It is with mixed emotions that I begin this column because it is the final one I will write for Insight. After more than 29 years at the University of Oklahoma Outreachcls. and 16 years as dean of the College of Liberal Studies, I have decided to retire. I have enjoyed a long career in higher education, one that has been characterized by tremendous change and invigorating opportunities to play a role in the transformation of adult learners. In my retirement years, I look forward to continuing to contribute to the field of lifelong learning, but I thought it might be useful here to reflect on the past several years I have had the opportunity to serve as your dean.
The College of Liberal Studies has come a long way in the twenty-first century. What began as a fledgling program with a handful of students in the early 1960s has grown significantly to nearly 2,000 students and the fourth-largest college on the Norman campus. The initial programs were face-to-face. Today, virtually all of the students work toward their CLS undergraduate and graduate degrees fully online.
In these days of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and educational programs accessible by mobile devices, it is easy to forget how recently such technology came about. In fact, online education is the new normal—so much so that we tend to take it for granted. But it hasn’t been around all that long at OU. In 1998, under Dean George Henderson, CLS became the first OU college to offer approved online courses. Four years later, we were the first college on this campus to offer 100 percent online degree programs.
Why is this significant? It is no secret that a changing economy and financial challenges have transformed colleges and universities in this nation. Fewer than half of all full-time college students complete undergraduate degrees in four years. Moreover, nearly half of those enrolled in higher education today are so-called “nontraditional” students. These students have been forced to pursue a college education later and while working in full- or part-time jobs and/or assuming family responsibilities. In such an environment, students often choose online education because of its convenience, flexibility and, sometimes, lower cost.
At CLS, we take our responsibility for students very seriously. We are pleased that our online offerings are meeting these students’ educational needs.
From just a few degree programs offered in the 1980s, CLS now offers 10 undergraduate and graduate degree programs for working adults and other nontraditional students. New degrees are helping students pursue fields that are important in the twenty-first century. With these degrees our students become more competitive participants in the global economy and more valuable to employers. At the same time, they experience an interdisciplinary curriculum that makes them well-rounded citizens. The newest CLS degree program offerings include:
In addition, graduate certificates in Administrative Leadership, Corrections Management and Restorative Justice have been developed.
In 2007, we hired the first full-time faculty members in CLS. Today, we have eight full-time faculty members in the college. Each of them exemplifies a strong scholarly background, including a rich variety of experience in the “real world,” a commitment to ensure the rigor of the curriculum and an appreciation for and dedication to our nontraditional students. In fact, the growth of our degree programs is a testament to the academic strengths of our faculty.
Here are just a few recent accomplishments of our faculty:
Robert Edmondson (Interdisciplinary Studies) presented “Colonial Complicity, Critical Reinventions and Disciplinary Transgressions of Anthropology since 1965” at the 2016 conference of the AGLSP.
Steve Gullberg (Interdisciplinary Studies), recipient of CLS’s Superior Teaching Award in 2014, has presented before the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution in the United Kingdom, the University of Rome and the University of Malta. His article on “The Babylonian Astronomical Diaries” appeared in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry this year.
Paul Ketchum (Criminal Justice) led a research team in a study of minority representation in the state’s juvenile justice system. Their study was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs and the State Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Nina Livesey (Interdisciplinary Studies) is a frequent conference presenter and the author of numerous articles and two monographs, the most recent being Galatians and the Rhetoric of Crisis (2016).
Todd Wuestewald (Criminal Justice) received CLS’s Rufus G. Hall Outstanding Professor Award in 2014. In addition, his scholarly work has appeared in Adult Learning and elsewhere, and he has presented to the 75th Annual FBI National Academy Associates Training Conference and at other conferences.
Over the past few years, the college has been recognized with several notable rankings. Among these include Best Online Bachelor’s Degree Program—#30 (U.S. News & World Report), Most Affordable Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs for In-state Students—#10 (U.S. News & World Report), Best Criminal Justice Program—#6 (BestColleges.com), CLS Criminal Justice as Best Overall Value (CollegeValuesOnline.com), Lifespan Care Administration Bachelor’s Program—#6 (SuperScholar.org) and Top School (Military Advanced Education and Transition Magazine).
These rankings underscore that CLS degree programs provide substantive content to our students and that they are a very good deal. In a time when there are many educational programs to choose from and an economic environment that makes it increasingly more financially challenging to complete a degree, it is reassuring that our students can rely on our college’s programs to equip them in the workplace and can also provide real value at the same time.
The marketing of these CLS degrees has changed tremendously as well. Technological changes, budget cuts and greater competition have all influenced how we reach potential students. While we continue to employ extensive branding campaigns through traditional advertising on television, radio and billboards, our latest marketing efforts demonstrate that times have changed. From the early days of information presentations at local libraries and education fairs, printed publications and word-of-mouth recommendations, we have transitioned to establishing an online presence, engaging in digital advertising, incorporating social media like Facebook and Twitter and strengthening our brand. While elements of earlier promotional activities are still part of the mix (e.g., presentations before groups and representation at education fairs and conferences), our approach today is calculated and targeted and we rely more on a well-maintained website, online marketing and strategic partnerships.
As examples, our alumni publication, Insight, has grown from a modest faculty newsletter to both an award-winning magazine (also available on the CLS website) and an online blog that we use to provide updates to students and resources to help them succeed; the direct mail inserts and print advertisements of the past have morphed into pre-roll videos on Pandora and other sites; memos with college announcements and reminders have been replaced by posts on Facebook and Twitter; and student interaction that used to occur at gatherings in libraries now happens online in our Virtual Student Union Facebook group. All of these new strategies have helped us reach students and potential students where they are.
A college that offers online degrees to students literally all over the world is challenged to create a sense of community among its student body. Formally, we have tried to enrich the community experience through our spring and fall convocations, which are among the best experiences I have enjoyed as an administrator. But on an informal basis, we have now established an annual tradition of the Tailgate event, held typically just prior to a home football game. This is a fun activity with good food, prize drawings and infectious high spirits. This past year, we participated in the Deans’ Challenge, where OU colleges, in cooperation with the Athletic Department, offered free women’s basketball game tickets to their students. Before the OU-Iowa State game in February, we attracted more than 130 students and family members to a pre-game lunch. The college’s students were loud supporters of Sherri Coale’s team and added to the terrific competitive environment in the Lloyd Noble Arena.
It doesn’t surprise me that our students are bright, engaged and devoted to their education. Rather, it reminds me of one of the reasons I decided to become a higher education administrator. Nontraditional learners are disciplined, self-motivated and committed to lifelong learning. They are in the classroom (whether an actual one or a virtual one) because they want to be there, and they are very determined in their goal: to complete a college degree. To hear their testimonials each year at convocation and elsewhere is a moving experience for all of us in higher education, and they are what keeps us engaged in the field of lifelong learning. Thank you, students, for your dedication and commitment and for the quality that you bring to our programs. We are very proud of you!
It has been my great pleasure to lead the College of Liberal Studies into the twenty-first century. I am confident that the college will continue to thrive in an environment where more and more working adults are seeking educational opportunities they cannot find from traditional academic programs.
James P. Pappas, Ph.D.
This post originally appeared in the Winter issue of Insight magazine, published in December 2016.