Celebrating 25 years of liberal arts: Faculty reflect on past, look to bright future

Celebrating 25 years of liberal arts: Faculty reflect on past, look to bright future

In 1996, the Georgia Board of Regents designated Georgia College as the state’s public liberal arts university. We celebrate 25 years of this designation and showcase how the liberal arts comes to life on campus today.

Dr. Ken McGill’s roots run deep at Georgia College. He’s spent the last nearly 30 years teaching students the foundations of chemistry and providing hands-on learning opportunities through research.

Dr. Ken McGill works with students on a recent project.
Dr. Ken McGill works with students on a recent project.

Throughout his tenure, the professor of chemistry has seen many changes.

“Back then, we were a regional university,” McGill recalls as he reflects back to when he started at Georgia College in 1992. “We basically accepted students within a certain radius of Milledgeville.”  

Talks of a focus on liberal arts began under President Edwin Spier not long after McGill arrived on campus. The formal designation from the University System of Georgia came in 1996—transitioning the university from a regional college to the state and even national stage.

McGill with students in the early 2000s.
McGill with students in the early 2000s.

“I think getting the public liberal arts mission was very impactful,” said McGill. “Before we were competing with students in central Georgia. Now we compete on a national level, and I think going for the public liberal arts mission was an incredibly insightful strategy that helped really give Georgia College an identity to make it thrive and grow.”

From 1997-2003, Dr. Rosemary DePalo heavily promoted the liberal arts when she led campus as president.

“She was the one who really was the champion for the liberal arts mission. She's the one who kind of brought the discussion into reality, got everybody on board and instilled it as part of the campus culture,” said McGill.

“She was able to get I don't know how many additional faculty positions,” said McGill. “That brought a whole host of new, energetic junior faculty. It was a very fun time.” 

Professor of Secondary Education and long-time faculty member Dr. Cynthia Alby agrees.

“I think what was great in the early years was that the country was doing well financially, and there was a lot more funding to do what we wanted to do,” said Alby. “All the things that we were trying to do to come to our liberal arts mission were just easier to do then.”

In 2004, Dr. Dorothy Leland assumed the role of president and led the university through 2011.  

“She was the one who navigated us through some tough economic times and helped us maintain that mission,” said McGill.

During that time the student body grew to around 6,700 undergraduate and graduate students and experiential learning opportunities were expanded.

Dr. Cynthia Alby teaches her education classes.
Dr. Cynthia Alby teaches her education classes.

“While we did better than most institutions in Georgia and across the United States during the economic downturn,” said Alby, “I still think those were some tough years just in terms of carrying out our mission.” 

Then came a lull—when the excitement of the new mission waned and things became somewhat routine. The liberal arts mission was still very much alive, but more siloed and departmentalized.

Seeing the need for assessing and rejuvenating the mission, Dr. Steve Dorman as president charged a group in 2015 to do just that.

“We had the sensation that we'd lost some of the energy,” said Alby. “That just makes sense. You can't expect an initiative to just maintain that level of interest for 20 years or more.”

The major starting point for the group was to think about what the university was trying to provide for its students—what made Georgia College unique and, in turn, exemplified the liberal arts mission.

“We felt like students couldn't really see the big picture of what we were trying to do here. We were not helping students connect the dots,” said Alby. “We were teaching loads of fantastic courses in great programs, but the big picture of how these things were connected and how it played into the liberal arts was missing.”

Dr. Lee Gillis
Dr. Lee Gillis

The goal became to show students how all experiences at Georgia College, both inside and outside the classroom, link together. From that, GC Journeys was born.

“What we were trying to do with GC Journeys is say, ‘we're already doing all these great things, if we could pull them together under one umbrella so that people can see how they fit together, then students could make conscious choices about which would be a good fit for them,’” said Alby.

Through the GC Journeys Program, students take advantage of five inside- and outside-the-classroom transformative experiences during their time at Georgia College. It includes the first-year experience, career planning milestones and the senior capstone course. Each student can also choose to take part in at least two other options: study abroad, community-based engaged learning, undergraduate research, an internship or leadership programs. 

Gillis in the mid 1990s
Gillis in the mid 1990s

“I feel like since 1996 we have been slowly making our way forward in terms of recognition as the state’s designated public liberal arts institution,” said Alby. “But it wasn't until we implemented GC Journeys that we began garnering so much more recognition on both the state and national levels.”

It’s not just Georgia College getting more attention. Time and time again top business leaders note skills gained from a liberal arts education as their top desires for new hires.

“I'm emphasizing marketable skills that students have because they're a liberal arts major,” said Dr. Lee Gills, chair and professor of psychology. “Our students can work in groups, sift through information and decide what's true and what's not. They can perform an activity with limited information or even ambiguous information, and they can ask for clarification when it’s needed.”

Along with those skills, Georgia College challenges students to think independently and lead creatively in all aspects of their life.

“For me in psychology, it's training people to look at the world, make sense out of it and help other people make sense of their world,” said Gillis.

Over his tenure, Gillis has interacted with hundreds of students. For him, it’s the small class sizes and relationships between faculty and students that make the difference. 

“I recall a nursing student who transferred here,” he said. “She was telling me she was writing thank you notes to the professors because they actually would talk to her and answer the questions she had. She was not getting that same kind of attention at her previous college, so it really made an impact when she came here.”

Students consistently say the relationships with faculty at Georgia College are key to their success. Those help open doors to research, jobs or even graduate school. 

As we look to the future, the opportunities continue to grow for students. Steeped in the liberal arts tradition, the possibilities are endless. 

“Now we are really pursuing that national stage where we are competing with nationally recognized public and private universities,” said McGill. “When I got here, we never would have thought about competing with many of these places, and the quality of our students just continues to get better. It has been a really great ride.”