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The Liberal Arts in an Age of STEM Part 2: Articulating the Response

Curriculum Planning and Development Leadership and Management

The Liberal Arts in an Age of STEM Part 2: Articulating the Response

(In Part 1 of this two-part series, Jeff Buller discussed why current fixation with the STEM disciplines in higher education fits the pattern of past academic fads and does not appear to be the beginning of a sustainable trend.)

If recent responses to the STEM fad by many academic leaders from liberal arts disciplines—i.e., claiming that admissions offices just aren’t working hard enough to recruit students in the arts and humanities or that STEM should be repackaged as STEAM or STREAM—aren’t effectively addressing what’s actually occurring in higher education today, what should administrators be doing in order to position their programs for better success once today’s STEM bubble bursts? There are five strategies that forward-looking academic leaders ought to adopt.

1. Collect genuine employment data

Legislators and trustees will often make claims that the STEM disciplines are more valuable because only graduates in these fields find employment and that majors in the arts, humanities, and social sciences will be all but guaranteed long periods of either being underemployed or not having a job at all. They then attempt to back up these claims with stories about art history majors or anthropologists who are currently working as baristas or with statistics that are of dubious provenance and taken out of context.

Academic leaders may not be able on their own to collect sufficient information about national or international trends, but they can at least gather data about their own programs. My own college includes a full range of academic programs in the arts and humanities, social and behavioral sciences, and natural sciences and mathematics. When we traced our own graduates in three key areas—employment in their field within a year of graduation, placement in graduate programs, and employment in their field within a year of completing graduate programs—we discovered that there was no statistical difference among disciplines; all rates were equally high. In fact, some of our alumni in the fine arts and humanities actually found suitable employment faster than did those who graduated in STEM fields. As the old saying goes, “The plural of anecdote isn’t data.” Information of this sort can be used to assuage the concerns of students and their parents who are concerned about misleading reports propagated by people who have agendas of their own.

2. Focus on skills, not merely on content

When academic leaders speak to employers about what they’re looking for when they hire recent college graduates, the conversation usually centers on skills, not on specific content. In many STEM fields and corporate ventures, information changes rapidly. New technologies develop, consumer preferences change, and the content that a student learns as a freshman may be out of date by the time that same student becomes a senior. As a result, companies assume that they’ll need to keep their workers constantly up to date about content. What they often can’t teach their employees (or at least don’t have time to teach their employees) are the types of skills and attributes that will help them succeed: good oral and written communication skills, critical thinking, creativity and a constant desire to be innovative, sound ethics, positive interpersonal skills, appreciation of human diversity, complex problem solving, the ability to conduct independent research, leadership, and emotional intelligence. Those are precisely the skills in which universities train students in all disciplines—the arts, humanities, social sciences, professional fields, and STEM—above and beyond the content of those fields. In addition, many disciplines in the liberal arts expose students to how government works, the importance of understanding organizational behavior, and other factors that enable them to succeed in a highly competitive job market. After all, you don’t go to the gym to learn how to operate a treadmill; you go to improve your cardio performance. In much the same way, employers don’t hire classicists because they’ve read Plato; they hire them because they’ve learned how to solve complex challenges. The skills people will need in order to solve the challenges in health care, the economy, and international relations in the 21st century aren’t found in STEM disciplines alone.

3. Understand the nature (and fate) of a bubble

There’s a truism in investing: by the time the general public discovers a trend, it’s nearly over. That’s precisely the error that institutions are committing when they redirect major portions of their budgets to particular fields. By the time those investments will pay off, a new fad will already be under way. In fact, there are already signs that the STEM bubble is bursting. Cuts in funding for the NSF and NIH mean that some institutions are closing labs that they can’t sustain themselves. As a result, colleges and universities have recently prepared a glut of workers for jobs that no longer exist—not in archaeology or theatre, but in scientific research. (See, for example, www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/09/09/340716091/u-s-science-suffering-from-booms-and-busts-in-funding.) The nature of a bubble is that people sense the existence of an opportunity or shortage, rush to fill it, and end up overproducing a commodity or skill set beyond what the demand can absorb. Its fate is to pop under the very pressure that was intended to expand it.

4. Universalize the university

The result is that universities, where academic leaders believe they’re acting strategically by redirecting investments into “pillars of excellence” based on their current perceptions of needs and priorities, will only cause the bubble to burst faster. A more effective strategy is to universalize the university—base strategic investing not on today’s “trends” (which are in reality fads) but on society’s needs for knowledge in all areas. We have no better way of predicting what the greatest need of society will be 10 or 20 years from now than we did when we failed to predict the post-Sputnik science bubble, the post-Watergate investigative journalism bubble, or the post-Internet dot-com bubble. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, the proper role of a university is to help scientists become more humane and humanists become more scientific. We distort that purpose if we inflate one segment of higher education at the expense of another. Our goal instead should be to make sure that our entire infrastructure is strong enough to support whatever new fad develops next.

5. Prepare for the post-bubble world

Higher education in the 21st century isn’t an experience that ends with the receipt of a baccalaureate degree. It’s a lifelong activity that will include, for increasing numbers of people, graduate work, continuing education, and periodic return to the university for modules, complete courses, additional online training, independent study, and platforms for learning that haven’t even been invented yet. If a glut of graduates in STEM fields return to us for retraining in tomorrow’s hot new field, we’ll also need to be prepared when the next bubble (and the one after that) burst and students return to us yet again for training in STEM, the arts, humanities, social sciences, and professions. It’s somewhat ironic that those very qualitative skills that allow those grounded in the liberal arts to recognize how these patterns unfold over time are precisely the skills that many legislatures and governing boards are undervaluing in their rush to expand the STEM bubble. It can be frustrating to feel like Cassandra in a room of people who don’t believe it’s important to know who Cassandra was. But the duty of today’s academic leaders has to be to prepare for a post-bubble world in which the broadest possible range of knowledge, skills, and wisdom will continue to be needed.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.


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