (as workers, employers, citizens), and for all of us as taxpayers who should see higher education as a public good.

[It's worth noting as an aside that we never see places like Harvard, Yale, or Stanford decide to cut way back on the liberal arts in their curricula. Perhaps the people with real power whose kids are educated at those places recognize that it doesn't matter if someone majors in Math or English; what matters is that they learn to learn, make connections, learn to think, and get their basic thinking challenged on all sorts of levels. (Afterwards, of course, they may still be dimwits. But I'm sure Yale tried!!)]

Here are some links to posts other folks have done on the issue:
Modern Medieval
Reassigned Time
The Age of Perfection

I'm sure there are more, and I'd be happy to link them if you let me know.


  1. Thanks for talking about this. When I taught at a SLAC, I used to do sessions for applicants and parents where I talked about the Renaissance foundations of "liberal" education. And I reminded them that the root of "liberal" was freedom. And I think that needs to be the argument: if we want an education for freedom, it has to include critical thinking and reading and writing -- just as it needs to included numeracy and basic science literacy. All those things make it possible to evaluate information and navigate a complex society.

  2. It's worth linking the University Diaries post, perhaps.

    Re the elite schools---indeed. My high-ranked SLAC bragged that they didn't need a business major because Wall Street employers understood that the liberal arts training was the critical thing. Of course, by definition Yale doesn't have dimwits. Those are technically all already "smart" students, and because of the well-rounded premium in admissions, largely students who are good at whatever they turn their hands to.

    Different rephrasing of the same ideas: less intelligent students can't get by with liberal arts skills but no technical skills. (counter-argument: intelligent should not equal good at school, and the liberal arts actually makes students smarter.) But this phrasing reveals the elitist and genetically determinist attitudes behind the difference between Yale and U of Toledo.

  3. I have to agree with you. A university or college education should not be a trade school. If you just want training in what you want to do for the rest of your life, you're better off with a 2 year associates degree (I actually think that vocational education is underutilized).

    I'm a molecular and cell bio major, but I agree that the liberal arts are critical to good education (as opposed to training)