Danny Anderson surrounded by colorful illustrations and paint splashes
A University of the Highest Order
Does Trinity’s storied history in the liberal arts face extinction, or is its background the key to a brighter future?
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
“The liberal arts are dead.”

At least, so say many of the onlookers of America’s work climate, claiming that liberal arts degrees have little value and provide poor training for today’s job market.

As the liberal arts come under fire from all camps—political, social, cultural, economical—students might begin to question the return on investment of these degrees. Are they worth the cost? Will someone hire me after graduation? Will I be able to make a living?

These questions and others prompt liberal arts schools, like Trinity, to ask: Is the liberal arts education model in danger in 21st century America?

Absolutely not, answers the University’s new president, Danny J. Anderson, Ph.D., who took the reins at Trinity in May. He not only defends the value of a liberal arts education, but advocates that its foundational elements are essential for every graduate—in any discipline—to contribute to their field and to society in the best possible ways.

“The sad reality is that we have students across the U.S. who are not achieving all that they could because liberal arts and sciences components are not a part of their general education,” Anderson said. “If the only thing that business students and engineers are taught is techniques, they are underserved in imagining all they could do.”

Despite strong academic support for a liberal arts education, some students and parents may still wonder how such preparation contributes to a graduate’s success at Trinity and in the real world.

Need proof? If harkening back to your own Trinity experience isn’t enough, take it from a handful of Tiger alumni and faculty: a broad education in the liberal arts and sciences prepares students for learning beyond classroom walls, translating to success in any field a graduate may choose. English majors become technology whizzes, leading to executive management positions. Political science students become business managers who change the world one child at a time. Business students revolutionize the way research is shared internationally, adding untold value to every student’s academic experience. Classical studies majors use the techniques of analyzing ancient texts to inform strategies of calculating complex mathematical problems.

These graduates and professors exemplify Trinity’s goals—to instill the ability to learn at the highest level and equip every student in every discipline to follow his or her calling after university, no matter the direction in which those opportunities may lead.

‘The Best Possible Me’

Loretta Kerner ’07 triple-majored at Trinity and then created a career out of a personal passion—she wanted to make a big difference in her community. She focused her academic career on political science, international studies, and Spanish, planning to use the poli-sci major to make positive changes in the world around her.

But things didn’t quite work out that way. After graduation, she took an internship with a congressman and then worked in politics for a few years. She soon realized she wouldn’t be able to make the impact she had hoped for.

“In my political science classes, I read about the impact former leaders had in their communities around the world, and that’s what I wanted to do,” Kerner said. “I thought the only way I could do that was to be in politics. But I realize now that there are many ways to positively influence the community.”

As Kerner switched gears, a friend put her in touch with a fellow Trinity grad who worked for the San Antonio Spurs, and Kerner eventually accepted the position of Community Responsibility Manager at the team’s nonprofit organization Silver & Black Give Back, which she describes as somewhat of an entrepreneurial endeavor.

Kerner uses different aspects of her three degrees to advance the nonprofit’s mission: creatively engaging and empowering young people to enrich their community. 

She says her broad education supplied her with the ability to “wear many hats” as is common in the nonprofit world. Not for an instant does she regret pursuing any of these majors because they provided “a little bit of everything,” which is how she works on a daily basis.

“Political science is something everybody should take,” Kerner said. “You have to be able to influence people about your perspective. That’s what politicians do, and it’s helpful in a business environment.”

And international studies? Kerner concentrated on Latin America, which made her aware of the impact Mexico has as a close San Antonio neighbor. She regularly discusses the ways immigration affects education funding, and, for example, how that impacts the children of parents who came into the U.S. illegally.

“Sports connect us all internationally, and they’re important no matter where you come from,” Kerner said. “Some kids need to be involved in something so they don’t get in trouble, and sports is a safe place to go. If that’s the platform the Spurs use to make a tangible difference in these kids’ lives, if that’s how we get a foot in the door, of course we’ll use it.”

