July 26, 2016

St. Kate’s leaders join national discussion on the value of liberal arts

St. Kate's delegation included: Dan Thompson, Vicki Schug, Brian Bruess, Ani Jordon, Amy Hamlin, Rafael Cervantes and Pa Der Vang.

Over 200 higher education faculty, staff, trustees and student leaders from across the nation — including St. Catherine University — recently converged at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University for the “Liberal Arts Illuminated: Pathways, Possibilities, Partnerships” conference.

Liberal arts colleges are facing unprecedented challenges, despite compelling argument from employers and economic data that shows otherwise.

"Never has it been more important that liberal arts colleges take back and more boldly assert their own value narrative,” says Mary Dana Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict, who came up with the idea for the conference.

Chris Farrell, senior economics contributor for Marketplace at America Public Media, agrees, arguing that a liberal arts education is more valuable than ever.

“Yes, a college education is worth it,” says Farrell, who spoke at the conference. “If you look at the 12 million jobs created during the recovery, 73 percent of the jobs went to people with a bachelor’s degree or higher. I think that’s really clear evidence.”

Farrell studied history at Stanford, sociology at the Columbia School of Economics, and has made a profession of economic writing and commentary.

Through various conference sessions, attendees engaged in conversation around the following questions:

  • Where is our sector going and how is it transformative?
  • Why should people invest in liberal arts education?
  • How do we ensure economic, social and cultural access for all?
  • What should we do to make sure the liberal arts thrive over the next 50 years?

Daniel Thompson, dean for enrollment management, was among a mission-driven delegation of attendees from St. Kate’s assembled by Amy Hamlin, associate professor of art history and the incoming Alberta Huber, CSJ Distinguished Chair of the Liberal Arts. Thompson was excited to be back at his alma mater, St. John’s — the place where he was first introduced to the benefits of a liberal arts education.

“The conference offered a chance to connect with colleagues about the ways we bring the liberal arts to life at St. Kate's — and the vital impact that has on our students’ success,” says Thompson. “A liberal arts education from St. Kate’s helps our students develop the skills employers want, foster the instincts to help improve our communities and develop the creativity that contributes to a rich life.”

Other attendees from St. Kate’s include: Brian Bruess, executive vice president and chief operating officer; Rafael Cervantes, associate professor of communications and director of the Antonian Scholars Honors Program; Ani Jordan, assistant professor of chemistry; Vicki Schug, professor of nursing; and Pa Der Vang, associate professor of social work.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities, one of the conference sponsors, has long tracked employer research. In a survey of over 300 employers, effective communications, critical thinking and problem solving are top skills identified as key in new hires — skills best cultivated by a liberal arts education.

Ethics, social responsibility and inter-cultural skills are also identified, which Vang points out are fundamental to St. Kate’s mission.

"St Kate’s educates the whole person — preparing students for the marketplace and to be citizens of the world. Students learn the skills to be effective members of a global society who embrace diversity and promote social justice," she says.

The icing on the cake? Beyond preparation for career success, a liberal arts education increases students’ capacity to understand and enjoy arts and culture — something the faculty delegates experienced first-hand.

Before leaving the conference, Jordan — a chemist with a deep appreciation for art — encouraged her colleagues to visit the pottery studio at St. John's. The group found themselves in the middle of an impromptu gathering around the hearth. Master Potter Richard Bresnahan was presiding, and he welcomed St. Kate’s faculty group into the circle.

“He later gave us an extraordinary tour of the facilities and an introduction to his philosophy of art and science,” says Hamlin. “It was a truly liberal arts experience, and totally unexpected, but a fitting capstone to the conference experience.”

Looking forward, the delegation plans to continue the dialogue back on campus and build programming to fortify the liberal arts at St. Kate’s — one of the three pillars of the University’s mission.

Video of the conference sessions are available on digital commons.

Social media conversation from the conference on Storify.

By Sharon Rolenc