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 the Herald, 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.

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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.

UND

A commitment to the liberal arts is goal No. 1 in UND’s strategic plan. Interim President Joshua Wynne recently told the Herald that if UND is going to back that up, the university needs to show, not tell.

In a July meeting with the Herald, Wynne said his support for the liberal arts and liberal arts degrees runs deep.

“An institution is not what it says, but what it does,” he said. “If we have a commitment to the liberal arts, which we do, then the university needs to demonstrate it in programs and approaches and in finances.”

“There is no question about my ... commitment to the arts,” he said.

He added: “The larger question of the role of the traditional liberal arts education in the future is a legitimate question.”

Wynne said there is validity to the notion that liberal arts education helps build critical thinking, an important and key component to a career path. Debate skills and critical thinking help leaders make decisions in a well-rounded way, Wynne said.

“We don’t make good decisions unless we are able to entertain concepts that may be alien to us, that may be new to us. I think one of the best places to learn about that is in the liberal arts,” he said. “I think it is critically important. The future is debated, not just here, but around the country and around the world. … I think we as a university need to have a discussion about this to show the place of liberal arts now and in the future.”

While he is interim president, Wynne said there will be continued, long-term and open discussions about how to meet those goals.

Concordia

While Concordia has a foundation in the liberal arts, Vice President for Enrollment and Marketing Karl Stumo said the college also has a “firm commitment” to practical, real-world education.

“Concordia has always balanced a liberal arts education with training in areas like education and business. We’ve had a long tradition with our nursing program,” he said. “There’s really a balance.”

Stumo said there aren’t many purely liberal arts colleges left in the United States; most schools have a mix of liberal arts degrees and practical degrees. At Concordia, about a third to 40 percent of a student’s education is based on a core liberal arts curriculum.

Depending on the major chosen, students may take more liberal arts classes.

“There’s a deep commitment on the part of the faculty and administration at Concordia that a well-educated student is one that’s not only prepared for their first job or career, but prepared for a life of work in their career, in leadership in their community, in solving problems that don’t have easy answers,” Stumo said. “That’s a liberally educated person.”

University of Mary

The University of Mary has a heritage that goes back 1,500 years to St. Benedict, when higher education found its roots back in medieval Europe, Vice President for Public Affairs Jerome Richter said.

“The whole person is the focus of a good education,” he said. “From the very start of the University of Mary, (the sisters) knew that the liberal arts were always going to be important. They were always going to be kind of, if you will, the core of our education. But at the same time, being the whole person, the sisters being practical, they said, ‘yes, you have got to have a good liberal arts education. And you also have to be a professional.’ ”

Diane Fladeland, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Mary, said a liberal arts education is the foundation that “can be applied to any profession that is essential for every profession.”

“The ability to speak and write well, really has only become more important. And now we add to that: How do we communicate electronically and digitally?” Fladeland said. “Understanding history, and philosophy, theology, all of those things, has always been important. But how that provides the foundation for ethical decision-making in this time we live in today only has become more significant, so that the student is learning, what is the right thing to do? How do I have moral courage to do it, regardless of what their profession is?”

Fladeland said when Mary staff ask employers and alumni what they need from a graduate, employers hardly ever say, for instance, “all they need is to be able to put in an IV.” Instead Fladeland said they say things like, “they need to be honest people of integrity, they need to be able to think on their feet. They need to be able to make good decisions, given variable variables that are always changing.”

“That's the foundation of a liberal arts education,” she said. “And that is applicable to all of the professional majors that we offer.”

Fladeland said part of the changing workforce and changing world also means being able to understand other cultures and being a “global citizen.” That is also part of the liberal arts core.

“Our students will be doing business in Moscow, our students will be will have business and patients and students from Beijing,” she said. “It's essential that they understand that culture that they're able to style shifts, that they're able to be extremely respectful, and then understanding people of every different race, nationality and ethnicity.”

The University of Mary requires students to take a “search for truth” course so they understand logic, critical thinking, how decisions are made and how to know the truth when they see it. Students also take a “search for happiness” course that is values-based, helping students understand what is true human virtue, Fladeland said.

Serving communities

At Concordia College, the university has recently implemented a requirement called PEAK, or Pivotal Experience in Applied Knowledge. These challenge students to apply theory learned in the classroom to real-world applications. PEAK experiences include everything from making a documentary, Habitat for Humanity trips, service-learning projects, scientific research and more, the university’s website says.

All Concordia students will graduate with at least two PEAK experiences in the form of internships, special courses, global learning opportunities or service projects.

Stumo said the PEAK experiences all go back to Concordia’s mission statement: “The purpose of Concordia College is to influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian life.”

“It’s a pretty big goal for a smaller school like Concordia to have in its mission statement influencing the 'affairs of the world,' but to do that we have to send students into the community to be part of the affairs of the world,” he said. “If they don’t know what the affairs are they sure can’t impact them.”