Regarding the value of combining liberal arts and professional programs

Faculty and administrators at small colleges that have both liberal arts and professional programs often debate the value of the combination particularly when discussing the allocation of finite resources—e.g., budgets and staffing. The tensions on a campus regarding the combination may also be revealed during searches for high-level administrative positions when candidates are asked to give their opinion on the value of the combination. Having seen a number of candidates stumble on this issue, I suggest that if you are applying for a position at a small institution with both liberal arts and professional programs that you consider the approach below.

First, be ready to acknowledge that there are many excellent small colleges with missions that focus only on the liberal arts and others that focus on professional programs and arguments can be made for the benefits either approach. However, if the institution in question has a stated mission that embraces both professional programs and the liberal arts, you also need to be prepared to demonstrate an understanding that the combination is most likely the result of an institutional history older than the current students, faculty, and administration. Knowing the key elements of that history, often a story that can be found somewhere on the institution’s webpage, is important to understanding the context for the current situation and whether that mission is likely to change—hint, if the combination has been around for more than a few decades, it isn’t likely to change now. By being able to articulate the key elements of the history of the institution related to the combination of these programs and use that history to provide context to your response to questions about the future of the combination, you position yourself to move to the second step, articulating the value of the combination.

I suggest framing the value of the combination around three key benefits that the combination brings to the institution and its students: innovation, adaptability, and appreciation. Below are examples from my own institution, a small liberal arts college where approximately a quarter to a third of students major in engineering, that illustrate these benefits.


Consider the following scenario. A child is playing by herself in a grassy area of a park. She is playing with a number of small toy animals and is engaged in imaginative play concerning the lives of these animals. A second child arrives and sits down nearby and starts playing a simple game of solitaire. Initially both children are happy playing independently but some small triggering event happens (perhaps a small breeze blows one of the cards into the animal area) and the two children start interacting. There are many possible outcomes to this story, but the one I propose is where the children together create a new game using the animals and the cards and become immersed in a new activity.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines innovation as a new idea, device, or process and Mike Myatt, a Forbes contributor, states, “great ideas come from disruption of the status quo.” In the story above, the disruption is the small breeze, but the innovation of the new game would not have occurred unless both children were initially playing in the same grassy area.

Having both professional and traditional liberal arts programs on a campus means that administrators, faculty, and students can approach problems from multiple perspectives and their proximity creates the opportunity for developing innovative solutions. At my institution, we have a number of curricular and co-curricular offerings that set the stage for possible disruptions and innovations that would be unusual at an institution with a more focused mission.  The examples below briefly describe two such offerings.

  • Begun in 1986, Lafayette College’s Technology Clinic is an academic program comprised of students and faculty who work together for two academic semesters to develop solutions to client-driven, real-world problems (   Interdisciplinary teams of students from all areas of the College (sciences, social sciences, engineering, and humanities) have worked on projects involving urban ecology, planning for pandemics, drunk driving, and medical records among others.
  • Developed by Professors Rossmann and Skvirsky—a mechanical engineer and an artist, respectively—the course, Art & Science of Flow Visualization, was developed to introduce liberal arts students to “the beauty of fluid mechanics, to teach them the fundamental flow physics and the history of flow visualization, and to train them to make their own photographs illustrating fluid mechanics concepts.” (

These are just two examples of many innovations that have resulted because of the proximity of professional and liberal arts programs. Being at a campus where because of its small size and its mixture of programs, disruptions of the status quo result commonly in curricular, programmatic, and research innovation.


An institution with a broader offering of programs also benefits from having an infrastructure in place to support the greater variety of needs associated with those programs. While this may be associated with additional expense, because the infrastructure exists the institution can be more adaptable to a change. Because Lafayette has engineering, the infrastructure for the support of technology for teaching and research has been significantly ahead of the use of technology at liberal arts institutions with fewer technical programs. In addition to the rapid adoption of smart classrooms for all courses including document viewers in nearly every teaching space, technologies originally supported for engineering, e.g., geographic information systems, 3-D printing, and LIDAR scanning, have been able to quickly expand to support innovative work in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

This benefit of adaptability does not go only in one direction. Because of the presence of the liberal arts at Lafayette, the infrastructure needed for programs in the visual arts, film, study abroad, and writing have been nucleation points for research projects for engineering faculty and students and for new course content in engineering courses.  For example, technology and support for programs in film and media studies was leveraged in an introductory civil engineering class so that students could create videos for the first national GeoVideo competition (

An example where the benefits run both directions is the innovative approach being taken to present Frankenstein 2029 – a “simultaneous, four-venue production” that involves faculty and students from art, chemistry, computer science, engineering, English, neuroscience, and Theater (


Finally, students in an environment that brings together individuals from different academic areas and different modes of thinking, learn not only to appreciate the importance of the different disciplinary approaches but also to see that an individual focusing in a particular disciplinary area is not defined solely by that discipline.

Prejudice exists between liberal arts and engineering both in higher education environments and in the world. This type of prejudice is not as damaging to individuals as other types of prejudice but its presence does inhibit innovation and adaptability. Richard Crisp, Ph.D., in his article “Diversity: Why it’s good for us” states,

“Laboratory studies have found that prejudicial attitudes are challenged by encouraging people to use many different ways of thinking about others, rather than categorizing in terms of just one criterion, be that race, religion, gender or age. This works because rather than applying a negative stereotype to someone just because they are a member of a stigmatized group, people come to realize that identities can be flexible, dynamic, and complex, and that there are many different (and positive) ways in which anyone can be described. It shows us that we all have a lot in common, but that we are also distinct from one another, and we can all bring something unique to the societies in which we live… Our social world is increasingly characterized by multiple affiliations, differentiation and diversity. Thinking about others in a more multifaceted way may ultimately provide an invaluable contribution to the promotion of social inclusion and the establishment of social harmony.” [Emphasis added]

If one looks at the composition of the 2015 US Congress you can see the impact of long-term prejudices in many areas. The house and senate are only 20 percent female, and over 90 percent Christian. The senate is only 2 percent Black, 3 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent Asian. This same type of prejudice can be seen in the numbers of scientists and engineers in congress. While the numbers for the 2015 Congress are not in, of the 541 members of the 2010 Congress, only about two percent had degrees in science or engineering in contrast to approximately 36.4 percent of college-educated citizens.

At Lafayette, students majoring in what are considered the traditional areas of the liberal arts and students majoring in engineering are fully integrated in both curricular and non-curricular areas. Our general education requirements apply equally to all students and there are no courses in any discipline that resemble courses like “Chemistry for Engineers” or “Essentials of Chemical Engineering for Non Engineers.” When students take a course outside of their discipline, they take it within the frame of another area of study and with students from across the college. Outside of their courses there are no discipline-specific areas of dorms and the extra-curricular activities such as choir, theater, alternative spring break, etc. have students from all academic areas involved. Through such interactions they learn to see each other as multifaceted individuals.


My experience indicates that individuals who are interviewing for high level positions at institutions that combine the liberal arts with professional programs should be prepared to hear concerns about that combination and be prepared to articulate a response to those concerns. If the combination of programs has sufficient history, it is important to understand that history and to be able to articulate the value of the combination. The benefits related to innovation, adaptability, and appreciation can provide the themes for a thoughtful response.

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