Harpur dean candidate: Cynthia Renee McDonald
February 21, 2017Tweet
Demonstrating the value of a liberal arts degree is important for schools such as Harpur College of Arts and Sciences, the second Harpur dean candidate said during an open presentation on Feb. 21.
“Employers know we are doing something right,” Cynthia Renee McDonald of Southern Methodist University said. “They find our graduates desirable. But the perception persists that (liberal arts) degrees are less valuable.
“There is clear evidence that a liberal arts education adds meaningful value – both financially and otherwise – not only in one’s career, but one’s lifetime. If we can demonstrate to students what we are providing and helping them obtain, then our job becomes easier.”
McDonald, a senior associate dean for research and academic affairs at the Dallas university, spoke to Harpur College faculty, staff and students at an hour-long presentation in the University Union. McDonald, who is also a psychology professor at SMU, discussed “the challenges and opportunities facing colleges of arts and sciences in highly selective public research universities in the next decade.” The remaining two dean candidates are scheduled to visit campus on Feb. 24 and Feb. 27.
Instead of simply continuing to defend the liberal arts degree, McDonald suggested that “disarticulating the perceived link between major and vocation” and working with students earlier on career planning are ways to stress the degree’s value.
“This gives students the message that ‘we are going to help you be ready for a job when you graduate. Now go study what you want to study,’” she said.
Another challenge addressed by McDonald was the competition for students among schools also looking to rise in national rankings. She advocated identifying and emphasizing college strengths and Binghamton University’s “competitive distinctiveness” of the Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence and the newly established Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention.
“You have to demonstrate what those distinctive differences are through marketing materials, websites and recruitment activities,” she said. “Potential applicants who contact the school need to know that we have programs that are powerful. The message needs to be consistent, tight and clean.”
With graduate education, McDonald said doctoral programs help “replenish the engine of the university” and are an “important yardstick” by which research institutions are evaluated.
Master’s programs, meanwhile, are an opportunity for growth, as there is great demand, she said.
“The largest group of individuals seeking higher education in our country today is people in the work force who are looking to education as a path to career advancement or career training,” McDonald said.
While institutions should develop flexible programs that meet the demand, McDonald said it is vital not to lose sight of the mission: “High-quality programs that meet a targeted need and produces students who have jobs.”
“Revenue for the sake of revenue is something that is not good for the institution,” she said.
In research, McDonald said that with more competition and less available money and time, it is now more important than ever to support faculty grant pursuits.
“Investing in research is investing in faculty,” she said. “It’s not just the money that is important. One, it’s the hallmark of what that money provides. If you can do something well, you can do it better with more money. Two, funded research is decided upon by the best scientists and researchers in the country. It’s a sign that you are doing quality work.”
McDonald’s final challenge was an issue that she said spans all level of the university: diversity.
“I don’t know of one university that will tell you that it’s where it wants to be,” she said. “This is an issue that requires a lot of careful thought.”
McDonald suggested using social-science research to work on ways to train hiring committees and change social norms to reduce discrimination.
For McDonald, one role of the dean is to be a “support function” for the college. Listening is key, she said.
“My role as dean is to give you a voice at other levels – sideways or upwards,” she told the audience. “I hope to know you well enough to do that effectively, consistently and in a way that is received well by others. The last thing you need is a dean who puts off others.”
McDonald said she relishes administrative work, the collaborative process and fund-raising.
“I enjoy supporting the faculty and students, making their lives easier and helping them feel like the institution values who they are and what they contribute,” she said. “It feels good to do those things.
“On a larger level, (being a dean) is a challenging thing to do. There are many moving parts and so many different areas that you have to have your hands in. But when you can make it click, it’s big.”