Learning to Make a Difference

New Directions for the SUNY Cortland School of Arts and Sciences

The Problem

The School of Arts and Science at SUNY Cortland has for more than ten years been suffering a decline in enrollment, or at best breaking even. Either way, at present the enrollment in arts and sciences, approximately 35% of the total enrollment in the college, is too low for the health of the school or the college. There are several reasons for this situation:

  • There is a decreasing interest nation wide in the traditional arts and sciences disciplines and majors;
  • At Cortland in particular, the reputation of the arts and sciences is overshadowed by the college's strong and deserved reputation around the state in other areas, specifically teacher education and physical education;
  • Cortland's School of Arts and Sciences is one of many similar schools in the state, and there is little to make us stand out to prospective students.

The School of Arts and Sciences, and the college as a whole, will be far healthier if we can attract not only more students but also more qualified and interested students to our programs. There is little if anything we can do about the general cultural trends that work against interest in liberal learning. Similarly, there is nothing we can do directly about the strong reputation the college has for other programs, nor would we want to. There is, however, something we can do about defining ourselves as a school, and redirecting our mission, in such a way that we begin to stand out to prospective students.

The Solution

"A liberal education is the highest form of university education." These words are as true today as they were over 100 years ago when John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote them. The disciplines and areas of inquiry that we now call the arts and sciences are the expression of the highest achievements of humankind throughout its history. They contain our problems and solutions, our aspirations and our fears. The world has changed a good deal since Cardinal Newman wrote, but it has not changed so much that the arts and sciences, and the liberal learning they enable, have lost their centrality for higher education.

But there are still questions to be asked about the arts and sciences, especially by those of us who aspire to live, work, and teach within them. Most important among them is "to what end do we teach the liberal arts, and to what end do we expect students to study them?" The answer to the first question will vary from individual to individual. For many of us the answer is simply that we derive our greatest satisfaction from what feels to us to be the intrinsic worthiness of our disciplines, and from conducting research in and teaching our fields, when we can do so successfully. At the same time, there are also many for whom the answer has to do with the consequences of our work. The meaning and the significance of the arts and sciences is a result of the use to which our inquiry, knowledge and teaching is put. The results we look for can vary, from solving specific problems, to opening up new areas of application, to contributing to the resolution of pressing social problems, to seeing our students succeed in areas they choose to pursue. It has always been true, Aristotle notwithstanding, that among the most significant features of liberal learning is the fact that it has consequences, it makes a difference.

That liberal learning matters beyond itself and beyond the simple enjoyment of engaging in it is the point of departure for our clarification of the mission of SUNY Cortland's School of Arts and Sciences. The traditional idea that liberal learning is a good in itself, though satisfying enough for many of us individually, is no longer an adequate context for the role of a liberal arts college, or of a school of arts and sciences. Fortunately, the health and value of the liberal arts does not rest solely or even primarily on its intrinsic worthiness. In a time when higher education is available to the majority of the population, and when universities aspire to draw as many students as possible into the riches of university education, liberal learning requires a different understanding. It is a mistake to assume that our choice is between a traditional approach to the liberal arts on the one hand or a trade education on the other. This is a false dichotomy, and its inadequacy is pointed to by the fact that a third alternative is available to us, one that combines the best features of the two traditional options. The alternative is to approach liberal learning by stressing its applicability to the world, its problems, and to our individual lives.

This approach is the alternative that the School of Arts and Sciences is looking to embrace. Our purpose is not to abandon liberal learning, but to put it to work in lived contexts, to answer current questions, whether they be how an individual student will get along after graduation or how larger social problems can be solved. This is an engaged liberal arts, and it is to this understanding of a liberal education that the School of Arts and Sciences is looking to turn. The language is a bit tricky because it is easy to misunderstand what our new identity means. One can speak of the "applied" liberal arts, but that still has something of a trade school connotation, and that is unacceptable. The "engaged" liberal arts is better, but in some circles that has a political connotation that is not accurate either. Perhaps, rather than look for a single adjective, it is better to say simply that our new focus is on a democratic conception of liberal learning, democratic in the sense that it looks to insert itself directly and consciously into the lived contexts of the society and into our students' lives and their futures. Ours is a liberal education that works for our students. It will make a difference in their lives, and with it they can enter their adult lives fully prepared to make a difference in their communities and the society as a whole.

This approach to liberal learning is appropriate for us for several reasons. First, with it we can speak to the interests of prospective students better than we are able to now. Second, it will provide Cortland's School of Arts and Sciences a unique identity and enable it to stand out among the many liberal arts schools and colleges in the state. Third, and this is perhaps the most relevant point, it describes something that in many respects we have been doing in the School of Arts and Sciences for many years.