In her position, Kerner also has the opportunity to interview job candidates. When she receives résumés from fellow Trinity alumni, she always wants to bring the applicants in for a meeting because she knows what these graduates are capable of.

“If I had gone to school and purely thought about my major as occupational training, I don’t know that I’d ever have found the inspiration to excel in something else,” Kerner said. “In all my courses, I learned that what’s important to me is making an impact. I’m ambitious, and I want to be the best possible me.”

Dynamic Education

As Kerner’s triple-major experience confirms, one of the biggest problems students at Trinity are likely to have is deciding which of their many curiosities to pursue. Even Anderson wrestled with that problem during his undergraduate years as a liberal arts major at Austin College.

“My undergraduate liberal arts degree does not emphasize a major,” Anderson said. “For most of my years as a student, alongside Spanish I also studied chemistry and economics. I struggled with which path to take because I enjoyed all of them.”

A study abroad experience in Spain during his junior year solidified the choice. Anderson became fascinated with the beginnings of democracy in Spain after the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975. Through his study of Spanish culture, his interest in Latin America grew and became his focus when he returned to the United States.

It’s this type of experiential learning environment that Trinity faculty strive to achieve, particularly through hands-on research opportunities for undergraduates.

“At big universities, first-year students are dishwashers, literally washing dishes in the labs,” said chemistry professor Corina Maeder ’99. In contrast, “Our students are actively conducting research and asking questions relevant to the field.”

That’s what drew Maeder to Trinity as an undergraduate herself. After she discovered the concept of DNA during her early high school years, she was hooked on science. She wanted to attend a university that would allow her to get her hands dirty as soon as she stepped foot on campus.

For years, Trinity University has committed to providing such opportunities to undergraduates. As a member of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), Trinity promotes student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship at the undergraduate level. Students don’t simply tag along with their professors; instead, they make original and creative contributions to their chosen discipline. This kind of intensive research at the undergraduate level is uncommon at larger research universities.

Erika Nelson ’14 (left) and Mariah Wahl ’16 (right) explore comic book Bibles with religion professor and Mellon Initiative director Rubén Dupertuis.

Trinity takes it a step further by encouraging more arts- and humanities-related research. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which strives to strengthen arts and humanities contributions to society, awarded Trinity a five-year grant in 2012 that has funded more than three dozen student-faculty research collaborations. The grant also allows the University to build faculty members’ mentoring expertise. When the grant expires, Trinity will begin funding the projects from its own budget.

Through the University’s Mellon Initiative, the arts and humanities curriculum incorporates research experiences in order to provide the essential preparation students will need when working on original research in a job setting. The same way a student would contribute to a faculty member’s research in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field, arts and humanities students work alongside their professors to explore theories, examine data, and seek meaningful answers to pertinent questions.

“Sometimes when we think about research, we just imagine beakers and science labs,” said Rubén Dupertuis, religion professor and the first humanities professor from Trinity to participate as a CUR Councilor. “But the humanities have research opportunities as well.”

Take, for example, Nupur Agrawal’s research with religion professor C. Mackenzie Brown. After experiencing first-hand the outrage in India over a 23-year-old woman’s gang rape and murder, Brown invited Agrawal ’14 to join him in examining the country’s rape-tolerance. During the 2013 Mellon-funded project, the two traveled to Agrawal’s native India to investigate contemporary views on rape and equality from historical, political, religious, cultural, and legal perspectives. The student researcher is fluent in four Indian languages, making interviews with subjects in New Delhi possible and adding unequivocal depth to the project. As a senior, she presented the research, titled “The Rape That Woke Up India,” at the American Academy of Religions in Dallas.

Or consider anthropology major Elizabeth Gilbert’s research collaboration with sociology and anthropology professor Amy Stone. Gilbert ’14 and Stone set out to investigate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) visibility in Mardi Gras celebrations in the Gulf South regions of the U.S. beyond New Orleans. Their theory? This group’s participation in festivities helps those communities become more accepting of LGBT culture even after the party dies down. The researchers’ quest took them to Baton Rouge, La., and Mobile, Ala., southern cities where the LGBT community has historically had limited political and social rights. Gilbert, a Louisiana native, helped conduct dozens of interviews with workers in the Mardi Gras industry to gather data on the integration of the gay and lesbian community year-round in those cities. Their research is titled “LGBT Mardi Gras Celebrations in the Gulf South” and will be included in Stone’s book.

