What's the optimal role for the liberal arts in a modern college curriculum?
That's the $64,000 question facing liberal arts universities as elements of the field look increasingly outdated and inapplicable in our ever-changing world. While these schools have the luxury of embracing the liberal arts, there's naturally a finite amount of courses they can provide. Which are the correct ones? How will they best support a student with designs on law school or an MBA?
For possible answers, we turn to the Huntingdon, PA based Juniata College. The school received a $100,000, three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to "assess and redefine its general education curriculum and ultimately reshape the college's liberal arts education model to better reflect the needs and values of students in the 21st century."
To accomplish this, Juniata will conduct a kind of liberal arts curriculum inventory. On an annual basis, they assess elements of every academic program. They run reports, pore over data, and decide what works and what doesn't work. They take a closer look at their "evergreen" courses, from College Writing Seminar, an introductory freshman composition writing course, to Information Access, an introduction technology course. (See? Even esteemed, small, liberal arts schools teach technology courses.)
Grant money will help the college "modify the curriculum to best achieve the institutional mission with contemporary college students." But who, exactly, will lead this effort? Why, that would be the internal leadership group, paid for by — you guessed it — the grant.
What's more, this leadership group will be complemented by nine faculty-led working groups devoted to singular curriculum categories. Think of them as Congressional subcommittees (minus C-SPAN) honing in on specific issues and courses. Examples of those working groups include "Skills," which will include courses in communication, writing, speech, and math-related courses, as well as "Wide-Ranging Experience," which includes courses in fine arts, international topics, social sciences, and humanities.
Each working group will make curriculum recommendations to the leadership group based on meetings throughout the year. The groups will also participate in week-long summer workshops to resolve curriculum concerns or recommend new curricular ideas.
If it sounds complex and rigorous, well, it is. In fact, we'd venture to argue that most university administrators can empathize with Juniata's situation. They lie awake at night and wonder, "Are we really offering the right courses?" and "How can we make our curriculum even better?" They try, and oftentimes succeed, but throughout the process, they secretly wish they had more time, money, and data to make even better decisions.
Thanks to a gift from Mellon, Juniata has that opportunity.