Former UW System President Reilly writes ‘A Wake-Up Call’ in defense of the liberal arts

Former UW System President Kevin Reilly is the author of an article published in the September/October 2021 issue of Trusteeship magazine that is titled, “A Wake-Up Call.”

Photo of Kevin Reilly

Reilly holds an appointment as a Regent Professor with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. He also is a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

In his article, Reilly argues that the national conversation about the purpose of higher education has gone “dangerously off track.”

He writes: “We are emphasizing the importance of vocational and technical training at the expense of ensuring our graduates can look beyond themselves and their jobs to make evidence-based sense of the challenges facing their country and the world, can develop an eye for the future based on an understanding of the past.”

“Our students have listened to the tenor of this conversation and made choices about their areas of concentrated study accordingly,” Reilly adds. “Our institutions have listened as well and, often under pressure from funders, have focused more of their research agendas on immediate practical applications rather than longer-term major discoveries.”

Reilly affirms he is not saying that universities should not prepare students for jobs and careers. However, he writes, “Let’s reaffirm at the same time that it is our commitment to prepare them for a rich, full life in a diverse American democracy increasingly intertwined with nations around the globe.”

Reilly calls on college and university trustees to use their significant influence to support the “reaffirmation of their campuses’ core mission,” and likewise, to “push the wider society to get behind it.”

Reilly offers six suggestions for trustees, including backing efforts to reinvigorate liberal arts and sciences majors, reviewing general education requirements, speaking publicly about the value of a liberal arts education, and supporting basic research.

Trusteeship magazine, published by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, reports trends, issues, and practices in higher education to help board members and chief executives better understand their distinctive and complementary roles and to strengthen board performance.

Read the full article.