First candidate for dean of KU CLAS suggests steps for affordability, relevance

To prepare for his visit to Kansas University, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dean candidate Walter Hawthorne, among other things, ordered a book about the history of KU.

In it, Hawthorne said he found particular inspiration from the vision of former history teacher and KU Chancellor Frank Strong, who even in the early 1900s prioritized securing adequate funding for the university and ensuring it was a place that reached out to the public.

After all, as Hawthorne pointed out to a crowd gathered to hear him talk Monday in the Kansas Union, he is a historian.

Walter Hawthorne

Hawthorne, professor and chair of the Department of History at Michigan State University, was the first of four CLAS dean candidates scheduled to give public presentations in the coming weeks on the subject “21st Century Challenges to Liberal Arts and Sciences (and how KU will address them).”

Hawthorne’s presentation identified the following five challenges:

• The affordability of college, or the public perception of it.

• Budget challenges.

• “Achieving inclusive excellence,” or increasing faculty and student diversity.

• Demonstrating the relevance and importance of liberal arts and sciences.

• And the “digital revolution.”

On affordability, Hawthorne said it’s important to talk not just about cost but value of college. He said there are many ways to help ensure it stays affordable, including financial awareness for students — he said he’s often told students to “live like a student today so they don’t have to live like one in the future” — and steps by administration.

Those would include continuous revisiting of the KU CORE class requirements to track how they affect four-year graduation rates, proactive advising with regular progress updates for students, continuing “meaningful” first-year experience efforts and increasing online course offerings. At Michigan State, he said, the history department he leads has developed 25 online summer courses in-house, not only bringing in $1 million a year for the department but also enabling students to go home for the summer and earn credits without paying room and board.

On budget, Hawthorne reiterated the importance of online classes; suggested maintaining and enhancing areas of strategic importance, including attracting top talent in those areas; and said admitting more international students was a must, another area in which Michigan State — with 14 percent international enrollment — has seen success.

“This makes the place quite lively, and since 2008 has been a great revenue generator for us,” he said.

Hawthorne said liberal arts and sciences must modernize courses to ensure they give students “21st century skills” and “experiential learning” to use in jobs, but also communicate the importance of such studies on a broader scale.

“We in the liberal arts and sciences enrich lives,” he said. “Clearly jobs are important, but the purpose of a university is much, much more than that.”

Hawthorne’s research specialty is upper Guinea, the Atlantic and Brazil, with particular interest in the history of slavery and the slave trade, according to his bio provided by KU. His publications include the books “Planting Rice and Harvesting Slaves: Transformations along the Guinea-Bissau Coast, 1400-1900” in 2003, and “From Africa to Brazil: Culture, Identity, and an Atlantic Slave Trade 1600-1830” in 2010.

Prior to Michigan State, Hawthorne taught at Ohio University, the University of Vermont and Mills College in Oakland, Calif. He earned his doctorate in history in 1998 from Stanford University.

The new CLAS dean will replace Danny Anderson, who left KU to become president of Trinity University in San Antonio.