Westmont’s new programs: what they mean for the liberal arts

Gaede+Institute+for+the+LIberal+Arts+office

Siena Keck, The Horizon

Gaede Institute for the LIberal Arts office

Willow Martin and Chloe White

In recent months, Westmont has made key developments in new programs, such as the nursing and engineering programs. Due to their technical or post-graduate nature, these programs look different from many majors offered on campus and may have implications for Westmont’s liberal arts focus. 

In contrast with a vocational or technical course of study, the liberal arts is often defined as a broad-reaching agenda including coursework in the natural sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities. Westmont’s current investments point toward plans to expand and develop off-campus and certification programs, which offer training in specialized areas outside the traditional liberal arts umbrella. This possible shift in direction brings up questions about Westmont’s future as a long-standing, liberal arts institution. 

Westmont recently purchased a new building for over seven million dollars in downtown Santa Barbara to house future certificate programs while completely renovating another downtown building to host the Accelerated Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program. The intent of the nursing program is to award a second bachelor’s degree to students who have a bachelor’s degree in a different major.

Some longtime members of the Westmont community view the college’s new focus on post-baccalaureate, off-campus programs skeptically. Dr. VanderMey, a professor of English at Westmont who has spent “a lifetime in academia [and] 42 years at the professional level devoted to the cause of liberal arts education,” said, “I want Westmont always to be led by its historic mission as a residential, undergraduate, Christian liberal arts college. Without that mission, it might be able to survive, but there would be no special need for it, and the world would not greatly miss it if it disappeared. I don’t want the development of programs ever to happen just because ‘the money was there.’”

Rick Ostrander, director of the Westmont Downtown program and assistant to the president for global education, innovation and new program development, explained that the development of programs that may pose a perceived threat to the liberal arts are a long way off. “​​We’re exploring a possible post-baccalaureate certificate program, but there’s nothing close to fruition at this point,” he commented. “It’s all in the brainstorming stages. Westmont is not shifting away from traditional liberal arts programs.” 

President Gayle Beebe is also confident that the developments off-campus do not mark a shift away from Westmont’s liberal arts roots. “Both [Westmont’s] nursing and engineering [programs] are extremely unique forms of nursing and engineering because they’re embedded in the liberal arts,” said Beebe. The high unit count for the engineering program in particular indicates that students must take all general education courses and an engineering-specific course called Engineering and the Liberal Arts in addition to major requirements. 

For Beebe, these programs signify Westmont’s ability to adapt to the ever-changing world and rethink the meaning of a present-day Christian liberal arts education. Through these programs, Beebe claimed that Westmont “is trying to move where culture and society are anxious for people with more expertise.” He continued, “Engineering and nursing are at least two of those areas.” 

It ultimately comes down to value, according to Dr. Jensen, the founding professor for the engineering program. Jensen makes a distinction between what he calls soft skills and hard skills. “The Christian liberal arts foundation that the engineering students get prepares them to be able to think well and communicate well in a variety of areas that engineers sometimes call the soft skills.”

According to Jensen, these soft skills are becoming increasingly valuable and desirable to employers. “The industry is begging schools to give them students who are not only confident technically, but have the ability to engage with everything from social issues to having a relevant conversation and can grasp the role of religion and politics and gender and ethnicity.”

Ostrander pointed to a shift in vocational demand as the impetus behind an increase in off-campus programs. He said, “As a tuition-driven institution, Westmont needs to adapt to these changing forces … Westmont is a Christian college that seeks to bring a redemptive influence to the world. Society needs Christian, liberally educated nurses and engineers, and Westmont is ideally positioned to produce graduates who can become leaders in these important professions.”

The idea that Westmont must adapt its programs based on funding concerns some. “Costs are high and students are few,” said Dr. Hoeckley, director of the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts. Per Westmont’s conditional use agreement, Westmont is not allowed to grow beyond 1,200 students on the Montecito campus. While this cap creates an intimate student experience, the limitation places a financial burden on Westmont. 

“We have to address these issues — high costs, few students — without losing our Christian liberal arts identity. That’s going to take some creativity, so look for some experiments to be cropping up in the coming years — like the downtown nursing program. Some will work, some won’t. Some will raise eyebrows, some will be risky. That’s the nature of innovation,” said Hoeckley. 

Another concern raised by VanderMey is that “over time the institution will rationalize siphoning off its resources in times of hardship from programs such as language study, literature and philosophy, music, mathematics and theology … The burden of such calculations will fall ultimately on the president and board of trustees whose job it is to insure the vitality and healthy direction of the institution. Faculty, however, do not always know what the president and board members are thinking.” 

If cutting funding from humanities and other liberal arts programs is in the cards for Westmont, it has not happened yet. President Beebe spoke to these concerns and stated that the funding for these programs thus far has been provided through partnerships and donations. He said of the nursing program, “The generosity of donors who love Cottage [Hospital] and who love us really made it work. We essentially raised $10 million in startup capital to buy the building, renovate it, fund all of the new positions … And all of it came out of gift income, none of it came from tuition.”

As efforts are made towards further developing these types of programs, Hoeckley reminded the community, “The core on-campus Christian liberal arts experience is — by and large — a treasure, and we mess with that at our peril.”

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