Undergraduate research gives students a head start on developing the analytical skills needed to collect data and draw conclusions. These students, now proficient in evaluating information and finding results, have the competencies they need to embark on a challenging career path or be accepted into the best graduate schools in the country.

“I’m a true believer that broad training in learning how to write and think and read at a deep level is what matters for the long haul,” Dupertuis said. “This helps students prepare not just for their first job, but for four or five down the road.”

Sharing the Wealth

Alumnus Nick Shockey embodied the idea of experiential learning as an undergraduate. He found an opportunity that developed into a passion and then into a mission—one that resulted not only in a new policy at Trinity but also morphed into his full-time job changing the entire research landscape at universities across the nation.

Just finished with his first year at Trinity, Shockey ’09 found himself watching a CNN International program about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) OpenCourseWare. MIT publishes virtually all its course content—reading lists, lecture recordings and notes, homework questions, and more—and makes it available online for free to anyone in the world. By sharing its resources, MIT aims to help educators at other schools improve their own courses and also to provide exceptional students with new materials to advance their academic studies.

The concept, Shockey says, was brilliant, and he decided to bring it to Trinity.

During his mission, Shockey worked closely with University Librarian Diane Graves, a member of the steering committee at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). The organization unites academic and research libraries around the world to promote open access, the free online availability of articles, data and educational resources in an attempt to increase the potential impact of new research. With open access, universities would no longer be forced to spend millions of dollars on subscriptions to academic journals to provide scholarly research to educators and students.

“Open access at Trinity increases the visibility of our professors’ incredible research,” Shockey said. “When anyone can get a copy of the text, more researchers will be able to read the articles and then cite Trinity professors in future research, elevating the university’s reputation.”

Only months after Shockey graduated with a triple major in business, economics, and philosophy in 2009, Trinity endorsed an open access policy, making the University the first small liberal arts school to do so. At the time, the only other schools to adopt such a policy were Harvard University, MIT, Stanford University, and the University of Kansas. Now, when professors publish articles in academic journals, Trinity reserves the right to make the text freely accessible on its website.

As for Shockey, his undergraduate experience led to full-time employment at SPARC as director of programs and engagement.

“Today’s students are more successful at learning by doing,” Anderson said. “Experiential learning helps students move beyond seeing themselves as consumers who absorb knowledge; they become participants who apply knowledge, observe ideas in action, and come to see themselves as the creators of future theories, makers of new solutions, and actors who can change the world around them.”

‘Life Sampler’

Though Shockey created a direct path to a full-time job thanks to his experience at Trinity, many liberal arts students don’t make a beeline to a single destination. Critics say that’s the underlying flaw of a liberal arts education. But supporters say it’s the benefit—the ability and flexibility to go in many directions.

That includes supporters like Debbie Roos ’90, who found herself jobless at the end of her senior year with no idea about what to do next.

Roos, who calls herself a “life-sampler,” changed her major six times as an undergrad—not because she didn’t like each major she chose, but because she liked them all. She wanted to do, and be, everything.

As she took different classes and discovered the challenges she enjoyed and those she didn’t, she finally determined which discipline most suited her.

“That’s when I realized, ‘I have to be an English major,’” she said. “I felt relieved that I’d found where I belonged and depressed that I couldn’t tell anyone what I was going to be when I was done. But I liked English, so I said to myself, ‘Screw it. I’m here to get an education, not training.’”

Indeed, an education at Trinity was never designed to train its students for a particular job, but rather prepare them with transferable skills to excel in any career.

“If the only purpose of education is job training, then at the end you’ll just be a scientist, accountant, teacher, engineer,” said Heather Sullivan, professor of German in the modern languages and literatures department. “We’re not doing our work if we only prepare each student for one specific career.”

