Liberal arts an important part of a polytechnic university education

Anyone following higher education issues in Wisconsin is by now familiar with the controversial proposal at UW-Stevens Point to eliminate 13 humanities and social science majors, including English, history and political science, because of declining enrollment and a budget deficit. The administration also wants to add or expand 16 majors in science, technology and other fields.

My intention here is not to comment on what UW-Stevens Point administrators have proposed; it is hard enough being a chancellor of a UW campus these days without having to worry about colleagues weighing in on what I might have proposed here.

However, the debate swirling around the UW-Stevens Point proposal — and a similar one earlier at UW-Superior — has raised questions about the value of the liberal arts on campuses that are trying to align their programs with shifting employer demands. In fact, some faculty members have asked me to state my position on where a liberal arts education fits into a polytechnic university. I’d be happy to oblige.

First, I’d like to point to a section of my last commencement speech, delivered Dec. 16. I said: “One of the many misconceptions about polytechnic universities, at least in areas like the Midwest where they are a rarity, is that we are some type of glorified technical college. I’m a former technical college president, and I’m here to tell you that UW-Stout is not a glorified technical college. We are a regional university that offers a comprehensive curriculum in many fields, including the liberal arts. In fact, one of the best-kept secrets about UW-Stout is that we have the largest arts program in the entire state. Our students graduate with a well-rounded education; we just make sure there is an applied learning aspect to how we go about our business — and that they get a good-paying and challenging job once they graduate.”

Furthermore, we would be doing an extreme disservice to our graduates — and the employers who seek them for their businesses and industries — if we did not ensure that our students leave UW-Stout with a solid foundation in the liberal arts, which help develop the so-called “soft skills” or “essential skills” so necessary in today’s workplaces such as critical thinking, communication, creativity and the ability to work collaboratively to solve problems.

In fact, Atlantic magazine in a recent article called for a new educational hybrid that blends liberal arts education and technical education. I would argue that we already do that at UW-Stout, and we will continue as long as I am chancellor.

Our mission statement refers to UW-Stout as a “comprehensive polytechnic university” that uses a variety of approaches, including “humanistic understanding,” to educate our students. I believe we can’t do that without the liberal arts.

WACTE Conference, ATEA Conference participation

On March 16, I attended the Wisconsin Association for Career and Technical Education annual professional development conference. WACTE includes more than 600 teachers, counselors, school administrators, teacher educators, support staff and business/industry partners who promote career and technical education.

I served on the CTE Executives Panel to discuss “accelerating partnerships in CTE.” The purpose was to recognize that demand for CTE graduates continues to grow and to explore ways educational institutions can engage in effective partnerships to meet this growing demand.

Many effective partnerships are underway, and the discussions identified new opportunities for partnerships and ways to eliminate barriers to partnerships. Also serving on the panel were Bryan Albrecht, Gateway Technical College president, and Bethany Ormseth, LakeView Technology Academy principal. Paul Gabriel, executive director of the Wisconsin Technical College System Foundation, facilitated the panel.

On March 21-23, UW-Stout co-hosted the American Technical Education Association’s 55th national conference at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha. I was proud to serve as emcee for the award dinner, introducing several speakers, including: Keith Simpson, national education director for FESTO Didactic Inc.; Morna Foy, WTCS president; Rebecca Kleefisch, lieutenant governor; and Winnie Tu, business administration director for Foxconn Technology Group.

I also had the pleasure of serving on another panel regarding Pathways and Partnership that included: Clark Coco, dean of Washburn Tech, Kansas; Ormseth; and Al Bunshaft, senior vice president of Dassault Systems Americas Corp. The panel was moderated by Jaime Spaciel, Career Pathways and Program Effectiveness director at Gateway Technical College.

Some of our CTE professors also were on hand, including Barb Bauer and Sylvia Tiala. UW-Stout students Anna Stamschror, Erik Olson and Derek Doescher also attended.

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This photo was taken at the ATEA 55th National Conference and includes (from left to right) Bryan Albrecht (Gateway Technical College President), Bob Meyer, Barb Bauer, Anne Stamschror (front row), Eric Olson, Derek Doescher, and Sylvia Tiala.