Opinion Piece: Liberal arts education is more than a first semester elective


In recent years there has been a shift in higher education away from liberal arts education.

Most of this shift appears to be reactionary in nature. Public officials often say how the students of today have to become more specialized in the sciences and other industries if we wish to competitive in a global marketplace, and focusing on liberal arts won’t land us on that competitive field.

“Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities,” Fareed Zakaria, author of “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” writes in The Washington Post.

But gutting liberal arts education is detrimental in a number of ways.

First, the problem with having to make a case for the liberal arts is that no one should have to do so. Making a case places it in competition with STEM fields, which it doesn’t need to be. There can, is and should be the coexistence of liberal arts and the sciences.

Too often a dichotomy emerges in which it is assumed liberal arts education is not necessary or needed in a contemporary workplace, or liberal arts could never work in conjunction with its scientific counterpart.

The concept of liberal arts education is nothing new. First emerging in classical times, having Greek and Roman roots, liberal education was based on grammar, dialectic and rhetoric—known as the Trivium or “three-fold way,” according to Biola University.

Even historically speaking there was a connection between liberal education and the sciences. The Trivium is coupled with the Quadrivium or “four-fold way”—arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy.

So if it worked for the Greeks and Romans what’s changed? Apart from an increasing push on a federal and state level to deemphasize and villainize liberal arts as the bane of a university’s economic struggles, nothing.

A liberal arts education continues to provide a wide variety of practical and intellectual skills which are beneficial to students of all disciplines.

Former president of Berea College, Larry Shinn, lays out some of those skills in a 2014 article in Trusteeship magazine:

¨ Analytical thinking and communicating well in written and oral modes.

¨ Working independently and in team settings.

¨ Applying knowledge and skills in complex problem-solving in an ever more complex and  rapidly changing world.

If you ignore the inherent benefits these skills give you from a humanities perspective then perhaps you can place it in the context of professional skills.

A 2013 survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, found 93 percent of respondents sought a “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.”

And more than 75 percent of respondents wanted potential employees to have emphasis on five key areas including: “critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”

Examining the reasons for the shift away from liberal arts is multi-layered in nature, but I want to focus on a specific part. The shift, in part, has to do with how public sentiment has taken to the term “liberal arts,” not necessarily the content of the education, but the term itself. A recent op-ed in Gallup by Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup, claims putting “liberal and arts together is a branding disaster.”

“It’s time to disconnect the strong value undergirding the liberal arts from the weak words that define them,” he says.

Busteed goes on to argue that the words “liberal” and “arts” fail to resonate in the minds of many Americans and in order to defend the benefits offered by such education we either have to describe “their attributes and arguably essential — and practical — benefits,” give it a new name or no name at all.

So let’s brainstorm some new names: “you’ll need this if you’re not a robot” education, “skills taught are applicable to every job imaginable” education, “no, it’s not all fine arts and opera” education, “you can actually get a job with this easier than you would think” education and the possibilities are endless.

Having to place the benefits of a liberal arts education in the context of job potential and economic benefits is nauseating, no one should have to. Areas such as history, arts, communication, political science and gender studies deserve a place at the table without having to be thought of in terms of a salary.

Besides, even if people aren’t clamoring to hire the interpretive dance majors, employers are clearly hiring not based on a major but based on skills; skills overwhelmingly developed as part of a liberal arts education.

A liberal arts education is not only becoming the way for the future, but it has been the way and can continue to be so.

~ Andrew Henderson, Student



Executive-in-Residence Shares Wisdom with Students


On Tuesday, September 5, Craig Dezern, a WKU alumnus, spoke with Communication students about his career and offered advice for future communication professionals. After a career in journalism, Dezern worked his way up to Vice President of Public Relations and Marketing at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

Dezern shared two key messages with the students. He said that it’s okay to change your career path multiple times. Keep your doors open and be willing to explore new opportunities when they come your way. Dezern also expressed the importance of being a lifelong learner who is willing to adapt to various situations and learn from them. Students were very receptive to his advice.

Eli Hurt, a Corporate and Organizational Communication major conveyed, “It was an awesome opportunity being able to spend time with a professional who has spent time at the top of his field. His presentation touched on everything we were learning in our Advanced Organizational Communication class.”


Dezern also discussed some of the projects he completed for Disney. One of his most challenging and exciting assignments was the startup of the Shanghai Disney Park. He learned the centrality of culture, while translating an American theme park for Chinese customers.

Dezern recently accepted a new position with Hilton as the Vice President of Brand Communications in Washington, D.

The Communication Department’s Executive-in-Residence program takes place every fall. For more information and a schedule of events visit the department website at https://www.wku.edu/communication/.

~  Colleen Coomes, Student

Special Topics Course Focuses on the Future of Work in Kentucky


In the Spring of 2018, a new class, Futures of Communication (COMM 400), will be available to students within the Department of Communication. Students from the department are being recruited for the course based on their personal academic achievement, innovative orientation, and creativity.

