William Falls: Liberal arts are alive and well at UVM

This commentary was written by UVM College of Arts and Sciences Dean William A. Falls.

In 2020, University of Vermont’s College of Arts and Sciences was in the throes of a nearly decade-long enrollment decline resulting from profound changes in student interest. We were not alone. Large and small liberal arts colleges across the country were experiencing the same enrollment declines and pressures to evolve. Add the general upheaval from Covid-19, many felt that the liberal arts, long at the heart of Vermont’s flagship university, were in peril.

I’m happy to report that situation didn’t spell the death of the liberal arts at UVM. Instead, we have seen two years of record classes for the college. Last month, we welcomed over 1,500 first-year students, our largest-ever incoming class and the number of students returning for their second year is the highest since 2004. The students joining UVM this fall are also the most academically talented and diverse we’ve seen, and they are coming to the college to study across the entire range of liberal arts majors. Indeed, we received a record number of applications this year for our Liberal Arts Scholars Program, in which students explore the biggest questions faced by humans since antiquity through the lens of the liberal arts.

What brought about this complete reversal in direction? Since 2016, the college has been communicating the value of a liberal arts education, strengthening experiential learning opportunities, and curating its academic offerings to address student interest and maintain the broad span of liberal arts courses. The university has championed the liberal arts and worked hard to provide support, both financial and otherwise, to give the college the opportunity to regain its footing.

And the good news continues. To reinforce our enrollment success and commitment to the breadth of the liberal arts, we have hired 24 new faculty across the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. And we will hire new faculty in anthropology, chemistry, history, sociology, political science and psychological science to join us in fall 2023. 

This fall, we established a School of the Arts that unites the departments of art & art history, music, and theatre & dance under one umbrella. The school raises the profile of the arts on campus and in our community, creates new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, and provides greater opportunities for faculty and students to engage with the local community. Additionally, the departments of geography and geology have combined to become the department of geography and geosciences to create new research and teaching synergies and novel opportunities for study in the geosciences. And the interdisciplinary undergraduate major in environmental studies, with its nearly 500 students, has moved to the College of Arts and Sciences to leverage our environment-focused teaching and research strength to enhance study across the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.

Our resurgence is due, in part, to our investment in the success of our students. We have instituted professional academic advising for our first-year students. In addition, we have developed and expanded our internship program. In fact, in the last 5 years, we have placed our students in nearly 200 different businesses and organizations regionally and grown the participation rate by over 300%. Our Communities of Practice internship program has received national attention — and one of those communities of practice, the Community News Service, was recently awarded a $400,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to assist with the goal of helping to eliminate “news deserts” in our Vermont communities.

Our success is being recognized and supported by our alumni and friends. Doug Smith (UVM ’85) and Stephanie Ellis-Smith have created the Rockhaven Scholarship Fund to support undergraduate students from Vermont with financial need who are pursuing a major in the humanities. David Haber and Robin Edelman, friends of UVM, have established a lectureship fund and scholarship fund for students studying history. These follow on the heels of the very generous gift from Michele and Martin Cohen that established the Cohen Hall for the Integrative Creative Arts, and an anonymous donation of more than $3.5 million to renovate the Recital Hall used by the music program in the School of the Arts, and over $1 million from another anonymous donor to support facilities upgrades across the arts — creating modern practice and gallery spaces, and improving the experience for our community visitors.

Of course, our success in battling back from years of enrollment decline is due in large part to the hard work and resilience of our excellent faculty and our outstanding staff. Our faculty is comprised of award-winning teachers and internationally recognized scholars including winners of many prestigious national and international awards including Fulbright Scholarships, Andrew Carnegie Fellowship and Guggenheim Fellowship. Our faculty are internationally acclaimed artists and authors and winners of major research grants from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. This community of scholars with a singular focus on student success and knowledge creation are the backbone of the liberal arts and of our success.

The liberal arts are alive and well at UVM — and I am proud to share the good news with our community.

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