It's no surprise that much of the conversation at gatherings of university officials these days is about how to prove the value of the liberal arts, once at the core of higher education and now among its most embattled branches.
After all, enrollment in history, philosophy, literature and other majors considered to come under the umbrella of the liberal arts has been falling for decades. Colleges are shedding liberal arts programs and faculty. Small liberal arts colleges are closing.
What is surprising is that, five decades into a crisis that now has become existential, the to-do list in a session at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities earlier this year, about turning this around, began with a remarkably basic question:
"Define 'liberal arts.'"
That so important a task has yet to get past such an elementary question provides a confounding look at how far liberal arts colleges and departments have to go to make a case for themselves with students, parents and policymakers – even in a sector known for very, very slowly adapting to change.
"It is interesting that that's where we still are," says Melissa Vangsness, who made that presentation as director of communications and marketing at the liberal arts-focused University of Minnesota, Morris – a job she has since left to become a strategist at a higher-education marketing consulting company.
Now a few liberal arts colleges are taking forceful steps to bolster their positions, usually by providing data that shows their graduates get good jobs. At least one is offering a guarantee of that.
It's not that there aren't solid selling points. Employers continue to plead for college graduates to learn such things as communication and problem-solving skills that can come from studying the liberal arts. Surveys show that liberal arts majors lead satisfied lives, and earn salaries that may not be as high as majors in the sciences, but are not too far behind.
"We definitely have those students who are baristas one year out, but they're also writing a novel on the side," says Kathryn Foster, president of the University of Maine at Farmington, which also focuses on the liberal arts.
Public liberal arts institutions like hers, said Foster, offer "better learning environments with better student outcomes at a lower price." She adds: "The challenge to us now is to prove it."