According to Ken Payne, Public Relations professor, “Futures of Communication will be the first chance for students from our five different disciplines to come together to bring their expertise to the table.”

Payne and Sam Ford, alumnus of the department, will team teach the course where students will explore the history of work and economic development in Kentucky, the current state of the economy, and potential visions for the future. Students will work in interdisciplinary groups to create communication campaigns promoting a positive image of the future of work, such as coal miners who code, in Kentucky in 2040.

The course will address these key questions:

¨ How are we thinking about the future of the economy in our state?

¨ To what degree does communication play a role in helping shape what that future could be, and becomes?

¨ How do we think about what each of the areas of the Department of Communication has to offer in addressing that question?

Ford stated, “I’m excited to work with a few students from each of the majors of this department in a collaborative space, where we learn from each other, imagine the future of these fields, and think about what happens when the expertise of these various programs are combined. I think it will provide a unique learning opportunity for students and the sort of project that will be a great portfolio-builder for them as they pursue what comes next in their career after graduating.”

If you would like more information on the course please contact Ken Payne at ken.payne@wku.edu or Sam Ford at samford@mit.edu.

~ Eli Hurt, Student


Message to the Undeclared Student

Dear Undeclared Student,

At this point in your life, you might be thinking, “How did I make it to college unable to pick a major?” All your friends seem to know what they’re doing, so you should too, right? After spending the majority of your life in school, you might have thought that choosing what you want to do with the rest of your life would have been a little easier and less stressful. Allow me to let you in on a little secret: it’s ok to not know what to do.

When I began my journey at WKU, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I experienced many of the feelings you probably have – uncertainty, frustration, anxiety – all while my friends seemed to know exactly what they wanted. After talking with advisers and faculty however, my view began to change. They told me that, as a freshman, not knowing what major to pick was in some ways even better than being declared. I was able to choose any path I wanted and explore some of the colleges within the university.

Still not completely sure what I wanted, I came across the Department of Communication after taking COMM 145. I had an interest in the subject, and I knew I didn’t want a simple desk job. I also really enjoy interacting with people, so after looking into it further, I discovered it was something I might want to do.

key_ undeclared

One of the things that attracted me to this department was the wide variety of jobs offered for someone with a communication degree. Occupations such as management, public relations, sales and training are just a few that caught my attention. The range of opportunities seemed perfect for someone who was unsure of a specific career or industry path they wanted to follow in the future. In the end, with the help of teachers and advisers, I was able to narrow down the choice of a dual-degree in Corporate and Organizational Communication and Spanish.

With this degree I could go anywhere and obtain a job with a variety of different companies. Marketing, public relations and even healthcare are among the many fields that I could choose from. I could even try out politics, or work with non-profit organizations. Wherever I end up, I know I will be prepared to take on any new challenge.

If you are currently undeclared and looking to try on a new major, I would highly recommend looking into the Department of Communication. The teachers and staff here prepare you well for the work you will be doing in the future, whatever that may hold. And with an expanded program including Public Relations and Advertising, there are even more possibilities to choose from! Sometimes not knowing can be the best thing, and when you do finally figure it out, you realize you hold the key to success.

To learn more about the Department of Communication stop by the Fine Arts Center, room 130, or contact the department head, Dr. Sterk, at helen.sterk@wku.edu.

~ Peter Vawryk, Student


President Caboni Addresses the Communication Department


Midway into the Fall 2017 semester, WKU President Tim Caboni, who earned his M.A. in Organizational Communication at WKU, met with Communication faculty members and students to discuss his vision and aspirations for the university. He prided the university on being a “student-centered research university” and hopes to continue capitalizing on this strength throughout his leadership tenure.

The President discussed areas for improvement and quipped, “Running an organization is like boiling a frog, you don’t want anyone to notice any change has happened.” That said, he plans to focus the university’s efforts on the retention of students, with an emphasis on students of color. To help first-year students get to their second year, he has plans to lower the cost of school. In conjunction with that, he plans to be more honest and upfront about education costs with prospective students. As the price of tuition and other costs continue to rise, the enrollment numbers of four-year universities will decrease as students seek to complete the first two years at community colleges. Caboni said students starting at two-year institutions and finishing at four-year institutions can be the difference of making half a million dollars over their career lifetimes.

Caboni will also focus on recruitment. “WKU has to stand out in some way,” he said. In the eyes of Caboni, WKU already has an edge over some of the biggest and best schools by having full-time professors teach first-year college students.  For freshmen students to have full-time professors teaching their general elective courses who know their names by the fifth week of the semester is special and uncommon among many schools across the nation.

Caboni also took the time to give advice to Communication majors. In discussing the flexibility of the major, he cautioned students not to sell themselves short when searching for jobs.  “The skills and strategies acquired through a communication degree will surprise employers,” he said.