In our program and other curricular development, in much of our research and scholarship, and in some of our major grants, the focus in the School of Arts and Sciences has been in five primary areas:

  • Civic Responsibility
  • Environmental Responsibility
  • International Education
  • Professional Education
  • Social Justice

There are many examples of major programs, minors and concentrations, curricular developments, scholarship and grants that fall into one or another of these categories:

Civic Responsibility:    
    Center for Aging and Human Services
    Human Services
    Social Gerontology
    Public Policy and Public Administration
    Service Learning
    Internships in Local Agencies
    Community Outreach Partnership Center

Environmental Responsibility:    
    Environmental Studies
    Water Resources Management
    Environmental Science Concentrations
    Geographic Information Systems
    Title III Activities
    GE 7: Science, Technology and Human Afrs.
    Internships in Local Agencies
    PCB Research (Psychology and Chemistry)

International Education:    
    Center for Global Engagement
    International Studies
    International Relations
    Applied Anthropology
    Tourism and Development
    Project for Eastern and Central Europe
    Dragon Planet

Professional Education:    
    Adolescence Education
    New Media
    Graphic Design
    Professional Writing
    Musical Theater
    Pre-Law and Pre-Med

Social Justice:            
    Social Philosophy
    Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies
    Law and Justice
    GE 2: Prejudice and Discrimination

Each of these endeavors is an example of the liberal arts engaged with individual and social prospects, and they represent models of the kind of activities that will be emphasized in the School of Arts and Sciences.

A word is in order about the role of traditional disciplinary departments in this environment. First, it is important to notice that each of these activities occurs within the auspices of a department or interdisciplinary center. Furthermore, the richness of each of these programs requires contributions from many of the more traditional liberal arts areas. Our goal is not to eliminate or de-emphasize the traditional liberal arts disciplines, but rather to insert them into a more engaged context. Departments will continue to be as important as they now are, taking account of the point that interdisciplinary programs are becoming increasingly important and attractive to our students. However, the departments will need to focus energy and resources in new ways and in new directions.

The Implications

The new approach to the liberal arts is both descriptive and prescriptive. It provides a description of the direction in which many of our programs, grants and curricular developments have been tending in recent years. It also has prescriptive implications for us in the sense that it provides the context in which program development, resource allocation and hiring will occur. We will look to develop new programs, and if and when appropriate recast existing programs, with the goal in mind of further "engaging" the liberal arts. When new resources are available, and where resource reallocation is possible and defensible, money will follow those programs and departments where there is an emphasis on putting the liberal arts to work outside the university's walls. Furthermore, our hiring practices will be affected, in the sense that we will look to hire colleagues who share our conception of the liberal arts and who are in a position to contribute to it through their disciplines and the interdisciplinary applications of their specialties.

Cortland "First" Program

The curricular centerpiece of the new focus in the School of Arts and Sciences will be the Cortland First Program. This is a program that will consist of learning communities designed for first year students, either pre-majors or those who have already chosen a major in the School of Arts and Sciences. The model is the Tech First program that was taught in the Fall 2000 term to a group of 28 first year, pre-major students. Like other learning communities, Tech First consisted of a set of interrelated courses, some of which met standard first year requirements while others were designed for the program. A student cohort enrolled in the courses together, and the instructors worked together to ensure that the curriculum and pedagogy of the interrelated courses were mutually reinforcing. Tech First was by all accounts a success, and it can serve as a model for additional learning community opportunities for all first year students.

Though we will have to approach its development slowly, we envision the Cortland First Program to consist of any number of learning communities each fall semester. The following list is only a sample of the many thematic possibilities

  • Tech First
  • Arts First
  • Writing First
  • People First
  • Environment First
  • Justice First
  • World First
  • Community First

The advantages of the Cortland First Program learning communities are many:

  • There is a good deal of public evidence that learning communities, when properly handled, contribute to student learning and to retention;
  • We can build not only on the Tech First experience, but also on the experience we will gain through the learning communities funded over the next several years by Title III;
  • Cortland's First Program will be unique in the SUNY system, and outside it for that matter. It will give our programs visibility, and it will give students interested in these fields a reason to choose Cortland over the alternatives. Once they come here, it will be our responsibility to provide them the education they deserve.


Most of the activities necessary to make the new mission of the School of Arts and Sciences meaningful have no special resource demands. We will pursue new program development as we always have, and hiring will presumably proceed as necessary and appropriate. The primary exception to this is the Cortland First Program. In order to offer a number of first year learning communities it will be necessary to undertake the faculty development that will allow faculty to participate successfully. It will also be necessary in some cases to release faculty members from courses they might ordinarily teach in order to make it possible for them to teach a learning community course. This is not always necessary. For example, a CPN course is necessary for first year students and so needs to be a component of a learning community, yet it imposes no new resource needs. Nevertheless there are cases in which it will be necessary to allow departments to use adjunct resources to teach a standard course while the instructor who would normally be doing it will be involved in a First Program.

Public Promotion of the New Arts and Sciences

We believe that the redefined mission of the School of Arts and Sciences, coupled with such curricular innovations as the Cortland First Program, can attract a good deal of positive attention to Cortland in general and the School of Arts and Sciences in particular. For this to occur it will imperative that the college's public relations and admissions offices make a special effort to bring these developments to the public's attention. Those of us teaching, studying and administering in the school can provide the vision and the programs, and we can do the work of educating the students, but we are not in a position to do the public relations work necessary to change the public perception of us. We stand ready to help, but we can not do it alone. It must become an initiative of the institution.


The phrase "Learning to Make a Difference" encapsulates the vision intended to guide our school's activities and it will be the thematic focus for projecting our school's identity to the public. The innovative Cortland First Program will be the centerpiece mechanism for realizing the School of Arts and Sciences' vision in the education of our students from the beginning of their time with us. And the many scholarly activities related to social justice, civic responsibility, environmental responsibility, international education and professional education that we have been doing well for many years will be more coherently presented as a strength of SUNY Cortland and its School of Arts and Sciences.

John Ryder
Dean of Arts and Sciences
January 22, 2001