As dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Rodgers has championed the arts, humanities, and social sciences for 16 years and continues to emphasize their significance in a changing world.

By Colin Bowyer, Communications Manager - June 12, 2024

Oregon State University (OSU) has excelled in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math since its beginnings as Oregon’s land-grant institution in 1868. At OSU and across the country, STEM has become a landing ground for ambitious graduates in an increasingly globally-competitive world. That emphasis has, unfortunately, tended to relegate the arts, humanities, and social sciences to a lesser status.

As an “R1” research university, OSU’s focus on STEM has indeed elevated its research productivity to new heights, but that stature cannot be decoupled from its reliance on the College of LIberal Arts’ diverse, human-centered curriculum developed by CLA faculty and overseen by the vision of Larry Rodgers.

Returning to his faculty position after 16 years as a dean, Larry Rodgers has molded CLA to a college gem residing among OSU’s STEM college partners.

“At the time when Larry arrived,” said Tom McLennan, assistant vice president at the OSU Foundation, “Ed Ray was OSU’s president and, as an economist, he understood the importance of the liberal arts. Of art. Of theater. He believed in and was an advocate for Larry’s vision.”

Rodgers’ accomplishments span far and wide. His continued pursuit of creating a sense of belonging and identity for the liberal arts at a STEM university has helped students both in CLA and in other colleges on campus.

“Arts and sciences have, at universities, always been complementary,” said Rodgers. “Not one as separate from the other, but always working on behalf of students and the larger world hand in hand.”

The importance of liberal arts

The liberal arts approach to education incorporates fields found throughout all of Oregon State University’s colleges, but most importantly, it teaches students to read critically, think broadly, and communicate clearly and effectively across the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Students of CLA are fully equipped to succeed in the classroom and, most importantly, prepared to tackle some of the world's most complex issues. 

That’s exactly why a majority of OSU’s Baccalaureate Core, the curriculum required for all students, is centered in CLA. Informed by natural and social sciences, arts, and the humanities, the curriculum requires students to synthesize ideas and information when evaluating significant, pressing issues facing society. Importantly, the Bacc Core also promotes understanding of interrelationships across disciplines to expand every students' ability to contribute as ethical citizens of an ever-changing world.

“The liberal arts are presented in the national conversation occasionally as beleaguered or as challenged,” states Rodgers. “I would say nothing really could be further from the truth. The liberal arts are really very much about considering human conditions of anything that we’re trying to work through, whether climate science, food insecurity, solutions to global challenges around water or other pressing issues. All of these crises have human dimensions—and both faculty and students will need to comprehend human factors in working toward scientific solutions.”

For students, such courses even inspire them to reflect differently on their own majors, developing a competitive edge and unique insights that lead to innovation in their chosen fields. They also provide students with unique opportunities to explore new passions that shape their life outside of work.

“If the majority of the marching band comes from non-CLA colleges at OSU, like, for example, the College of Engineering,” says Rodgers, “that’s an opportunity for all of those engineering students to become better engineers, because of their broader experiences with how they’re thinking about creativity, performance, or experiences within the context of their music studies.”

“From our perspective,” continues Rodgers, “CLA is enabling a multidisciplinary community of scholars to conduct path-breaking research, shape policy and practice, and train and inspire a diverse new generation of leaders, not only in the arts and humanities, but also across campus.”

In a moment when workforce development and job training dominate national conversations, the benefits of a liberal arts education reframe misconceptions that devalue it as a degree. In 2021, the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that employers have a highly favorable view of a liberal arts education, which provides knowledge and skills that are important for career success. More than half of employers view the skills of a liberal education as “very important” and for college graduates to “possess a range of mindsets and aptitudes to be successful.”

“When students think only in instrumental terms, taking the narrowest pathway to a degree or solution inside an applied area,” says Rodgers, “those are the students who ultimately are insufficiently prepared to solve the fundamental problems in a workplace, and they struggle to navigate the diversity and complexity of the world.”


OSU’s history of providing a liberal arts education

The liberal arts have a long history at OSU that goes all the way back to the university’s roots, when Corvallis College, established in 1865, began offering a four-year, collegiate liberal arts curriculum. After World War II, College President A.L. Strand pushed to re-emphasize the liberal arts, and in 1959, majors in humanities and the social sciences were offered for the first time. In 1973, the school became the College of Liberal Arts. It included the humanities, social sciences and the fine and performing arts.

Today, the college remains the cornerstone of the university, encompassing seven distinct schools with the second largest student enrollment of any college, including one of the most diverse student populations on campus. The College of Liberal Arts curriculum developed by the college’s nationally and internationally-renowned faculty prepares students to approach the complex problems of the world ethically and thoughtfully, contributing to a student's academic foundation and helping to build real-world skills for a 21st century career and a purposeful life.

CLA’s new strategic plan and interdisciplinary programs

Guided by a new Strategic Plan, the college has opened a new frontier of interdisciplinary studies, folding in the natural sciences into arts and humanities and vice versa. A shining example of the college’s foresight in creating interdisciplinary degree programs is the new Marine Studies (MAST) undergraduate major and minor through Ecampus.

Building on OSU’s distinctive location near the Oregon coastline, MAST explores the dynamic relationship between humans and the marine environment and coastal ecosystems, infusing  course work from the social sciences, arts, and humanities, as well as traditional marine science classes. MAST students learn all about the history and philosophy of the seas, how oceans and coasts inspire us creatively and spiritually, and how we shape marine policies.

Through his tenure, Rodgers has been a steadfast advocate, encouraging the development of interdisciplinary programs and research opportunities that have embraced the strengths and excellence of the colleges across OSU—bringing CLA to the forefront of groundbreaking and collaborative efforts.

“Over the years, I’ve made it my mission to help people understand that many of the world’s biggest problems are not solely addressed by technological or scientific solutions, but, at the end of the day, these are most often human problems, even when they have a technological or a scientific component,” shares Rodgers. “That’s exactly why the  humanities and social sciences need to be in the room at every possible moment.”

Next: The growth and reimagining of the arts at OSU

Read Part 3