Roos knew she didn’t want to teach, so she decided to go to law school. Then, just two months before graduation, she decided she didn’t want to be a lawyer after all. After crossing the stage, she felt desperate to get a job. She took the first one offered to her, a position at a management and technology services company.

“I only took one computer programming course at Trinity,” Roos said. “And here I was, programming computers right out of college.”

Stranger still was the technology company that would hire an English graduate to do the job. Looking back, Roos now knows why: “They were looking for people who had great problem-solving skills and knew how to learn. They figured if I could successfully make it through at Trinity, they could teach me how to program a computer.”

Roos worked in systems development, and it was there that she fell in love with strategic planning. Later, she took a job at USAA as a project manager and, in her late 20s, became the youngest vice president at the multimillion-dollar insurance company. She eventually wrote the company’s strategic plan, using her background in rhetoric to articulate the president’s goals.

“I don’t really know about accounting or business management, but I know enough to learn it and communicate about it,” Roos said. “Trinity’s liberal arts education is eclectic and broad and future-thinking, and it makes your brain operate on so many platforms. That’s the reality of today’s world—we must operate in different roles all the time.”

Now as chief operating officer at ATKG, a certified public accounting firm, Roos multitasks all day long, switching gears between conversations about marketing, finances, staff issues, facilities management, new software, and client services.

“I’m passionate about the mosaic setting at Trinity,” she said. “My liberal arts degree set me up for being a COO anywhere. At Trinity, I got to use my brain on the micro level and the macro level every day. That’s the real world.”

The “real world” where she now resides is a far cry from her desperate situation as a recent graduate without a job.

“The problem with the way education is viewed right now is that its only value is to provide a job,” Dupertuis said. “We’re not just preparing students for jobs, although we certainly do that. We’re preparing leaders who contribute to society in significant ways.”

Classics and Calculus

Contributions come in all forms, including at the intersection of mythology and mathematics. Dayton King ’15, who double-majored in classical studies and math, certainly sees it that way. King calls classical studies the “jack-of-all-trades” degree and mathematics “a language in its own right.”

“Analyzing a calculus problem is no different than analyzing the first 30 lines of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey,” King said. “In any kind of academic study, you’re trying to extract as much information as possible from the information you’re given.”

As a peer tutor at Trinity as well as at James Madison High School, King helped students in all levels of math, history, and English. Equally capable of correcting grammar and calculations, King urged students not to pigeonhole themselves into one discipline at the exclusion of all others. He found that many students decided they were smart in one subject and refused to try to be competent in another.

“I often hear people say they ‘just aren’t math people’ and see others nod in agreement as if it’s acceptable to lack that skill,” King said. “I have had students tell me they just weren’t mathematically inclined and that I should accept that. Yet they look aghast at the suggestion of turning in a one-sentence essay to their English teacher with the explanation ‘I’m just not an essay person.’ The perception that the ability to think logically and objectively is somehow opposed to the ability to communicate one’s thoughts articulately is prevalent.”

Erwin Cook, T.F. Murchison Professor of the Humanities, says it’s important for young scholars to have at least some knowledge in many different disciplines. Though Cook deems that a competent classicist should have reading fluency in at least six languages—Greek, Latin, English, German, French and Italian—he says more than just language aptitude is necessary. A scholar also must understand the methodologies of linguistics, history, philosophy, religion, sociology, anthropology, and critical theory.

“Many of us have to master archaeology as well, which increasingly includes chemistry and advanced technology in the classroom as well as the field,” Cook said. “Classics is the original interdisciplinary discipline.”

At Trinity, professors welcome ideas from all disciplines into their classrooms. King remembers studying the construction of the Parthenon in Athens and the Colosseum in Rome in classical studies professor Nicolle Hirschfeld’s “Introduction to Classical Archaeology” course. The professor noted that the builders insisted on maintaining an 8:5 ratio for the sides of both structures, and she asked the math major about the significance of the measurements.

