Navigating Change in the Liberal Arts
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Navigating Change in the Liberal Arts

A global commerce major that strengthens the liberal arts at Denison University

By Karen E. Spierling

June 11, 2021

Seven years ago, when Denison University’s new president invited proposals for academic programs that would spark the interest of twenty-first-century students, many faculty members feared that “new” meant “selling out” to calls for more professional programs. Enthusiasm and anxiety ran high.

The push to update—or sweep aside—liberal arts and humanities disciplines in favor of professional programs predates the current COVID crises, with many examples of college leaders who chose to heed calls for more “job training,” “professionalization,” and “hard skills.”

But Denison’s faculty, administrators, and board members intentionally chose not to start a traditional professional major or insert business classes—such as marketing or supply chain logistics—into our curriculum. Instead, we created something entirely new: a global commerce major that would not only preserve the liberal arts at Denison but strengthen them by explicitly integrating curricular and cocurricular learning with a focus on global challenges and students’ future careers.

Now at the end of the program’s fifth year, we just graduated our third cohort of seniors and have two hundred declared majors (at a school of 2,300 students). Building a program that combines curricular innovation with commitment to the core values of the liberal arts required persistence, negotiation, risk taking, and support from across and beyond campus. Below, I share key lessons that can provide a starting point for navigating changes in similar programs at your institution.

Use What You Already Have

As AAC&U’s recent employer research demonstrates, a well-rounded liberal education already provides students with many of the skills they need to succeed in professional careers. Many of our colleges and universities don’t need entirely new curricula, but we do need to be more assertive about the value of what we’re already teaching.

The global commerce major requires students to take sixteen courses, only five of which were newly created for this major. Global commerce students take courses across campus in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Many of them minor and double major in disciplines such as history, anthropology, economics, and modern languages. By drawing from existing resources, we have avoided placing unreasonable staffing and scheduling burdens on other departments. Some required courses like ECON 101, ECON 102, and MATH 120 are classes that many students on campus already take, regardless of their major, and their departments were able to easily absorb the influx of students from a new major. For their “global focus,” students choose from a variety of courses in disciplines ranging from history and religion to environmental studies and anthropology.

Embrace the Unknown

All of the newly created global commerce courses were experimental. When campus faculty approved the major, we had only a general idea of what new courses like Commerce and Society, Elements of Commerce, Global Financial Markets, and the senior capstone (with varying themes) might look like. We found few examples of similar programs at Denison or elsewhere that we could use as templates. Over the last five years, we have created, assessed, revised, and continue to tweak these courses to develop our vision for the major. Sometimes this process has been terrifying, but waiting until we knew exactly what every course would look like may have meant abandoning the whole project.

Focus on Deep Learning and Skills Training

The “professionalization” skills that many prospective students (and their parents) desire can range from Excel proficiency to marketing training or networking skills. While devoting entire courses to these traditional business topics might seem like selling out our liberal arts principles, disregarding student interest in these topics—and the real value of some of these skills—is not productive.

The global commerce program created a system to integrate cocurricular programming within the major to offer both deep learning and skills training. The program’s associate director designs cocurricular events such as Excel and supply chain workshops, an executive speaker series, and a London capstone trip to connect with students’ learning in their courses. She consults with students regarding their study abroad plans and advises them in their searches for summer internships, either of which can meet the major’s requirement of an “off-campus experience.”

With the support of cocurricular programs, our students have plentiful opportunities to develop their interpersonal skills, network with professionals beyond campus, and familiarize themselves with tools such as Excel outside of the classroom. This allows faculty to devote course time to deeper learning, discussion, and critical thinking, asking students to apply their skills—such as using Excel to visualize data—for the purpose of analyzing evidence and making arguments.

Shape Your Message and Communicate Thoughtfully

Even when it is carefully designed to build upon the existing strengths of a campus, a new program requires financial resources and the vocal support of faculty and university leaders. When facing scrutiny across campus and beyond, it is crucial to take the time to shape your message and communicate your ideas carefully.

Building faculty support for the global commerce major required diplomacy, transparency, and a willingness to provide support to smaller programs whenever we were able. Creating a program with integrated curricular and cocurricular programming requires interpersonal communication within the program and across campus that actively demonstrates that faculty and administrative staff are peer colleagues, equally experts in different aspects of higher education. Similarly, partnering with university leadership required listening carefully, making our case persuasively, and reading the room effectively, even when it was a room we were not accustomed to being in.

With the commitment of faculty willing to try new things, take some risks, and work hard to build strong communication channels, programs like the global commerce major offer students a twenty-first-century incarnation of the liberal arts. After Denison, our students are landing positions in fields ranging from consulting and finance to nonprofits and graduate school. By learning to think critically about how social, cultural, and economic dynamics shape global trade and business, Denison students can succeed in the shifting professional world and be forces for positive change as they build their careers.


  • Karen E. Spierling

    Karen E. Spierling is director of the global commerce program, professor of history, and Inaugural John and Heath Faraci Endowed Professor at Denison University.