College continues the process to restructure the liberal arts program

by Evan Sporer / Beacon Staff • March 14, 2013

Ann meyer
Dean of the Institute of Liberal Arts, Amy Ansel, discusses her draft proposals.
Dean of the Institute of Liberal Arts, Amy Ansel, discusses her draft proposals.

When President M. Lee Pelton was inaugurated in September, he proposed replacing the Institute for Liberal Arts & Interdisciplinary Studies with a new structure to strengthen Emerson academically. 

That mission is now coming to fruition, as Pelton and Amy Ansell, the dean of the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, are working with the college’s faculty to restructure how the liberal arts fit into Emerson’s academic structure. 

Faculty from across the college have responded to the proposal for restructuring, some expressing dissatisfaction with the potential reorganization. 

“[Pelton] really came in asking the question, ‘What is the place of liberal arts here?’ and he listened,” said Ansell. “In the inaugural address, he mentioned he would want to ask faculty to think about, ‘is this the right organizational structure?’”

Currently, the liberal arts faculty — with the exception of six scholars-in-residence — is housed within the various departments of the college and teach interdisciplinary courses.

This academic planning process began in January, when Pelton provided Ansell with what she called a very rough proposal, which suggested, in part, the creation of a new unit to house faculty teaching liberal arts classes.

From there, Ansell compiled a second draft, which she presented in a meeting on Feb. 15 to the Institute Advisory Council, a group comprised of the college’s six scholars-in-residence and a representative from each of the seven departments. 

The council representatives forwarded the proposal to their departments, which have subsequently raised questions and concerns with elements of Ansell’s second proposal. 

However, a written response to the proposal from the journalism department disagreed with Ansell, stating that liberal arts at the college can be improved without a large reorganization. The response also mentioned that the proposed changes have caused tension among faculty. 

But Ansell said the process is still relatively new and ongoing, and no final decisions have been made.

“This really started in January, and where are we now?” said Ansell. “Mid-March, so it’s been very brief.” 

One thing Ansell said she wanted to stress — that she said has been misunderstood throughout the process so far — is that the restructuring will not affect the liberal arts’ role for students inside of their major education. 

Ansell said part of the confusion has come from the fact that, despite the liberal arts faculty members working for various specific departments in the college, the majority of these courses are liberal arts classes open to all majors. 

“That’s why it looks like — ‘Why is she meddling in these?’ — it’s because that curriculum, it’s not departmental curriculum, it’s the non-major curriculum.” 

The writing, literature, and publishing; visual and media arts; performing arts; and communication sciences and disorders departments also expressed issues with faculty being re-appropriated to a new liberal arts entity through their department responses. 

But Ansell said she considered those objections, and a third draft — which is scheduled to be released March 15 — is significantly different than the previous version, and backtracks on the the prior plan to create a new liberal arts unit. 

Ansell said all faculty members were welcome to participate in the discussions.

Faculty members also have a blog where they can discuss the proposals and provide their opinions, and an open forum for professors has been scheduled for March 21 in the Bill Bordy, according to the second draft proposal. 

“We have a very engaged faculty that gets involved in all of this stuff,” said Jan Roberts-Breslin, chair of the faculty assembly. “Up until now, there’s been a good amount of discussion. There’s more discussion to be had, and the administration has planned at least one faculty forum as an opportunity for all the faculty to get together and do this.”

Roberts-Breslin said it is important to hear multiple opinions about the liberal arts restructuring, because of the broad impact it is likely to have.

“What you don’t want is to force something on people — not that you’re ever going to get everybody to agree — but force something on people that they haven’t had a chance to think about, and discuss, and give feedback on, and come to some kind of majority consensus.”