Justifying Arts Programs on Campus

Last month I had the pleasure of joining some fantastic colleagues from across the country at the University of Michigan for the annual meeting of Arts Administrators in Higher Education (AAHE).  I am proud to be a member of this organization and am constantly impressed at the creative ways in which my colleagues accomplish their goals.  Most of our jobs are very different.  The thing that unifies us is a core mission of engaging  students in the arts.  Most of us are under resourced, including staff, finances, and facilities.  Because of that, we frequently find ourselves brainstorming ways to justify or bolster support for our programs.  In fact, at most meetings we include a session with a “top administrator” usually with the stated or unstated goal of finding out what convinces them to invest resources and to what extent they value the arts.  We want to learn their language to be able to effectively frame our argument, and we generally learn a great deal; though I would posit that we are learning more about that particular administrator than we are about how to “justify” our own programs.  Lately, I have found that I can better serve my programs by improving my ability to articulate our own particular story and value at Penn.

One thing that a number of AAHE members have in common is a recent or renewed focus on assessment.  That focus offers us a unique opportunity gather data that tells our story, from our perspective.  In developing an effective assessment tool, we have to construct clear goals, objectives and learning outcomes for our programs.  I have found it particularly useful to be able to articulate what specifically our programs offer Penn students in relation to the mission of the University. I have grown to greatly appreciate the clarity.  Here are the goals of my program – University Life Arts Initiatives – “Our programs offer creative outlets, leadership opportunities, career training and social activity through workshops, performances and service opportunities that allow students to experience, create, and manage the arts.”  Going through this process of clarifying goals and learning outcomes (along with having a few years under my belt) has revealed a few other things that I have found useful in this ongoing dialogue of defending or lobbying for arts programs.  Some might seem obvious, but here you go.

  • There is a demand for our programs  –  Whether we formally provide resources or not, our students will create.  They will dance, sing, draw, act, write and sculpt, and they will find ways to do it.  They will organize and plan and find resources.  They will do this because their artistic life is important to them, regardless of their career plans.  It behooves us to work to support that creative and entrepreneurial spirit when possible.
  • Students are our best advocates – Frequently student voices are more readily heard than those of us lower to mid-level administrators (a sometimes harsh reality).  Student government leaders, class presidents and student coalition leaders have regular meetings with Presidents and Provosts.  Working with students interested in the arts to develop reasonable, clear talking points that they can share with other student leaders has been very effective.
  • We have partners everywhere – We all know that collaborative programs aren’t always the easiest to manage, but when faculty and fellow staff (housing, alumni relations, student affairs, advising, admissions and more) recognize how our programs fit the educational mission of the university and add value to their programs, they are more than willing to advocate and defend.
  • Bullet Train – There is a great deal of talk these days about creativity (Google it), particularly in the realm of education.  Don’t we all want to produce creative thinkers?  And while there are many ways to foster creativity, to quote one of those colleagues from AAHE, Debra Mexicotte (she may be quoting someone else) “The arts are a bullet train to creativity.”

Thankfully, other people are recognizing the value of arts programs on campus.  In the last several months the Mellon Foundation has granted millions of dollars to a variety of universities (MIT, UNC, UMICH to name a few) to research, enhance and expand the role of the arts on their campuses, particularly across the curriculum.  I hope to not find myself feeling again, like I must “justify” arts programs at Penn.  I would much rather be well positioned to participate in the kind of big picture thinking that the Mellon Foundation is supporting.

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One Response

  1. Hi folks. I really want to hear from you. Please leave comments. Let’s have a dialogue!

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