Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A College By Any Other Name

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. 

In addition to being asked whether we support a name change, we're asked to order our preferences among all possible permutations of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, with the resulting acronyms. You can come up with the list on your own. I find the need to consider each and every possible arrangement a droll example of the academic obsession with pecking order. The only name I heard mentioned at the retreat was CHAS, presumably either as a sop to humanistic types with a lingering fondness for liberal arts, or simply on the ground of euphony, though no one pointed that Hass is German for hate. Other acronyms, if pronounceable, would produce things sounding like: Cash, which would at any rate have different connotations than Liberal Arts; Shah, which might help Arabic; Saw, appropriate in an era of budget cuts; Ash, what you have after cuts; and let us be sure to give full consideration to Ass.  Of course CoLA is silly in its own right (you've no doubt heard the old one about seeking corporate sponsorship for CoLA from Pepsi, with the resulting name change, the Pepsi CoLA).

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.


  1. Good commentary, Dave. I wonder about another aspect of Dean Kempf-Leonard's memo where she alludes to other undergraduate liberal arts colleges within large research universities having other names than CoLA. Did any of this come up at the retreat? What do our aspirational peers call their liberal arts colleges?

    From my own experience attending SUNY-Binghamton (BA, '98), which granted was a bit smaller in size than here but still a "R1" and a "public ivy" to boot, the mainstay of the university was the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) which I would presume is true at most places other than here. SUNY-B (despite the corporatization efforts by our previous university president I know of no alumni who call it BU!) has a nationally-ranked undergraduate business school, a quality engineering school, and a few other professional schools. But as I recall, all the core classes that every student has to take to graduate are taught by the faculty at CAS, and something like 70% of majors are matriculated in the main college (which originated as a "public Swarthmore" in the late 1940s).

    Thus, the division of the hard sciences from the social sciences and humanities seems a bit strange to me. There may be valid reasons for doing it this way, but I think as a consequence of COS being its own separate entity, we run into a naming quandary of whatever we call the bits and pieces leftover of the mainstay of any university worth its name.

    Finally, although I have no problems with "Liberal Arts" and, indeed, would like to see all our students be exposed to it even more, I wonder whether our social science colleagues feel excluded by this title?

  2. Joe's comment reminds me of one thing I should have granted in favor of the name change: liberal arts certainly covers some departments better than others, though it can be defined in a way that would be inclusive, I believe. It is the poorest match for our social science colleagues, I suspect, but then again I suspect that most potential students will equate "social science" with "social studies" and assume it means history, not psychology, sociology, anthropology, criminology, geography, etc. And as Joe notes, "history" can be accommodated easily enough into the "liberal arts" rubric, though some historians are of course every bit as quantitative as colleagues in the sciences.

    Perhaps others can help us explain why the college of science is separate from liberal arts here. That can't have helped liberal arts, I suspect, given the prestige (and money) of the sciences. The only story I've heard is that the sciences broke off over Vietnam--which is clearly not the whole story.

  3. Yeah, I know some historians consider themselves "social scientists," and to some degree the positivism at the heart of historical methodology lends to this to some degree. As a cultural historian who does not have that much of a problem with Michel Foucault and some other poststructural theorists, however, I feel more comfortable personally labeling my research as falling in the Humanities, especially given that I do not do anything quantitative.

    But, regardless of where one falls on that, I would think that many of us in CoLA fall somewhere within the broad liberal arts in the sense that we all aim to teach our students how to critically analyze the world around them. Indeed, that further begs the question why COS is separate as many a scientist does the same thing.

    I am not knee-jerk opposed to changing our name but I would like to know more about what other institutions similar in size, scope, and mission to ours call themselves.

  4. As a scholar, I consider myself a social artist. Try being so in the College of Education and Human Services.

  5. Dave, I'm not surprised by your typical anti- tone, but an all day retreat? If my memory is right, it was about 3 hours. I'm also surprised that your take of the dean's view on our college seems to have emerged only from this retreat. I would encourage you to ask the dean for a short meeting to discuss your concerns. She would probably appreciate your input.

    1. The retreat ran from 8:30-3:30. The Dean solicited input on the same form that asked us to rank acronyms and the like, and I'll give her a version of the above. Look, this is something reasonable people can disagree about, and I may well end up, like Jonny below, recognizing that we just need to go with the flow and become CHASS or the like. But as the retreat itself provided no ready opportunity for discussion, I though I'd indulge in some here. What else is blogging for?

