I am very privileged to present a guest post from the President of my university, Dr. Tim Loreman. It is a response to my post, “The Problem with the University” and expresses a significantly different view. (We academics disagree with each other a lot, and I love it. It is also a very good thing: We need each other as correctives when we get a bit [or wildly] off in our thinking, as we are wont to do.)
I will shortly post some comments in response, but Dr. Loreman’s piece is excellent. It is clear and well-argued. I highly commend it to your consideration:
I am grateful to Jonathan Strand for inviting me to write a guest column on his Truth and Life Seeker blog. I am more grateful still that he chose to allow me to offer a different point of view, or at least a slight change in emphasis, on the topic of a short article he recently wrote on ‘The problem with the university’. I do so with the best of intentions. It seems rather strange to call my friend Jonathan by his last name, nevertheless, I refer to him as ‘Strand’ throughout my article for the sake of brevity and convention only. The academy is a place for the open exchange of ideas, for respectful disagreement, and for testing our assumptions. I’m pleased that Jonathan has provided me with the opportunity to challenge his views here, as he has challenged mine with his original article.
I agree with much that can be found in Jonathan Strand’s article on ‘The problem with the university’. He is correct that universities are becoming increasingly intolerant of divergent points of view. We need to defend against that. I also agree that we tend to undervalue scholars with a wide breadth of knowledge in favour of those with more specific expertise. We need both. Finally, I concur with his conclusion that “…universities do not provide nearly the quality education they could. We could massively improve the education provided by 1) ensuring that our students acquire the most important things they need to flourish in their lives and contribute to society, and 2) directing more of our resources toward quality undergraduate education.”
I am, however, not in full agreement with his views about how we get to that point. It is true that in many parts of the world, including Canada, the Liberal Arts are struggling. Arts Faculties are shrinking in some universities and are subject to an assault from university austerity measures and a softening in student demand. This is not happening everywhere, but it is common enough that defenders of the Liberal Arts, including myself, are concerned. In response, Universities Canada continues to promote the value of the Liberal Arts nationally, and researchers such as Ross Finney in Ottawa are conducting research to demonstrate that Arts graduates, amongst others, go on to have successful careers. The problem, I believe, lies not in the value of a Liberal Arts education, but rather in how universities have viewed these programs and the students who take them.
Strand argues that the modern university offers pathetic general education programs, implying that this is the case because students are not required to take an adequate quantity or range of courses across disciplines. He says that “…for the bulk of our students, we do not nearly provide the education that would be most beneficial to them, or would be most beneficial to our society.” While I agree that many general education programs are in need of improvement, I disagree that the correct approach is for universities to become more directive; in essence requiring students to take a particular suite of courses in areas chosen by the institution. Strand seems to suggest this as the solution by highlighting a link to his other article ‘The Ideal University Education’. This article includes a lengthy list of areas in which students should, in his view, ideally take a course. Unfortunately, it is this approach that is partly responsible for the decline of the Liberal Arts, rather than being the solution to that decline. The more prescriptive we become, the more we become the authors of our own demise. I say this for reasons related to the modern learner and the context in which he or she engages in post-secondary education.
Perhaps the reason that the Liberal Arts are losing ground is that universities have clung to their own prestige and traditional ways of educating too tightly. We have become too precious and presumptuous, assuming that we know best what a student needs because we are higher education experts. Even if we often do know what is best, such an attitude does little to endear us to the modern student. A couple of centuries ago university education was exclusive. Tuition was low but few could afford the living expenses associated with lengthy periods of study. Gentlemen (mostly) who could afford to do so or who were members of the clergy would take a general Liberal Arts education that would provide them with the grounding in philosophy, classics, science, literature, and other areas that would permit them to function in the rarefied air of aristocratic dinner parties, church discussions, or as poets on grand tours of the European continent. This is not the case anymore. University education has become democratized, and accessible to an ever-increasing population made up of a demographic that could never have imagined such opportunities in the past. The modern student has agency and options. She votes with her feet and her tuition. She is better educated coming out of high school than students have ever been. She knows what she wants to do in her career and life, or at least has a pretty good idea of what she is going to do in the interim while she decides. And yet she still enters the university of the nineteenth century, one that is determined to tell her what is best for her, what she must study, and the choices she must make. Such an approach views the university as a provider of education. This is the wrong approach.
Allow me to say something strange for a university president: The role of the university is not always to provide students with an education. I am provided with a meal on the plane. I am provided with dental care. I accept both without enthusiasm. It is all very passive, and often distasteful. Should an education also be passive, with universities providing students with what we think they need? No. For learning to be truly effective and transformative students must be protagonists of their own learning. They need to seek it out, and actively engage in what they are doing with enthusiasm. Rather than simply providing education, the best universities invite students to learn. The challenge of the modern university is to offer topics that are relevant and interesting so that students are competing to register in courses rather than being compelled to do so. What is more interesting and relevant to students, a course on ‘Indexing systems in the libraries of the British Empire 1896-1898’ or a course on ‘Religion and Pop Culture’? Regardless of the quality of the courses I suspect that we would have to force and cajole students into taking the former, and cap student numbers in the latter. If the Liberal Arts are to truly thrive again they need to meet the learner in the areas that they inhabit, spark their interest, and invite them to direct their own learning. That is a fundamental shift. The provision model of education implies that universities do something to students, and that being largely ignorant of what is good for them students should passively accept and follow the courses of study we tell them to. The alternative invitation model, where students freely engage in topics that interest them, implies that universities become facilitators of learning, with the ownership of that learning shifting to the bright, capable, self-aware student. This does not mean that universities do not offer advice and direction to students, but rather that students are free to accept the advice or not. It is their education, not ours.
If we adopt the invitation approach (a version of which has been better articulated before me by scholars such as John Hattie, William Purkey, and Betty Siegel), over the course of a Liberal Arts degree students may or may not take a range of courses, and may or may not become familiar with the great ideas that span across disciplines. In either case I am not as concerned as my colleague Jonathan Strand is. First, they are surely getting a good education in the areas that they do choose to engage with. Second, he admits that his own undergraduate education did not provide him with the diverse foundation that he now feels would have been desirable. I could say the same of my own. Nevertheless, we have both done fairly well for ourselves. Frankly, I was not ready for the rigours of Locke, Homer, Dante, and Descartes in my 20s. I properly engaged with them in my 30s when I was ready to do so, in my own time and without the assistance of a university. Even during the golden years of Liberal Arts education, whenever they were, I suspect graduates left university with large gaps in their knowledge and misunderstandings in areas that they did study. University graduates cannot know everything and so we should aim to produce lifelong learners who have the skills to revisit topics, and to engage with new topics following graduation. The best way to produce such learners during the brief time that we have them is to facilitate learning in areas that interest them so that the task is attractive and takes advantage of their enthusiasm, rather than forcing our young people to take courses of study in areas which they have no current interest. The latter risks building resentment towards the subject area, and a resistance to revisiting it later in life.
The reason that professional programs have become increasingly popular at universities is that they typically lead to a defined career. My experience is that the university student of today is typically focussed on career goals, and quite often on specific career goals. I do not challenge Strand’s idea that a general Liberal Arts education is valuable, just that a Liberal Arts education as we have traditionally defined and offered it is often not what students are after. Once again, I think of an age when those taking a university degree rarely had to concern themselves with subsequent employment. They were wealthy, and the fact that they could afford such an education itself meant that getting a job after university was not necessary or often even desirable. This is not the case today. Students want and need careers, and therefore they want programs that will provide clear pathways to those careers. Otherwise, they simply won’t come. This can be accommodated within the Liberal Arts, but we need to change quickly.
The practical outcome of the invitation viewpoint is that universities will continue to provide discipline-based programs (majors) to help students become relative experts in their main area of interest. Outside of that, I advocate for the maximum amount of freedom possible. Universities rightly have standards, reputations to protect and enhance, and sometimes a desire to offer a distinctive education. Assuming that all courses at a university are rigorous (an uncertain assumption, and a topic for another day), we are left with the provision of a distinctive education to consider. This can be accomplished without necessarily impacting student choice when institutions, faculties, and programs articulate a set of outcomes that they want all students to leave their institution with. Such outcomes can take whatever form the institution wants. For example, a university might want to see its graduates leave with an understanding of what it means to be an ethical citizen. They can then identify any number of ways in which students can work to acquire and demonstrate learning in this area. The more pathways, the better. Such outcomes become a promise to students, a promise that they will leave the institution with knowledge, skills, and aptitudes in identified areas. Care should be taken to ensure that such outcomes are few in number, relevant, interesting, and broad. In this way students will be able to accomplish them according to pathways that they construct.
Adopting an invitation approach will also help us to meet Strand’s objective of “…directing more of our resources toward quality undergraduate education.” Taking our own university, Concordia University of Edmonton, as an example, there are revenue areas that we can impact and those that we cannot. We have little influence over the amount of government funding we receive, and our small but welcome percentage of donations and ancillary revenue through sales and parking do not go very far. That leaves us with one major area we can impact, which is revenue through student tuition. This currently accounts for 44% of our annual budget at CUE, and increasing student numbers is one of the few ways in which we can raise additional revenues. However much we might want to defend small programs and tiny classes, the financial health of the university is critical. Without a sustainable model the university must close its doors, and then nobody receives any education, however lofty our goals may be. I have had professors working in financially ailing programs tell me that the programs themselves are excellent, indeed national leaders in the areas. The only problem is that no students are interested in taking these degrees, rendering the supposed high quality of the programs irrelevant because they are not experienced. Such programs, if they are to survive in the modern university, need to re-think their approach. Is it fair to direct significant resources to areas that impact very few students, or would these same resources provide greater benefit if directed to more popular programs? I accept that this is a crudely utilitarian idea. However, in offering our students an invitation to learn in which they are free to choose from a range of attractive offerings we enhance our chances of increasing student numbers in the Liberal Arts, and therefore our capacity to direct ever greater resources to areas that directly improve the student experience. It is unpopular to say so because so many are concerned about the corporatization of higher education, but the inescapable fact is that efficiency and revenue generation matter greatly in the modern university.
Such views as I have just expressed possibly reveal what I have always suspected of myself; that I am a boor with no appreciation of what a true classical Liberal Arts education entails. In my defense, we live in a world where keeping our university doors open is difficult, where student participation in our programs matters, and where students have a seemingly unlimited array of choices. We need to adapt to become the most attractive amongst those choices and we do not have much time. Education is changing rapidly, and the Liberal Arts needs to play catch-up and keep pace with that change or risk becoming a quaint relic of the past. This can be done by moving from a provision model to an invitation model that promises students an opportunity for transformation. In doing so I believe that, as Jonathan Strand says, we will “massively improve the education provided by…ensuring that our students acquire the most important things they need to flourish in their lives and contribute to society.”