SJR Column: A Liberal Arts Education, January 2017

When Illinois residents think about the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois, the University’s longstanding reputation for preparing public servants for leadership in government and related sectors is often top of mind.

While that association is most certainly appropriate, a broader institutional value at UIS is our commitment to providing all students, regardless of major, with an outstanding liberal arts education. In fact, UIS is one of only 30 universities nationwide – and the only university in Illinois – that is part of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC); a selective organization that drives awareness of the value of high-quality liberal arts education in an affordable public college setting.

The term “liberal arts” refers to studies that are considered essential to an exceptional undergraduate education. It includes the Humanities (the Arts, English, History, Foreign Languages, Literature, and Philosophy), the Social Sciences (Anthropology, Communication, Economics, Geography, Psychology and Sociology), the Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics) and Mathematics (Algebra, Calculus, Geometry and Logic).

And what are the benefits of a liberal arts education in the year 2017? I asked that question of four exceptional UIS faculty members – each of whom has received the University of Illinois “University Scholar Award” within the past few years. The University Scholar Award is given for outstanding teaching and research and is the highest honor a University of Illinois faculty member can receive.

Hua Chen, a professor in the UIS Biology Department, responded:

“The biggest benefit of a liberal arts education is that it empowers individuals to deal with the complexity, diversity and change that living in the 21st century demands.”

Says Dr. Chen, “A good example is climate change – an important global issue today that students study in my Environmental Biology courses. Understanding climate change requires students to develop a multi-disciplinary perspective that includes Ecology, Environmental Science, Social Science, Politics and even International Relations. One take-home message after studying this topic is that I hope students have learned to think critically when they enter the workforce and they have learned to be more engaged and informed citizens.”

According to David Bertaina, a professor in the History Department at UIS, a liberal arts education is “not just about filling up gaps” in students’ knowledge. “At a liberal arts institution like UIS, faculty want to be an important part of students’ intellectual formation,” he says.

“Professors are excellent resources and some of the best learning opportunities are through discussions and interactions outside of class. Success requires a whole set of connections and experiences and a liberal arts education helps make those connections and experiences possible.”

Dr. Bertaina’s colleague in the History Department, Dr. Peter Shapinsky, won the University Scholar Award this year.

“The liberal arts are essential for helping us see the ‘why’ of something – not just the ‘how’“, he reflects.

“By studying the liberal arts, students become cosmopolitan in a meaningful way; receptive and respectful of other cultures and worldviews.”

Lan Dong is an Associate Professor in the English Department who is highly regarded as a talented teacher.

“The liberal arts experience at UIS helps students become more open-minded and socially responsible,” she says.

“It fosters intellectual curiosity and helps students learn to articulate complex ideas and be more effective life-long learners on their own.”

According to a report published in 2014 by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), whatever major they choose, students who pursue their education within the context of a broad liberal education substantially increase the likelihood of achieving long-term professional success. At the same time, employers readily identify the communication and problem-solving skills associated with a liberal arts background as the most valuable attributes of new hires.

The University of Illinois at Springfield is on a growth trajectory, with more students choosing each year to pursue their dream of earning a University of Illinois credential in the personalized and supportive environment that UIS faculty and staff provide. Thanks to faculty members like Hua, David, Peter and Lan, an exceptional liberal arts experience will continue to serve as the foundation for their University of Illinois degree …. as well as for their success beyond graduation.

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch