College of Liberal Arts has a great story to tell

BY GUEST COLUMN | JUNE 20, 2012 6:30 AM

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As the dean of the College of Dentistry at the University of Iowa, I value what professional schools teach, and I value the way they prepare students to assume vital professional positions throughout Iowa and throughout the world. But for the past half year, I have headed the search for the new dean of the University of Iowa's one "non-professional" college, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We are delighted that Chaden Djalali has been chosen as dean. He is already showing his eagerness to get started.

This experience has reaffirmed something I have always known but now feel more strongly than ever: Our liberal-arts school has a great story to tell. The value of the college is immeasurable to individual students, the rest of the university, the state, and the wider academic world.

This college is in fact the very foundation of the university, and the kind of work that it does defines us as a civilization and prepares us to be productive members of that civilization.

To find out what liberal arts graduates emerge with that "counts," a chat with accomplished graduates is insightful, starting with the school's Advisory Board — some of the university's most accomplished and worldly alums. At a recent reception for this group, I asked a number of these alums a simple question: "What skills and qualities did you learn in [liberal arts] that contributed to your success?"

Among the variety of responses were "inquisitiveness," "resourcefulness," "team problem solving," "respect for numerous perspectives," "critical thinking," "communication," "an ability to process large amounts of information and articulate the results clearly and concisely."

As a dean of a professional school, I recognized these qualities as exactly the ones we are looking for in our own students. Sure, we teach a lot of specific information, but half of what we teach will be out of date in five years, and we don't always know which half. So the skill that is truly needed is the ability to be resourceful, to keep questioning and learning, to be able to adapt what you learn today and apply it to the unexpected conditions of tomorrow.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the liberal-arts school is its culture of curiosity and openness. This culture of endless inquiry crosses and binds the realms of teaching and scholarship. The culture of openness means not only an openness to wildly divergent ideas, but at Iowa, it means that undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty interact in courses, projects, and individually mentored activities.

Education in liberal arts is not a one-way street, from professor to student, but a rich and open exchange among learners at different stages of expertise.

It is hard to describe just how transformative and exciting active mentoring from a world-class faculty can be. This is the unique atmosphere created by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and it is essential that we preserve and develop this place of intellectual vibrancy for Iowa's current and future generations.

For many years at university deans' meetings, Dean Linda Maxson has beamed with pride as she has described the impressive achievements of her faculty, students, staff, and alumni.

UI President Sally Mason has pointed out the intellectual and economic impact of this great university. During the recent dean search, it became clear that it was the caliber of the people — their intellects and their collegiality — that made Iowa such an attractive place to study or to develop a career.

So as we get behind Dean Chaden Djalali, we have many formidable assets to build on.

David Johnsen
dean of UI College of Dentistry

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