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Universities collaborate to win public support for the liberal arts

Experts say countering bad press requires “good stories,” champions, experimentation

Universities Canada president Paul Davidson addresses the recent workshop on the value of the liberal arts held in Montreal.
Universities Canada president Paul Davidson addresses the recent workshop on the value of the liberal arts held in Montreal. Photo credit: Leslie Schachter.

Christopher Manfredi, provost and vice-principal, academic, at McGill University, stood before a room of his peers and made a bold statement: “Social sciences and humanities cured cancer.” To the 50 university presidents, vice-presidents and deans gathered at the workshop hosted by Universities Canada in Montreal last March, it was an example of how administrators might pitch the ongoing value of the liberal arts to a Canadian public facing rapid economic, digital, environmental and social change.

In his opening remarks at the two-day event, Universities Canada president Paul Davidson made reference to “ongoing and misguided assaults on the value of a liberal arts degree in popular media.” Dr. Manfredi, a political scientist and former dean of McGill’s faculty of arts, picked up this thread in his panel talk. He suggested reports on declining program enrolment in the humanities and social sciences, and the supposedly dire employment prospects of graduates in these fields, have created a false crisis. Instead of approaching the situation as though they’re putting out a fire, university administrators and faculty should focus instead on crafting “a good story.”

Hence the comment about curing cancer: in less than a generation, what changed public favour against smoking wasn’t mounting data from the health sciences linking smoking to cancer, he said. It was effective communication of that research to the public, improved regulation of the industry and a new taxation scheme on cigarettes that led to a decline in smoking and smoking-related illnesses. It was a wide-ranging and life-saving public health strategy “driven by disciplines in the social sciences and humanities,” Dr. Manfredi said.

Ross Finnie, associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa, was on hand to offer another spin on the humanities and social sciences — that contrary to popular thinking about these disciplines, they ultimately lead to employability and high earnings for grads. Last year, Dr. Finnie and his colleagues at the Education Policy Research Initiative released a study that reviewed the income tax records of U of Ottawa grads from 1999 to 2011. They found that in just a few years, the salaries of social science grads went from $40,000 up to $80,000, while humanities grads saw a jump from $40,000 to $70,000. “It is a mistake to judge the value of a degree, a lifetime investment, prematurely right after graduation. The real value of education becomes more apparent in the long run, as the evidence suggests here,” Dr. Finnie said.

EPRI has expanded the scope of its study to include seven universities and seven community colleges in Canada and expects to publish new findings this spring. “Early indications are that the University of Ottawa findings are not an anomaly in terms of strong earnings among social sciences and humanities graduates,” Dr. Finnie said.

Many attendees focused on the need to find and encourage liberal arts “champions,” people who will extol the benefits of an education in the liberal arts. Several mentioned the need to mobilize students in this role. At the University of Windsor, a “manifesto” contest encourages undergraduate students to come up with compelling reasons for why the humanities matter. With a semester’s free tuition up for grabs, U of Windsor president Alan Wildeman said the competition brings out stories that are relevant and accessible.

Faculty members like Dr. Finnie are also natural champions. David Docherty, president of Mount Royal University in Calgary, noted that despite a tendency among Albertans to claim science, technology, engineering and math as the future of the province, many still acknowledge the importance of the political pundit or film critic on the news. “I’m not convinced we need more articles in high-rated journals. We need more op-eds in the Calgary Herald,” he said. “We underestimate the role of the public intellectual at telling the good news stories.”

Good news stories, however, don’t dismiss the fact that at several institutions, humanities and social sciences programs such as comparative literature, women’s studies, or classical languages have been cancelled, compressed or are up for review due to a lack of student interest. For his part, Robert Campbell, president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., views such enrolment declines and cuts as a sign that it’s time to refresh. “It’s up to us to devise programs that look interesting and that have salience. If we have a program that’s not getting enrolment we’ve got to ask ourselves, well why is that? … Obviously we’re not communicating very well the value of this program, or the program as it is constituted isn’t offering what we think it’s offering.”

