Should UAA focus on providing a liberal arts education or technical skills to students?

As the University of Alaska budget shrinks, the job market grows more uncertain by the day, UAA may be forced to make choices for where it puts its priorities. In a forum that took place in the UAA library on Nov. 12, the question of whether or not UAA should prioritize work force development over a liberal arts education was brought to the floor.

The forum opened with a debate by the UAA Seawolf Debate Team over the proposition: “UAA should prioritize workforce development over a liberal arts education.”

Debaters Robert Hockema and Nick Tabaczka of the proposition (the team that supports a motion) squared off with Demry Mebane and Kathryn Casello (Casello is on staff at The Northern Light as Features Editor) of the opposition.

Tabaczka opened the debate by citing a New Yorker piece that characterized the difference between the utopian view of college education and the utilitarian view.

“Utility being the focus on the ability of an institution to produce a fair return on investment for students, parents, employers, and the state such that graduates positively help the economy, and the utopian university being vision that builds your soul as well as your skills and students come to critically think about the values that guide them,” said Tabaczka. “While we can appreciate the value of utopian view, we contend that it is the utility view that pays for the show.”

The proposition agreed that a liberal arts education is important and does help students, but when faced with limited resources, the university must focus on practical skill development.

“What employers want more than someone who can think critically, is someone who can function in their occupation,” Hockema said.

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The proposition cited the $1.3 trillion of student loan debt facing the country, as well as the shortage of qualified employees in technical fields, both in Alaska and nationally.

“We know that 44 percent of graduates are not working in occupations that they studied for, we think that if students are going to spend ten, twenty, thirty, or fifty thousand dollars in some cases, then they should seek a return on that investment,” Hockema said. “We think that the legislature should see a return on their investment, We want that people should stay in Alaska and get jobs in a field they studied for.”

Casello, speaking on behalf of the opposition argued that the primary goal of a college education was to provide society with well rounded citizens.

“We’re talking about fundamental skills like problem solving, analytical techniques, creative thinking and innovation in order to be adaptive,” Casello said.

The opposition argued that the job market is evolving constantly, and employers need employees with a broad level of skills, that can adapt. Employers overwhelmingly want employees that are flexible, can adapt, are sensitive to cultural differences and have a strong ability to communicate and coordinate.

Mebane continued the opposition’s case.

“We don’t want to simply open one door for our students and that’s the door they have for the rest of their life. By giving them that liberal education, by giving them that humanities education, we give them the master key to open several doors throughout their life,” said Mebane. “We should focus on the liberal arts because the university has a duty to create citizens of the world, better citizens. Many jobs are being lost, someone went to school to learn one job and that job is now gone, now what do they do next?”

Following the debate, faculty panelists took the stage to further the discussion. The panel included professor Dan Kline of the English department, LuAnn Piccard of the engineering department, Landry Signe of the political science department, and Kyle Hampton representing business and public policy.

Professor Kline set the tone for the discussion by discussing the etymology of the word liberal arts.

“We’re not talking about the liberal arts versus the conservative arts, the term there comes from the same latin term that we get the word liberty, The liberal arts are those that accord with being a free person.”

Kline, Piccard and Signe were in agreement that departments needed to emphasize the humanities more in technical degrees, and as Piccard suggested, emphasize more technical skills in the humanities.

Hampton threw his hat in the ring on the issue.

“The fact of the matter is the Liberal Arts are in danger. It’s shocking to me how few [humanities] credits are actually applied towards the general education requirements, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of those,” said Hampton. “I don’t want to call out my college, but recently I’ve started to find out that there is a lot of ‘silo-ing’ going on in the various colleges around here, where they make it very easy to get your GERs within your own college or very difficult to get it elsewhere. And I think that’s terrifying.”

The forum wrapped up at 9 p.m., but the discussion continues both on a national scale as well — and in many circles, with far less tact and understanding than found at Thursday’s forum. Whereas UAA staff and faculty are committed to do both, we all must consider what skills come first during times ahead.