  6. I have heard that previously at SIUC what we had was a College of Arts and Sciences or some such. Then somebody decided to split them in half and all the sciences went to the College of Science. I would suggest that instead of spending time and money trying to hire a new Dean of the College of Sciences we merge COLA and COS together into one college. Think of the money we would save with one less Dean!

    I think it is amazing in these times that the "college leaders" within COLA actually went on a retreat and the only thing that they could come up with was this silly idea of changing the name. What a waste of time and money! And then the Dean has this multiple choice item distributed to us all to which we should respond without any discussion within each unit. Stuff like this should move up from the grassroots level. Before the Dean and the so-called college leaders decided to come up with these possibilities for a name change they should have asked all departments to discuss this issue. Its a bunch of silliness, in my opinion. There are far more important things that we need to be talking about as a college. Incidentally, the Dean of COLA's own unit (Administration of JUstice) was originally in the College of Human Resources more than 20 years ago. Then somebody decided to chop up that college into bits and one bit (AJ) wound up in COLA.

    1. The name change isn't the only thing discussed at the retreat--far from it. Many things were discussed, perhaps too many, but there is value in throwing out a lot of ideas, even if thereby one loses the opportunity to discuss any in great depth. I didn't think the retreat was a complete waste of time. The name change was simply the item to receive the most "votes" for action.

  7. Anon 5:57 AM: it sounds everyone else is silly but you. To be picky is a symptom of mental illness. I suggest those who are very picky on everything should have a physical examination to see if they are still heathy. Life is short! To enjoy life or to be picky is your choice, no one force you!

  8. About four years ago, when I served on CoLA Council, I remember this idea coming up. It was enthusiastically supported by Dean Vaux (a psychology professor), but died rather quickly in committee. My point is, the idea is not new. Well, what idea is, really?

    I appreciate your advocacy for Liberal Arts, Dave, and mostly I agree. In part, I find the chimera combination approach rather clunky on the tongue -- and the resulting acronyms worthy of the accompanying punch lines. I also think a unifying term like Liberal Arts (even if a blanket that doesn't quite cover the entire bed) is a little more useful in defining our mix. I work in a department that makes claims to all three of these broad areas and regularly resists the dean's attempt to label us one or the other.

    But the cynical side of me resigns itself to national trends. An ignorant public reads political bias in the "liberal" arts, letting a name absent history or meaning be significant evidence of the so-called "liberal bias" in higher education. And of course, in the corporate paradigm of higher ed, all majors (and therefore colleges) must clearly define career paths, not skills and knowledge applicable to a wide range of life endeavors.

    I am resigned, therefore, to teach for CASH -- and smirk at the sad truth and bitter falsity of that claim.

  9. Years ago, sometime before I got here 15 tears ago, Math migrated from COLA to COS. My understanding through stories told was that COLA deans thought we should get paid like humanists scholars and wondered why we didn't write books. Yet even in COS we have a hard time because our empirical colleagues and current dean don't understand why we don't get big research grants (we don't have labs) and put our names on our grad students' papers (math research is more individual).

  10. We can't have the word "Liberal" in Rita and Glenn's Farm, can we?

    Suggested name changes CACA - Collage of Advanced Coporate Arts; CRAP - College of Republican Arts and Productivity; anything that will destroy the very idea of Humanities Education at SIUC.

  11. Would it make sense to have a school or division of the humanities within COXX? This is vague, but some kind of consortium of Eng, FL, Hist, Phil, & Speech Comm that would help remind us of the importance (centrality?) of the humanities in high ed.

    1. Um, there are three areas: arts, humanities, and social sciences to be substituted by X.

    2. Then you end up with four X's. If you are counting social sciences as two letters, that's OK, but it isn't as funny as three X's.

  12. As I understand it, most universities have a College of Arts and Sciences, with divisions of the humanities and fine arts, social sciences, and natural sciences. Not everyone agrees on which categories apply to which academic disciplines; certainly whether you call my discipline of History one of the humanities or one of the social scientists is very much debatable because we straddle both camps.

    It would still be useful to learn the actual reason(s) why the College of Science separated off from COLA.

