Committed to liberal arts: Education leaders say it's 'imperative,' even as the job market changes

The future of work is changing in North Dakota and elsewhere, and liberal arts programs have been targeted for cuts nationwide. Yet leaders in and around North Dakota say liberal arts will remain important, even as technology takes over the job market.

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Karl A. Stumo is the vice president of enrollment and marketing at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. Photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 14. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS -- Many higher-education leaders in the region agree: The future of work is quickly changing and the demand for technical degrees increases with the consistent rise of automation.

But three key skills – reading, writing and communicating – will remain ever important, according to North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott and others.

“(The liberal arts) are absolutely imperative in a very practical way,” Hagerott said.

In a recent meeting with Forum News Service, Hagerott said he has met business executives from across North Dakota who say they need employees who can read and write well. It’s also imperative employees are able to meet with customers to discuss company matters, Hagerott said they told him.

“The liberal arts are crucial in interpreting what is going on in this digital world,” he said, noting there will always be a need for lawyers and legislators who can help people understand what is going on in the world around them.


Universities in the region say they are continuing their commitment to liberal arts, even in the face of a more automated future.

A recent study from thinktank giant McKinsey relays the potential effects automation could have on America’s workforce in the years to come. The study estimates that approximately 40 percent of U.S. jobs are in categories that are expected to shrink before 2030.

Nonetheless, Hagerott says students with liberal arts backgrounds will be needed to help relay ideas and communication in the future.

Liberal arts degrees have been part of universities’ identities and cores for centuries. But for many schools – like UND, the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., and Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., for example – those degrees have changed over time.

In recent years, liberal arts programs often were among the first to be cut across the nation as colleges attempt to save money and prepare students for the jobs of the future. In 2016 UND notably cut its music therapy program, a decision that caused protests on campus, as it adjusted for significant budget cuts during that legislative biennium.

UND isn’t alone. An English professor from Linfield College in Oregon recently wrote a column for Inside Higher Ed about “academic prioritization.” Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt defines it as “a logic that paves the way for converting non-revenue-generating disciplines into service-oriented disciplines.” The column discusses the reduction of liberal arts programs across the country as colleges prepare students for “job-oriented” areas.

Dutt-Ballerstadt wrote that “higher education has become a business, and like in any business, there are winners and losers.”

“The biggest losers are a generation of students who are being robbed of critically engaging with disciplines and materials within the arts, humanities, theater, music, history, religious studies and philosophy, political science, sociology, anthropology, and foreign languages,” the professor wrote. “These disciplines have proven to contribute deeply to enhancing one’s malleable intelligence, a sense of civic duty and social responsibility, and engagement in critical citizenship.”


Dutt-Ballerstadt notes that “training in the liberal arts is highly viewed as beneficial by employers who value interdisciplinary skills,” a notion with which many higher education leaders in North Dakota and Minnesota agree.

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