Update: DE story, 2/14.
Faculty and staff in the College of Liberal Arts (CoLA) received a memo from our Dean, Kimberly Kempf-Leonard, asking our views on a name change for our college. First let me applaud her for seeking staff & faculty input. Now I'll provide it, using the blog to amplify (if only a bit) my support of what I suspect will be a losing cause: Saving the Liberal Arts. (Apologies to the non-liberal artists among you, though I hope the following will be of some interest to those outside CoLA.)
The Dean's memo began with an accurate report that the CoLA retreat
(which I attended) strongly recommended a name change. I will almost
avoid calling attention to the fact that the most forceful
recommendation coming from our day long retreat was a name change. The
Dean's memo also accurately sketches problems with our current name: let me
stipulate that most students--even most current students in CoLA, not to
mention potential students--do indeed have very little idea of what the
words "liberal" or "arts" mean in this context. More on that later.
Back to the recommendation from the retreat. A name change did win the poll for the best idea at the retreat. But I think we need to qualify this recommendation in two senses. The first is that there was almost no discussion of the pros and cons of a name change, for the simple reason that there was little discussion of any single topic. The retreat, as I suppose is usual for such things, was run on the principle that the more bullet points one generates, the more work has been done. So separate groups came up with their own bullet-points, generating easel after easel of short phrases. A selection process from among the bountiful yield of bullet-points did indeed show strong support for the name change. But while this support is broad it may not be terribly deep.
The second qualification is this. Another of the top three bullet points discussed at the retreat was the need to promote the college. (I can't remember the third place item--anyone else recall? We were supposed to get some sort of minutes from the retreat, which I have at any rate failed to receive yet.) Undiscussed, in keeping with the retreat format, was our target audience for this promotion (presumably potential students, or at least SIUC students whom we could potentially snag) but just what we were going to promote.
There's the rub. Just what is this college we aim to promote? It's rather hard to promote "this here collection of departments"--or "these three clusters of departments". Would we argue that the faculty and programs that happen to be administered by the dean's office in Faner Hall are really quite good? With all due respect to former, present, and future occupants of the dean's office, I suspect that very little of the successes (or failures) of those departments are due to them being administered via the dean housed in Faner Hall. If we as a college have no shared understanding of what we are about, if the college lacks any unifying sense of purpose and mission, there's nothing to promote. We can of course promote departments, where such a shared mission will be pretty easy to articulate. And we will no doubt continue to promote SIUC. This last is of course problematic, as all the debate about marketing has shown. SIUC's mission is incredibly broad and diverse, but we can at least manage to distinguish it, by geography, program mix, demography, and history, from other colleges and universities.
Okay, so why are we better off with Liberal Arts than Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (in one order or other)? The phrase "liberal arts", for all its obscurity, does at least attempt to describe one unifying thread that unites the sorts of things done in this college and distinguishes them from most things done in other colleges on campus. It thus produces—at least potentially, if the meaning of the name is unlocked and communicated among faculty and students—some sort of identity that could be promoted.
Let me try a homey comparison, in large part to help me to better
understand this alarmingly metaphysical point about identity. If you're
running a car company, you need to decide whether to promote the make or
the model (or both). If you're going to promote the make, you've got to
have some identity to go with it--something that can provide you with a
brand. If the car company gets too complex, and its various models
don't have much in common, an ad for that company won't work. Successful
companies, I suspect, have a successful company brand, based on a
meaningful corporate identity, in addition to preponderance of good
models. So you don't see many ads for GM, that collection of brands, while one does see
commercials for Chevy. "Liberal Arts", for all its vagueness and
obscurity, carries some specific connotations, especially to those in the know.
It's the equivalent of Chevy or Buick. The other names are to academe
what GM is to the automobile.
So promoting the College of Liberal Arts at SIUC would mean, to my mind, promoting two things, the liberal arts in general, and in particular the liberal arts as practiced at SIUC. This post is already too long without making a detailed pitch for the liberal arts--so I'll be ridiculously curt. The liberal arts are disciplines worthy of a free person; skills one needs for one's own sake, not only to slave away for another, or for a wage.* Study the liberal arts, and you'll learn things that will help you not only make a living but make a life. Promoting the liberal arts at SIUC would mean arguing that we've come up with a way to make the liberal arts work for our students in this campus setting; it would require connecting the dots between the identity of SIUC and the liberal arts. This may all sound airy-fairy, but I am actually sanguine that we in CoLA (and many or perhaps most faculty outside CoLA) share a great deal when it comes to what a liberal education should mean, and could benefit not only our students but each other by thinking and talking about it more.
So much for a defense of the liberal arts and our current name. I will close by briefly noting that while the alternative name--some combination of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences—would more clearly describe the range of the departments housed in our college, it will itself be rather opaque to students. Few students will have a very precise idea of what the social sciences or humanities are, beyond a couple of core fields; "arts" will readily enough be understood as "fine arts", I suppose, though even there not all students will think of music.
Whatever we name ourselves, we are going to have to educate students, including potential students, about what we do. While I will grant that a College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences will appear more transparent to students than a College of Liberal Arts, it too will require some explaining. There is, or at least ought to be, some continuity between "selling the college" and educating our students; part of what we have to do to reach students is to teach them why what we do matters. Perhaps a name that students won't immediately understand, and will recognize that they don't immediately understand (as it does not provide the somewhat specious transparency of the alternatives under consideration) is actually a good idea. Perhaps it can provide us with an opportunity to reach students by teaching them a little something. Perhaps teaching them a little lesson about "liberal arts" is the best way, or even the only way, to sell this college.
* Let me also stipulate that "liberal arts" includes lots of unpleasant historical baggage, first and foremost the notion that some of us are free and some slave; that it projects a form of snobbishness against working for a living, a snobbishness rampant in obsolete and inequitable social orders, etc. My guess is that the damage done by these historical connotations is more than outweighed by the gain--but I'd be very happy indeed to discuss any holistic alternative to splitting the college into clusters.