Liberal arts ads irk free-thinkers

February 19, 1999


Rather than bemoan a continuing decline in enrolment in the liberal arts, the college of arts and sciences at Indiana University did something about it: it advertised.

The college tried luring incoming students away from the university's popular pre-professional programmes with colourful advertisements on campus shuttle buses, in newspapers and on posters. Designed by an alumnus who is a partner in an advertising agency, they said: "Major in Arts and Sciences: Think for a Living" and "Okay, then. Follow your dreams in your next life".

Steve Sanders, spokesman for the college, said: "We wanted to attempt to counter what we believe are misperceptions about the value and relevancy of a liberal arts degree."

The college was also trying to reverse a slide in enrolment of 40 per cent between 1990 and 1997. The drop echoes a national decline in liberal arts enrolment, which is losing ground to more vocational forms of study.

Since the university's budget is divided among its various schools, based on the number of credit-hours they teach, the college of arts and sciences has run a deficit of between $1 million and $1.5 million in each of the past three years, and has had to borrow to make ends meet.

But rather than being applauded, the advertising campaign was met with scathing criticism inside and outside the school. Students in other departments complained they were being portrayed as unthinking drones. The college was assailed by academics who sniffed that advertising was "below" it.

"A student who could be convinced to study arts and sciences because of a catchy slogan on a colourful banner would have to be the most weak-minded undergraduate ever admitted" to the university, said Daniel Pollyea, himself an arts and sciences major. "There are obvious financial benefits for the college of arts and sciences to take on more students, but the fine line that once separated the academic world from blatant commercial and financial interests has been irreparably smeared."

Philip Gossett, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, said the ads were slick and funny, but also offensive. "The ads won't fool anyone.

After all, are people who think for a living necessarily going to be happier than their parents?"

Mr Sanders said the advertisements were not meant to suggest that students in other disciplines were not intelligent. "Our goal, I think, was to differentiate between majors that emphasise practical, job-oriented skills, and those in the liberal arts that emphasise communication, problem-solving and other high-level skills. We like to think our graduates are defined not by skills like accounting or playing the flute, but by their abilities to continuously use their intellects.

"The ads were meant to appeal to 18-year-old IU students, not deans at the University of Chicago," Mr Sanders said.

Nonetheless, the campaign has been discontinued, and there is no way to gauge its effectiveness because the students targeted will not choose a major until next year. "We liked the ads and we thought they would be fun," said Mr Sanders. "They were aimed at freshmen when they were first here and sort of impressionable. But one of the shortcomings was there was no way to evaluate it. We didn't have a follow-up plan."

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