    1. Joe,

      Do we have a historian willing to volunteer for this task?

      A creator description from the University Archives says, "The College Abbottt had presided over comprised of only thirteen departments, but during the rapid growth of President Morris's reign, had grown to nineteen departments and two programs. Because of the difficulty in running such a huge and complex college, the Chairmen of the six science departments requested that a separate College of Science be established. There's another note that says, "The possibility of a separate College of Science had been under discussion among concerned faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Science for several years." Those notes, however, come from the Archives' finding aids, not from primary sources.

      Even in those notes, there are hints that something else might have been going on. Why was the request to split coming just from the science departments and not from the whole college? Was that how college splits at SIU had been done in the past, so it wasn't unusual? Were there divisions within the college that kept the science faculty from getting support from the humanities and social sciences faculty?

      Another section of the notes indicates, "By 1972 the combined operating budgets of the Humanities and Social/ Behavioral Sciences had become over 4 million dollars. The operating budget for Physical and Biological Sciences was 3.1 million. Less than a third of the departments accounted for more than 40% of the budget for the combined college. Might control of money have been an issue?

      At the same time as the split, the Vietnam War was still a national concern, and the Carbondale 104 was about to happen. How did larger issues in the country and in the university affect what was happening in the college?

      If we have a historian willing to volunteer, you can look at Daily Egyptian and Southern microfilms anytime that Morris Library is open. The University Archives are open 8:30 - 4:30 on weekdays. Some retired faculty still live in the community and could be interviewed.

    2. Interesting.... Thanks for posting all of this.

      A few things jump out at me:

      1)The original name of my college was "The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences" before COS got formed.

      2) Tenure expectations still remain an issue in our college, even with the scientists in their own college. I am in a discipline that places great emphasis on writing single-authored scholarly monographs and much less on articles and conference papers. Other disciplines in the social sciences place emphasis on articles and conference attendances and little to none on writing a book.

      3) Vietnam raises several intriguing issues. Was there greater support for campus radicals among liberal arts faculty? What was the reaction of faculty in the college vis-a-vis other colleges to the decision in the spring of 1970 to close the school down? And with regard to 1973, which 104 professors got chosen to be fired?

      We have a two-course sequence of undergraduate research courses we require all of our majors to complete to graduate. I am always urging my students to take advantage of the university archives and other library resources. This would make excellent research projects. Thanks for sharing!

  13. I did some reading a while back on the history of the creation of the BS degree. It was done so science majors could take fewer language courses and more math. The 'traditionalists' were shocked that someone could be considered an educated person with only having to take Greek or Latin and not both. They were aghast when it was suggested that students might study a modern foreign language instead. (Didn't they learn French from their nannies?)

    I think the splitting off of COS's had a lot to do with the new federal funding of the sciences and the different standards for promotion and tenure. It is likely that COLA leadership get not get what the science faculty were doing and viewed many of the changes as watering down. (Tenure without a book?!?) The central admin likely felt these areas would develop faster and bring in more dollars if they had their own college.

    Of course science faculty were shocked when colleges of business were established.

  14. A brief clarification -- the social sciences do not value conference participation over books. And in my discipline, the value of a book depends upon your subfield. Not really important, I just did not want to leave that hanging.

  15. So the sciences and liberal arts split perhaps because the college became too unmanageable. But then everybody forgot all about it and then later some folks decided to axe the college of communication and move speech communication, theater, art and design and the school of music into the college of liberal arts. Oh-I forgot--they also eliminated the department of Communciation Sciences and Disorders--which used to be in the College of Communication and moved its remnants to the College of Education. There is no rhyme nor reason why they do these things! And of course all of these so called great ideas stems from administrators who think that is the only way to justify their existence!

  16. Again, you blame the Admin.

    Things are going in a dynamics way. To look at something today may be very different from the one ten years or twenty years ago.

    Do you think today's one dollar should be the same as the one dollar bill ten year's ago?

    It is very disappointed to see many people don't want to think and don't want to reason, but like to vote. This is how chaos can be created in today's election.

    1. It would be much better if those administrators just left well alone.

  17. It is at least popular wisdom that our university is in a time
    of change that is more rapid and significant than any of us have seen over the past thirty years. All too often, faculty and Admin find themselves unprepared
    for many of the challenges they face. To blame either seems unfair.


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