More questions than answers

UofCMotto (1024x683)

I see the Edmonton Journal picked up a story yesterday that surfaced during the middle of last week. First a bit of background. The current dean of the arts department Lesley Cormack sent a memo informing faculty that “effective immediately, I am asking (the registrar) to begin suspending admission to the following (20) programs or concentrations” in the humanities. She then went on to request that “arguments against these recommended suspensions should be made, in writing, to the Dean, by September 3rd.” See the full memorandum here http://artssquared.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/memorandum-from-dean-of-arts-16aug2013.pdf

Then according to the article covering the same story in yesterday’s Edmonton Journal – see http://www.edmontonjournal.com/entertainment/Simons+Between+rock+arts+place+Proposed+program+cuts/8808713/story.html we read the following:
“The timing is far from ideal. Classes start in less than a month.
And many academics and university administrators — including, as it happens, the dean of arts herself — are on vacation. The situation leaves professors scrambling. Incoming and returning students wondering whether the courses and programs in which they’ve enrolled will have any future or if they should change majors now, before they end up headed down a dead-end road.”

Seriously? The Dean drops this bomb and then goes on vacation? But I digress.

Nor am I am not even going to touch on the recent news as of late yesterday afternoon that the province is investigating the University of Alberta finances as per the attached update from the chair of the Board of Governors http://www.ualbertablog.ca/2013/08/board-chair-cip-response-received-key.html as it is an administrative matter and not germane to my comments.

* * * * *

This situation is somewhat reminiscent of the highly publicized local situation that elicited front page coverage in Calgary for a while.  It also is an issue that both Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary had to deal with, just after the school term ended this past spring. Both universities (as did other local educational institutions) took the budget cuts announced by the province on the chin. Which programmes were the losers? One could probably figure that out by doing a simple online search – but similar to what is happening at the University of Alberta now, it largely was the humanities and arts.

Clearly there are issues that need to be addressed. Hard decisions must also be made. There are no easy solutions.

Having said that, this prompts the question, why does it appear that the arts and humanities typically are the first programs to get axed when funding cuts are announced? Are they extraneous programs that should only be funded when times are good?

The follow-on question is – at the undergraduate level should students be more interested in getting a liberal arts education or a technical education?

The American Council for Education wrote about this matter just last year (see http://www.acenet.edu/the-presidency/columns-and-features/Pages/Myth-A-Liberal-Arts-Education-Is-Becoming-Irrelevant.aspx). Here Clare T. Christ, president of Smith College in Northampton, MA states:
“Yet, judging the value of a liberal arts education, even with a purely economic calculus, shows it to be more relevant than ever before. It is no longer news that career trajectories are varied and multiple; that our professional pursuits have distinct chapters over the course of our lives; and that, especially for women, the ability to step off and back on the career track during childbearing years is critical to advancement. Flexibility, creativity, critical thinking, and strong communication skills (particularly writing) are at the core of liberal arts education and critical to success today and in the future. It’s not surprising that a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities shows that more than three-quarters of employers would recommend an education with this emphasis to a young person they know.”

Also this past Spring the American Academy of Arts and Sciences wrote a report entitled The Heart of the Matter (as found here http://www.humanitiescommission.org/_pdf/hss_report.pdf). In this report they set forth three goals.
1. Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy;
2. Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong;
3. Equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

Just today in the Washington Post an article was publishing about the importance of changing the current vogue of a STEM-based educational stream that has been popular since the 1990s into a more balanced STEAM-based educational stream instead – see the story http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/therootdc/the-smartest-summer-ever-full-steam-ahead/2013/08/21/8c5399ac-0a63-11e3-8974-f97ab3b3c677_story.html

We must ask both ourselves as taxpayers and voters a few questions – do we want technical universities that teach its students to do skills, or do we want our students to be capable of thinking, creativity and communicating information in a world that is rapidly changing? Where the skills one learns early in one’s career are not the same that they will use when they retire? What skill sets will still remain relevant during that timeframe? And, is cutting these programs now something we will regret doing in a few years?

To borrow from the paragraph copied above in the Edmonton Journal – which educational stream is the “real” dead-end road? The “liberal arts” or a technical education.

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