CLA's new dean, James A. Parente, Jr., talks about how the college will thrive in the 21st century.
interview by Mary Pattock
Jim Parente, CLA's new dean, talks about what the college needs to thrive in the 21st century: research, internationalization, and exceptional undergraduate education.
Not long ago the New York Times ran a story about the liberal arts, wondering if they are a luxury in this economy. What do you think?
James A. Parente, Jr. Dean of
the College of Liberal Arts. Photo by Kelly MacWilliams.
Actually, they are more viable than ever. First of all, alumni tell me that what they really like about their liberal arts employees is that they are very trainable, can do lots of different things. As old jobs disappear in the age of technology and students prepare for jobs that haven't yet been created or even imagined, versatility will be a life-long career advantage for the liberal arts graduate.
On a deeper level, the liberal arts help prepare us for life's most important decisions: What do I want? What am I seeking? Do I imagine my life to be simply one of self-preservation and self-interest, or do I have other aspirations? The liberal arts help us understand our choices ranging from what I want my children to learn in school, to whom I want leading the country, to what my societal responsibilities are.
This year I met with undergraduate students about every three to four weeks—a good cross-section including those guys in the back of the room who don't say anything during class. I wanted them to tell me what's going on, and what they think this is all about. One thing I heard is that sometimes parents, who are very worried about their children, say, "Oh my gosh, you're going to major in philosophy. You've got to be kidding. What are you going to do with that?"—without thinking that philosophy might actually be a superb foundation for many professional schools, certainly for any additional schooling.
So, say you do major in philosophy. If you have been savvy about remaining connected to the world while you are studying this subject—which you find really cool—you put it together with something you're interested in, say, an internship in a business or nonprofit. And you come out prepared for quite an interesting career.
President Bruininks's goal is for the University to rank among the top three public research universities. How does CLA contribute to that direction?
Substantially. In CLA we have psychologists trying to figure out how the brain processes language. We have a research team working on how adolescents respond to anti-drug ads. By the way, that team includes a CLA undergraduate—we are increasingly opening research experiences to undergrads. And just recently two CLA researchers made national headlines—Gary Schwitzer with his findings on the decline of health journalism, and Kieran McNulty with his breakthrough on the "hobbit" fossils of Indonesia. This is all highly significant work.
If I were to compare CLA research with research in the hard sciences, I'd say that rather than looking at the biology of the basic cell, we ask questions, for example, about the ethics of science, about why specific medical protocols are used, about what exactly is health and what is disease. Liberal arts research goes to the essence of humanity itself—who we are as human beings, questions about our societies, political systems, religious beliefs, languages, and philosophical principles.
You've been the DEAN of CLA for almost A year. How do you think It should change?
CLA is by far the University's largest college, with about 16,000 graduate and undergraduate students, roughly 45 percent of the University's total enrollment. So the more distinguished our programs are, the stronger the entire University becomes. I want our strong departments to remain strong, and those on the cusp to move to a higher level.
Great faculty and students are drawn to us when they know we are top-tier, and when they know about the signature programs that make us unique. For example, if you are in psychology, you know Minnesota is outstanding in that field. If you are in humanities you know there is a really exciting group of people involved in a creative approach to the study of Asia, or in developing a unique position on the study of Islam.
In addition to strengthening our signature programs, we are having discussions about integrating language instruction more intimately with upper-level classes across the college in order to internationalize the curriculum.
What do you mean—"internationalize the curriculum"?
Say a student is majoring in history, and she has also studied Spanish. How can we help her break out of an English-only environment so she can conduct research and work in history in Spanish at her actual academic level? With an internationalized curriculum we could offer that student a course in, say, Latin American history, which would be conducted entirely in the Spanish language.
Some colleges offer "core courses" that show students how the liberal arts are connected.
Yes, we have been talking about this since I was named dean, and a CLA task force is now looking at how we can constitute the curriculum to help students more fully understand what a broad liberal arts education is, and why it is so valuable.
