President's Forum

09/10/14

President promotes value of liberal arts education

BLUFFTON, Ohio—Liberal arts education “makes a difference—for those who receive it and for the society we live in,” Bluffton University’s president reminded students, faculty and staff in a Sept. 9 address.

Speaking at the annual President’s Forum, Dr. James M. Harder focused on Bluffton’s liberal arts approach—a topic he related to the university’s 2014-15 civic engagement theme of “Education Matters!” He shared advice to students on the career usefulness and lifetime benefits of a strong liberal arts education, and provided additional evidence from a recent study released by the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC).

Among discussion of current campus developments and initiatives, Harder also introduced two new terms being used to help describe a Bluffton education. “Creating Together” is what happens at the university, he said, and it draws from “The Power of Purple.” Like red and blue coming together to create purple—the main school color—“a Bluffton education combines many positive things for students in rich ways,” he explained.

The president defined a good liberal arts education as having several components. It teaches students not only about the natural world and the sciences, but also about the human condition, through study of the humanities and social sciences, he said. “And particularly at faith-based schools like Bluffton, it acknowledges the importance and influence of the spiritual dimensions of life, through the study of religion and moral foundations,” he continued.

It emphasizes global learning as well, about such topics as the range of cultural diversity in the world, other religions and competency in cross-cultural relations, he maintained. “Your Bluffton education offers you many such opportunities for global learning,” he told his student listeners. “I urge you to take advantage of as many of them as you can.”

In addition, Harder said, such an education “develops the tools needed to deal with complex issues and to better understand our complex world.” The ability to question is among the tools that allow students “to take responsibility for their own learning—both in college and later in life—rather than being fully dependent on the assumed wisdom of some external authority or expert,” he said.

The CIC study, he added, “offers abundant evidence” of a liberal arts education’s impact.

The president noted that the study provides evidence from multiple surveys that employers value skills and perspectives developed by liberal arts graduates. Eighty percent of employers say they want employees with broad knowledge, and 93 percent believe that a graduate’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.

“In other words,” he said, “such forms of deep learning pay off in the long run, no matter what you study, and it’s a mistake to think of college as a time of preparation for only your next job.”

He quoted A.G. Lafley, president and CEO of Procter & Gamble Co., as saying that through study of the liberal arts, “the mind develops the mental dexterity that opens a person to new ideas, which is the currency for success in a constantly changing environment.”

Harder also addressed common misperceptions about the affordability of an education of the type Bluffton offers, and cited evidence that a four-year college degree remains a good personal investment for many reasons.

In purely financial terms, he pointed out, average compensation for four-year college graduates remains significantly higher than for high school graduates or holders of associate degrees. And in any economy, the unemployment rate for those with bachelor’s degrees is considerably lower than that of the other groups.

“At Bluffton and at other quality liberal arts colleges, students encounter top-quality teaching, small classes and activities that engage students,” the president said. And as the CIC study notes, he added, “these students are more likely to have supportive relationships with faculty members, receive prompt feedback on their academic performance, and continue discussions of course material with faculty members outside class.”

‘Creating Together’

The “Creating Together” initiative has been led by a task force of faculty and staff members who have listened to a wide range of their peers, plus students, over the last year.

“What do we mean by ‘Creating Together’?” Harder asked. “It’s what our research has led us to believe Bluffton students already experience here.” But also, among other things, it’s about “bringing people and ideas together for a greater purpose than either could have achieved by themselves,” and “Bluffton’s style of producing a total educational experience that is not something that is done for you or to you, but with you,” he explained.    

“We create together with you,” he told students, not only “a liberal arts approach to learning that is also great career preparation,” but also “meaningful connections between head and heart, between personal faith and an ethic of service to others.”

This academic year, he said, groups of faculty, staff and students will be “Creating Together” on a number of projects, such as possible refinements to the general education program and internship opportunities, and how the university connects with alumni.

Campus enhancements

The president pointed out three facilities enhancements made on campus over the summer, plus a major new initiative now underway.

Completed recently were significant upgrades to the admissions office in Riley Court’s Smucker Hall, which was damaged from a break in a frozen water pipe last winter; a major renovation of the front lobby in Bren-Dell Hall, funded primarily from a 50th-anniversary gift from the class of 1964; and expansion and relocation of the Center for Career and Vocation to Musselman Library.

Harder also reviewed the history and importance of science education at Bluffton as a prelude to announcing that the university’s next major new building will support and enhance that tradition. Last spring, the Bluffton Board of Trustees adopted a comprehensive facilities master plan that identified the priority need in science-related facilities, he said. The anticipated building will house Bluffton’s growing natural sciences, mathematics, dietetics and health care-related programs, he added, noting that the coming year will be a time of careful study of detailed space needs and preliminary design concepts for the building.

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