Several participants supported the idea of experimenting to make programs more enticing to millennial students, and to make clear to employers the transferable skills that graduates are picking up from their studies. Keynote speaker Kathy Wolfe, vice-president for integrative learning and the global commons at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, expounded on the value of “signature” projects (similar to a capstone project or an honours thesis). Later in the day, Kevin Kee, dean of the faculty of arts at U of Ottawa, presented the digital humanities as an area of cutting-edge research in the liberal arts.

Meanwhile, attendees including Dr. Manfredi and Dr. Campbell trumpeted co-op placements, internships, summer work opportunities and study abroad programs as initiatives that create the clearest links between the liberal arts classroom and the workplace. “Back in the day you came to Mount A., you went to Victoria College [now Victoria University, affiliated with the University of Toronto] and got your classical liberal education, and then government and private sector were all queuing up at the door to hire you,” Dr. Campbell said. “[B]ig companies, or government, or entrepreneurs understood because they were hiring people like themselves, who also had that education.” That’s not the case anymore, he said, so “experiential education … that’s the complement to what we’re doing right now.”

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  1. Iron Man / April 4, 2016 at 13:22

    The problem is that universities back in the day were either Theology schools for priests, or bluntly, finishing schools for the very wealthy and upper class men. “Liberal Arts” was a cover for learning high class culture and building a network that would sustain a man for the rest of his life. These men were a tiny fraction of the population. Yes, the curriculum has changed, we no longer teach subjects like “Elocution” (having the right accent) however… The underlying framework of the BA has become increasingly watered down as 20-30% of the population is pursuing higher education. Of course the liberal arts are going to become less employable if the standards of the BA degree continue to fall.

  2. Cass / April 4, 2016 at 20:51

    If you click the link, the study matched 82,000 students with A tax record. That is not quite the claim that’s made here, and doesn’t necessarily mean that the post-2008 recession was taken into account at all. I call BS. Maybe you won’t be starving, but no — your medieval studies degree won’t prepare you for a job. THAT’S NOT WHAT IT’S FOR. It’s education, not job training.

  3. Tom Vicni / April 12, 2016 at 18:32

    Hypothesis: Most university-bound people would be fascinated to study history, philosophy, literature, music, art, psychology (could be a humanities), religion, etc. but can’t because they are enrolled in lengthy and expensive job-training degrees or science degrees that leave little room or money for studying humanities.

    Fact: It costs far less to teach history and other humanities than professional programs if costs are fairly calculated.

    Hypothesis: Most of the courses taught in job-training degrees have no direct relevance to the day-to-day activities of the job for which they provide a qualification. In most cases a student with aptitude could gain the training they actually need for most professional jobs with 1 year classroom training plus some on-the-job training. (Even general surgeons!)

    Fact: There are higher and higher academic qualifications required to enter professions. An OT now needs a Master’s degree. This is called “credential creep”.

    Hypothesis: The reason for credential creep is not that people need more technical knowledge and skills that can only be provided in lengthy and expensive degree programs because of the computerization of the workplace: on the contrary, they require less technical knowledge and skill because of the computerization of the workplace. (The computers now have the knowledge and skills.)

    Hypothesis: The reason for credential creep is a direct result of accreditation requirements made by the professional organizations accrediting degree programs. This is done for reasons of prestige (“You need an MA to be an OT!!”) and salary boosting. (“You can’t pay someone of has an MA less than $70,000 to do professional work.”) An indirect cause is the collaboration with credential-creep by job-training Faculties for purposes of expanding the power and influence of job-training Faculties in the university at the expense of Arts and Humanities.

    Action needed: Break the power of the professional organizations and their self-serving motivations by taking profession-program accreditation away from them.

    Action needed: Charge students tuition that reflects the real costs of the programs they chose: charge a philosophy student what it costs to teach philosophy, a medical student what it costs to teach medicine.

    Effects of the above: Professional programs will go on a diet: 5 year programs will shrink to 2 year programs. Humanities programs will be relatively cheap and time will now be available for university-bound people to study history and philosophy, plus get professional training, at less overall cost and in the same overall time that they must now devote to just professional training. Ideal program?: 3 years of arts, 2 of professional training. better people, better citizens, probably better professionals.

    Problem solved!

    Tom Vinci
    Philosophy Professor (Ret’d)
    Dalhousie University

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