King took the opportunity to lead the class on a tangent about the Golden Rule, a ratio that can create illusions, making slight curves—such as the Parthenon’s base and columns—appear to be straight. Though the ruins’ dimensions are difficult to measure with certainty, the aesthetics of the Parthenon suggest the builders may have used the Golden Rule to guide its construction. Hirschfeld enjoyed sharing a short cross-disciplinary lesson with her classical studies students.

Like King, Anderson also sees connections across disciplines, and he points out that each one benefits the other if students seek the broader picture. In his own education, Anderson enjoyed science courses as much as languages. Although he eventually earned a doctorate in Spanish, he still uses elements of each discipline in his daily work as the head of Trinity.

“My career is quite a distance from the world of natural sciences, but administrators use a kind of scientific method: they develop hypotheses about how to solve a problem, develop an experiment in the form of a pilot project, and gather data to assess the outcome of the experiment,” Anderson said. “Effective administrators do this all the time.”

Creating Pathways

Because the faculty and administration believe so deeply in the inextricable value of cross-disciplinary study, they have crafted a new curriculum for the first time in nearly three decades. The curriculum, called Pathways, challenges students in all majors to develop an appreciation of other fields of study and to discover how they connect.

“Liberal education prepares students for life in a changing world, and for this reason, it must incorporate change,” Anderson said. “Trinity honors its commitment to excellence by ensuring all aspects of the curriculum are relevant to the 21st century.”

Over the span of two years, Erwin Cook led two committees of dedicated colleagues tasked with drafting and refining the new curriculum.

“We started with a blank page and asked: ‘What does a liberal arts education need to do in the 21st century?’” Cook said. “There is general agreement that critical thinking is the single most important skill we can give our students to ensure their future success, in both their personal and professional lives.”

Professor Heather Sullivan, who teaches courses in German and environmental literature, talks with a small group of students during her office hours.

Faculty interviews, research on best practices, and information from employers about what they want in employees guided the Pathways framework. This data revealed that, beyond critical thinking, graduates must leave Trinity with exceptional oral and written communication skills, interpersonal skills, global and cultural awareness of human diversity, and a lifelong love of learning.

“No one’s path is linear, and Pathways will show our students that, whichever pathway they follow after Trinity, they will thrive,” Anderson said. “The new curriculum honors intellectual diversity. One way to explain diversity is to think of a metal. When a metal is made of a single element, it has a certain strength. But when you blend two different metals to create an alloy, the resulting material is stronger. The Pathways curriculum blends diverse intellectual perspectives; it creates knowledge combinations that strengthen students’ approaches to tackling complex societal problems.”  

Mix and Mingle

This diversity (or  “mosaic,” as Roos calls it) at Trinity extends into nearly every aspect of what constitutes a university. The faculty, the students, the culture, the courses. These blended differences continue to shape the University, rather than conforming it to a mold.

“Trinity students frequently reach out to faculty, staff, and alumni; they make use of the networks at the University to make Trinity their own,” Anderson said. “They don’t become like Trinity—instead, they change Trinity to become like them. We are all stronger because of this interaction.”

Cook agrees. “We encourage everyone to take advantage of the various backgrounds students bring to Trinity,” he said. “When they do, students learn how to interact with people who have different cultural assumptions and how to discuss sensitive issues respectfully, which are necessary interpersonal skills.”

Students uncover numerous ways to transform the University using their unique backgrounds as springboards. For example, anyone may construct an interdisciplinary major to suit his or her interests and goals. Some students even build new, specialized courses to satisfy their curiosities.

Maeder, as a student, did just that. Despite being focused on chemistry, she also found a passion for biblical Hebrew—a topic not listed in the catalogue.

“I thought it would be interesting to help me understand my grandmother who spoke Yiddish,” Maeder said. “The professors really care about student interests, and five students wanted to take biblical Hebrew. So our professors created the class, and we took it. At the end, we were still interested, so we just kept on taking it.”

