Liberal arts at the crossroads

Colleges must experiment and take risks to remain relevant

We are facing unaccustomed financial, demographic and competitive pressures, and if we do not address them now, many of us won’t be around in another 40 years.

This does not mean changing our institutional missions. It means learning to adapt and take risks. We ask our students to take risks every day; now it is our turn.

What we must do

It starts with embracing digital learning. That doesn’t mean putting all our courses online and depriving students of the residential experience.

The worst error any institution can make is thinking a traditional classroom can simply be transferred to online mode. Rather, we need to rethink the learning environment and utilize digital tools to enhance the place-based education we offer.

Digital learning allows us to make education more flexible and engaging. It gives faculty access to guest presenters from all around the world.

We can create collaborative online courses with other institutions and with community partners. With technology, we can flip our courses to maximize the value of a student’s class time.

The creation and adoption of open-access educational materials expands resources and reduces costs for students. Instituting digital mentoring programs gives students access to more undergraduate research possibilities.

Digital initiatives can also be a benefit when the inevitable questions about college costs arise. More and more families are making decisions based on the bottom line, and even though most public liberal arts colleges have a lower sticker price than our private peers, we must remain diligent in showcasing the value of the public liberal arts experience.

With care, innovation and collaboration, digital learning can help us to offer expanded learning opportunities for the same “best buy” cost.

Other ways to increase value

Public liberal arts colleges have often not been as active as their private counterparts in linking their alumni to current students. However, alumni and community partners can enhance internship and career opportunities, and can provide important mentorship for students.

Faculty and student entrepreneurship can enhance innovation both on and off the campus. Student incubators and entrepreneurship programs are almost a necessity on a college campus now.

And public liberal arts colleges are uniquely poised to connect students to corporate and nonprofit partners, and to support today’s social entrepreneurs in their efforts to become civically engaged and socially responsible citizens. Student energy can and should reach far beyond the classroom.

Research collaboratio—locally and globally—can also open possibilities for faculty, students and communities. Geneseo’s Institute for Community Well-Being puts the energy of undergraduate students to work on research questions brought to them by local businesses, organizations and agencies. Faculty research networks are often able to incorporate undergraduate researchers in important and productive ways.


Our future depends on a responsive, responsible and flexible engagement with the future. One of the greatest misconceptions in higher education is that we need buy-in from everyone at the same time to make institutional changes. Shared governance does not preclude experimentation. Encouraging faculty, staff and students to pilot their exciting ideas—and giving them funds to support it—leads to quicker and productive change.

Geneseo is currently experimenting with cluster hires of faculty in interdisciplinary areas. Our first two clusters are in statistics and in Latin American studies, with hires in seven different departments.

A memorandum of understanding has been developed for each cluster, and funds have been set aside to support initiatives that grow out of the collaboration. The focus is not to create a new major program, but to investigate and suggest innovative ways to advance learning and research in the field.

We are facing a new paradigm for public liberal arts education. Our students, faculty and staff are eager to engage with us to make this reality work. Now we must give them the tools needed for success, and we must do it quickly.

Carol Long is interim president at the State University of New York, Geneseo.

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