Get Tactical: Promote the Liberal Arts—NOW

Florida’s Governor Rick Scott rides again. Last year, he announced he didn’t believe in funding a liberal arts education, and now he’s done something about it. This morning’s New York Times reports that, in Florida’s state-funded schools, Governor Scott is substantially reducing the cost of four-year science/tech/engineering degrees. You know, then, what that does to the liberal arts degrees.

What do you want to bet this will get other like-minded leaders thinking the same thing? Here’s our chance to shrink liberal arts departments and sideline those expensive, luxurious majors that aren’t preparing people for actual jobs. Here’s our chance to feature vocational majors, the only majors worth pursuing in this economy.

Liberal arts faculty and leaders: this is getting away from you. If you believe that the liberal arts are relevant, that they are producing graduates capable of performing paying jobs, then do something about it!

Why Hiring Managers Dismiss the Liberal Arts

Let me remind you of a few things. The liberal arts prepare graduates to analyze, communicate, research, plan, and lead. Hiring managers are desperate to find people who can write, reason, manage qualitative information, distinguish fact from distortion, conduct research, and think systemically. Despite their urgent searching, employers seldom find candidates with these abilities because they’re looking in the wrong places. They’re looking to the professional schools rather than to the humanities and social sciences.

Why don’t hiring managers consider liberal arts grads? Because no one has told them what they’re missing. Liberal arts educators never get out in front of hiring managers—as their counterparts in business and engineering do—and say, “Look over here! Our students have what you’re looking for!” Nor are liberal arts educators telling their students what they can do with their humanities and social sciences education (aside from go to graduate school).

Let’s Get Tactical: Seven Steps

One way to approach this problem is to be circumspect and patient, to look for the relevant research—or to do some—to develop a plan in committee and attempt to carry it forward.

Another is to get tactical. I vote for that. Here’s what you need to do—now.

(1)        Create a “Liberal Arts Advantage” presence in your academic department. Your Liberal Arts Advantage will include:

A web page devoted to what you can do with a liberal arts degree (aside from teach, attend grad school, or work in a museum), including a handy online library of materials about the usefulness of the liberal arts.

Department-sponsored occasions where speakers come to talk with your students about the future usefulness of their education. There are plenty of successful humanities majors who would love to encourage students. Among those I’ve met at career events: a philosophy major who became a CIA director, a sociology major who became a wildly successful staffing entrepreneur, and a graphic arts/religious studies double major who became the marketing director for a huge, high-profile retail company. Imagine your students listening to what these speakers have to say about how their educations prepared them for their careers and their lives.

Evening get-togethers where local hiring managers come to your campus to meet your humanities and social sciences students. Ask Career Services to help your students get ready for these meetings.

(2)        Develop certificate programs exclusively for liberal arts students, in partnership with your campus’s professional development organization, if you have one. Examples: Business Writing for Writers, because it takes years to learn to write competently but not much time to learn to apply that ability to business. Business Analysis for Humanities Majors, about how to apply critical thinking and research to process and information analysis. Or the Fundamentals of Project Management. (Note: Business schools offer non-credit “communication” classes to their majors. Some even require attendance. Why can’t liberal arts offer non-credit business prep? Let’s bridge this gap in both directions!)

(3)        Bond with Career Services. Ask them to introduce you to hiring managers and human resources people they know in your geographic area. In your meeting with HR, ask the HR staffing representatives what would make them look twice at a liberal arts student’s resume. Take notes. You’re the one learning here. Use this information to fuel your creativity about how to help your students.

Also, encourage your liberal arts students to attend career fairs. Don’t assume those events are just for professional schools. They’re for people who want to put their educations to use in some meaningful way. Help them do that. How about sponsoring a session to help them pitch themselves to prospective hiring managers? Career Services stands ready to assist.

(4)        Develop a course called “Leadership in Literature” about how the study of literature prepares future leaders. Here’s your guidebook for preparing this course: Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature by Joseph Badaracco.

(5)        Write a speech for an audience of Human Resources professionals and hiring managers about how prepared liberal arts students are for lives of work and purpose. Then meet your audience. One way to do that is to connect with the Society for Human Resources Professionals. Pitch your speech to them, and offer to give it at one of their lunchtime meetings. (You won’t get paid for it. That’s not the point.)

(6)        Develop a brochure about what it means to be a liberal arts major—in practical terms. Send these, along with your personal letter of introduction, to local business leaders. (Note: Business people listen to academics. All you have to do is speak up.)

(7)        Make sure your Admissions department is ready with information about the relevance of the liberal arts. If they’re steering eager humanities prospects to lucrative vocational majors, and if they’re telling Mom and Dad about how long it’ll take English majors to pay off student loans, that won’t help this cause one bit.

There they are: seven tactical steps to demonstrate, and elevate, the relevance of the liberal arts to the standing they should have.

“But How Can I?”

Yes, it’s a lot of work. And of course it’s politically complicated. Maybe the School of Business won’t like it. Maybe funding is an obstacle. Sure, it’s challenging to make new connections outside your usual professional circle, not to mention the greater challenge of simply undertaking a new initiative.

I’m calling on your leadership abilities—resourcefulness, creativity, influence, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. The latter, in particular, should be a cakewalk when you’re doing the right thing. And you are.

The only thing I can think of to add is this: get moving. Governor Scott just went from strategic to tactical. It’s past time for you to do the same.

2 thoughts on “Get Tactical: Promote the Liberal Arts—NOW

  1. I agree about the power of a liberal arts education, but there’s one step missing in you suggestions. We need to tell the students that “hiring managers are desperate to find people who can write, reason, manage qualitative information, distinguish fact from distortion, conduct research, and think systemically.” And we need to get faculty and the rest of the college staff to hold students accountable for these skills, not just in “career” courses, but in all aspects of their academic and campus lives.

    In his State of the Union address, President Obama said “Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.” Unless liberal arts programs can clearly demonstrate their “affordability and value” to their students, their families, and the federal government, they are going to continue to lose financial support.

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