Follow President Caboni’s work on retention and recruitment through the WKU Herald or the President’s personal Twitter account, @caboni.

~ Ben Johnson, Student


Message from Helen Sterk, Department Head – Feb. 20, 2018


Silos, or disciplinary boundaries, are coming down at WKU and Communication is leading the way. New ways of communicating cross boundaries and our department is well-situated to bridge the boundaries.

The future ties face-to-face and mediated communication together. Whether someone studies how communication works or how to create effective messages, knowing how to understand and use communication media platforms will be crucial. From public speaking to websites to social media to video games to animation to dating, educated communicators need to know how theory as well as computer coding create meaning.

July 1, 2017 marked the beginning of the future life of WKU’s Department of Communication! On that day, we welcomed three major programs into the department: Advertising, Popular Culture Studies, and Public Relations. Combined with Communication Studies and Corporate and Organizational Communication, these majors move the department strongly toward the future.

Under the leadership of Dr. Angela Jerome, our new Coordinator of Undergraduate Curriculum, the department revised the Advertising, Communication Studies, Corporate and Organizational Communication, and Public Relations curricula.  Popular Culture Studies was revised last year by its former director, Dr. Anthony Harkins, and his advisory council.

The new programs enable students to take courses across areas to fulfill core and elective requirements and to double major easily, broadening their educations and enhancing their job prospects. As always, students may double major across departments. Now, however, Communication students may double major within the department.

An Ad and Popular Culture double major will gain current content for ad creations. A Communication Studies and PR double major will learn more about both audiences and campaigns. A PR and Corporate and Organizational Communication double major will learn how corporate contexts affect messages.

The revised programs have all been approved up to the Board of Regents and are awaiting their final assent.

Also this year, we are hiring a professor in Digital Communication. We are interviewing three dynamite candidates in late January and early February. Whoever we choose will play a key role in charting our future. The candidates we will interview are dynamic and interested broadly in communication from advertising to gaming to storytelling to 3D image generation. Each one brings a different strength to us. Each one has networks into other disciplines that will energize student learning and opportunity.

I encourage you to support the Department of Communication. You can be part of its future by declaring a major and/or by donating to the department. Just go to https://www.wku.edu/communication/gift_to_comm_dept.php and follow the links!


Alumni Updates

Rachel Byrd—B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2016—Rachel is currently working as a Management Assistant at Enterprise Holdings in Louisville, Kentucky.

Jordan Cofer – B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2015 – Jordan is a Restaurant Manager with Four Star Restaurant Group in Chicago, Illinois.

Carolyn ‘Lorrie’ Coldiron – B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2017 – Lorrie is the owner of LoColdi, Fashion Frenzy, and Buy Fashion 4 You in Lexington, Kentucky.

Robbie Collier—B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2012—Robbie is now a Human Resources Manager for Lowe’s Companies, Inc. in the Nashville, Tennessee area.

Minh Dao – B.A. Communication Studies, 2014 – Minh is currently a Marketing Specialist at English as a Second Language International at WKU in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Austin DeMuth—B.A. Communication Studies, 2016—Austin is a Fulfillment Coordinator at Quest International Users Group in Lexington, Kentucky.

Natalie Gilliam—B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2015—Natalie is a Group Travel Planner for Enterage Management  in Jacksonville, Florida.

Clint Jarboe—B.A. Communication Studies, 2015—Clint is a production worker at General Motors in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Lindsey McClain—B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2003 – Lindsey is the new Assistant Vice President for Business   Development and Marketing for Bowling Green’s American Bank and Trust Company.

MacKenzie (Keaster) Morley – B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2007 –       MacKenzie is a business owner of     Kenzington Alley Boutique in    Huntington, West Virginia.

Chris Nation – M.A. Organizational Communication, 2009 – Chris is the Director of Client Services at QtheAgency in Louisville, Kentucky.  He was named 2015 AAF Hot 10 Award winner, and serves as President of the Young Professionals Association of Louisville (YPAL).

Brian Ohning – B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2005 – Brian is the Director of Sales over North America for NIIT Technologies located in Nashville, Tennessee.

Karen Powell – B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2016 – Karen works as an Associate Client Partner at Gartner in Fort Myers, Florida.

Maggie Shelton – B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2015 – Maggie is currently a Chapter Consultant of Phi Mu National Headquarters out of Peachtree City, Georgia.  She will go on to a graduate assistantship at Texas A&M’s Department of Student Activities, pursuing a master’s degree in Student Affairs in Higher Education.

Ashley Vahrenhold—B.A. Corporate and Organizational Communication, 2016—Ashley is a Wish Coordinator at Make-a-Wish in St. Louis, Missouri.

Alex Wilson—B.A. Corporate & Organizational Communication, 2017—Alex is currently the Director of Communications at Ridgenet Network Group.

Let us know what you are doing. We would to hear from you, too! Send news to Laura Wagoner at laura.wagoner@wku.edu