She ended up studying the subject, in addition to modern Yiddish, for two years.

Anderson believes studying a foreign language particularly helps connect Trinity students coming from different backgrounds and cultures.

“We must understand the history, tradition, and context before interpreting meaning in a different language,” he said. “As humans we are always involved in expressing and interpreting and making meaning. The liberal arts help us understand the ‘meaning-making’ aspect of our existence; the humanities provide powerful tools for thinking critically about these questions.”

But What About Jobs?

Starting in late 2007, the United States experienced an 18-month recession, the longest since World War II. During this time, the question of return on investment plagued higher education: is college still worth the expense?

For liberal arts degrees, the skepticism was even greater—the lack of a defined career path caused parents, students, and legislators to question the viability of a liberal arts education in working America. Graduates want to know they’ll find a job.

The problem with this way of thinking, as Trinity has appreciated for decades, is that focusing on a certain career can limit students to that singular path, preventing them from adapting easily to a fluctuating economic world. Technology changes rapidly, and specific techniques could already be outdated by the time a student enters the job market.

Instead, liberal arts and sciences professors aim to prepare the “whole student” for life beyond the university. The goals—to read and write at the highest levels, work collaboratively with people of all cultures and backgrounds, and think critically about complex societal issues—are transferable skills that span numerous careers and fields.

“The world is broader than just a narrow group of three or four careers a student might want to pursue,” Anderson said. “There’s openness at Trinity to help students be part of a changing world. They could find a field calling to them that they might not realize from the beginning.”

But will a liberal arts student find a good job after graduation?

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The answer is yes, according to a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)1 in 2014. The report used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reveal employment outcomes of college graduates throughout their working lives. And not only do arts and humanities majors find jobs after graduation, they also have a higher likelihood of thriving at work and in their personal lives.

As many as 40 percent1 of baccalaureate degree holders work in a profession unrelated to their major field of study. In fact, most employers believe an undergraduate major isn’t the determining factor of success in the work place.

Instead, more than 90 percent1 of employers agreed that critical thinking, effective communication, and the ability to solve complex problems were more important than an employee’s major. The AAC&U report notes that liberal arts graduates tend to be more focused on these types of transferable skills and are better prepared to succeed in an unpredictable job market where flexibility is crucial.

Of the students that Trinity sent to medical or dental school from 2010-2015, more than 13 percent were humanities majors, illustrating that a liberal arts degree doesn’t deny a student passage into any career field. Additionally, 8 percent of Trinity students go on to earn a doctoral degree, the second highest percentage in Texas behind Rice University.

Graduates who felt supported in college also tended to have higher measures of overall well-being. The report notes that these students2:

  • Had a mentor—like Kerner’s academic adviser, Spanish professor Arturo Madrid, who provided direction and advice not only for her years at Trinity, but also for any career situation.

  • Had a professor who made them excited about learning—like writing workshop English professor Victoria Aarons, who presented a challenge that Roos took great pride in accepting and accomplishing.

  • Believed that professors cared about them as a person—like Cook, who invited King for dinner at his home.

  • Felt prepared for life beyond college through participation in experiential learning—like Shockey, who helped pass the University’s Open Access policy and now works to promote Open Access on a national scale.

The Spirit of Trinity

While the curriculum will continue to evolve as the world progresses and as new students arrive and make Trinity their own, the essence of the University will never change.

Faculty will continue to engage students with the most current research and technological advances. Programs will still empower students to do things they’ve never imagined. The University will uphold its commitment to the shared values of discovery, excellence and community. And Trinity will always encourage everyone within its red brick walls to consider the impact that their knowledge can have on the world around them.

“Trinity honors and embodies the very best of the liberal arts and sciences tradition and blends it with what we need in the 21st century,” Anderson said. “Students are imagining the future they want to live in and preparing to be innovative about the ways they will contribute. They have the foundation and confidence to be creative. Those are key features that characterize the Trinity experience.”

Ashley Festa is a higher education freelance writer. Visit her online at www.ashleyfesta.com.

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