The better we can answer those questions, the more likely it is that students will approach their studies holistically, rather than as specific fields that promise more hope for employment—which is very understandable given the cost of higher education and the reason most kids go to college in the first place. I think when students come to CLA thinking, "I'm going to major in this because it is something I can get a job in," they shortchange themselves and perhaps close off opportunities to learn about other areas that might be more exciting to them.
These four years that students spend at the University are important; rarely in your life do you have an opportunity to study as diverse an array of fields as you do here, to open your mind to new experiences and academic fields you didn't even know existed.
The U has a great arts program—what is its future?
CLA has two great advantages in the arts. One is we have outstanding, internationally recognized artists on our faculty, and the other is we are located in the extraordinarily vibrant arts community of the Twin Cities.
A lot of the arts excitement on campus now comes from innovative thinking about how studio arts and performance arts can collaborate, in partnerships both on campus and in the community. One of our great success stories is the bachelor of fine arts program we offer with the Guthrie Theater. David Myers, our new director of the School of Music, is a national leader in college-community partnerships, and he has a lot of ideas on how we can to reach more deeply into the community.
Other changes you would like to see?
So far I've talked about strengthening academic programs. But that's not by any means the entire story. There is also the actual student experience. As the largest liberal arts college in Minnesota we want to provide our students the most beneficial, enriching, and academically challenging undergraduate experience possible.
We also have an obligation to make the University a national and international player in terms of cultural diversity and the diversity of our students. They need to learn how to understand and benefit from many perspectives. Currently, the number of international applications is up significantly. We need national diversity as well, and we think our signature programs will help draw undergraduates from across the country.
E-Education is a major trend.
Yes, it already represents almost 10 percent of all U of M course offerings. Both faculty and students are highly interested in new media and are using it in all sorts of exciting new ways, and we have a group of faculty and staff studying how to do that.
People associate e-education with serving people who are distant from the campus or who need flexibility, and it certainly does that. But our faculty are very innovative and are integrating new technologies into their on-campus courses as well. For example, they use technology to present material in formats that accommodate various learning styles, or let students proceed at their own pace. And technology is a connection to the vast resources available online, including contact in real time with experts in various disciplines, or with research partners who may even be in other countries.
E-education also lets us offer courses at specialized or more advanced levels. For example, if a college wanted to offer a course in a less commonly taught language that would not be practical for a single college to teach, one institution could host it and students from two, three, four other institutions could be virtually present by technology.
Doesn't computer learning have its limits?
Every teaching method has its advantages and its limitations. So yes, sometimes there is no substitute for in-person classroom interactions, where there is strong face-to-face human connection. A lot of the learning that goes on in universities happens outside the classroom, with experiences that provide peer support and reinforce classroom learning.
Also, there is the cost factor. Some people think online courses are big money-savers, but they are actually quite expensive. We have to buy, maintain, and constantly upgrade software and hardware. We have to design courses for online presentation, put them online, hire support people, train faculty and staff, and so on.
Some people might be interested in what a liberal arts dean reads in his free time.
This year I've read several Scandinavian detective novels. Last year I read works about early 20th-century European history starting with Geert Mak's memoir, In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century. I kept thinking about the event of 9/11 that brought to the foreground issues that had not been resolved in the late teens and early 1920s. Those wounds are wide open again, and the West's inability to bring responsible, sensitive, and deep knowledge to the Middle East in the early 20th century is what we are repeating in the 21st.
It reminds me of what you get with a liberal arts education. The time we take to find out about other people—what is important to them, their history, language, society—helps us deal with very difficult situations—both personal and global.
I try to read some of the latest work in fields represented by our departments and books on higher education in the United States. I also try to keep up with the exciting work our faculty sends me that they have authored themselves.
Big picture, what is the biggest challenge for the liberal arts?
The basic one is the need to communicate to students, families, alumni, high school counselors and others a clear sense of how vital the liberal arts are to our society. Without them the world would be bereft of knowledge, imagination and beauty. We'd lack understanding of the past, and of the increasingly complex society we live in today. The liberal arts stimulate our imagination, so we can have dreams for the future. They lay the foundation for higher levels of learning, careers in law, education, health care, public service, business, the arts and more. They help us make sense of our world and give our lives meaning.