Provost, panel discuss merits of College’s ‘liberal arts’ tag

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October 29, 2009

11:07 PM

The College of William and Mary prides itself on having nationally ranked undergraduate and graduate academic programs, but can it remain one of the nation’s best small, public liberal arts universities in the 21st century?

A panel of faculty members discussed the future of the College as an elite liberal arts university Thursday in the Sadler Center’s Tidewater Room. The forum was the first in a series of liberal arts university conversations hosted by the College.

College Provost and panel moderator Michael R. Halleran began the forum by saying that the College’s future success stems from balancing its self-identification as a liberal arts university with high levels of research on the graduate level.

“Our strategic plan requires as a total, overarching goal to be a leader among liberal arts universities,” Halleran said. “The first objective of this goal is to conduct a conversation about the future of a liberal arts education. What does it mean for William and Mary to be a liberal arts university?”

Government professor Joel Schwartz said that the College’s main mission as a liberal arts university is to educate well-rounded students.

“The goal [is to] help students prepare to live flourishing lives as humans and citizens, as distinct from preparing them for careers, for professions [or] for positions in the contemporary division of labor,” Schwartz said. “This is why at the College we have general education requirements … this is why we don’t care if history majors necessarily become historians.”

Physic professor Keith Griffioen said that calling the College a liberal arts university lowers its standing and misrepresents its character.

“William and Mary is not a liberal arts university, and we should stop describing ourselves as one,” Griffioen said. “Stanford and Princeton are better roles models for us than Amherst and Swarthmore … Calling us a liberal arts university is the same as calling us a physics university.”

According to Griffioen, emulating universities like Stanford and Princeton would combine great teaching with great research to create a home for the best teacher-scholars.

“If we’re unique, we don’t need to use other people’s titles,” Griffioen said. “The best teacher-scholars will only stay if they can continue to do both well.”

History and American studies professor Leisa Meyer suggested that the College should embrace its reputation as a liberal arts university.

“William and Mary’s reputation is for excellence in teaching, but also for excellence in research,” Meyer said. “Students and faculty are already engaged in learning and discovery … Though we retain our traditional name of ‘college,’ William and Mary is officially recognized by the Carnegie Foundation as a high research university.”

Though referring to the College as a liberal arts university might make some uncomfortable, Meyer said that the traditional goal of liberal arts education is to create a community of teachers and scholars by learning the skill of a free person.

“That is a worthy goal,” Meyer said. “I think it is one we can make happen, and one that is already happening.”

Business professor Herrington Bryce said that, while not all universities identify as liberal arts universities, the vast majority have similar curricula. What makes universities unique is how a college community defines where learning takes place.

“We are described as liberal, so we are described as tolerant,” Bryce said. “When we had a transgendered person become queen of homecoming, one may say whatever one wants to say. What it does say is here is a community of people who are tolerant. What else is liberal arts if not what makes you think about things outside your boundaries?”

After the discussion, students, faculty and community members asked questions and made comments on topics ranging from department funding to how the College ranks itself with other universities. Halleran said that what the College is called does not change its character.

“Whatever we call [ourselves], whether it’s liberal arts university, public ivy, whatever the name might be, it’s much more important to reflect the substance behind it,” Halleran said. “[That’s] what makes us special.”

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