Established in 1948, the State University of New York system sought to provide affordable, government subsidized education in the wake of World War II.  Since then, the college has expanded and now consists of “29 state-operated campuses and 5 statutory colleges,” as well as 30 community colleges.  Additionally, SUNY recently launched an online education initiative, “Open SUNY,” and between the physical and virtual classrooms, SUNY currently educates over 600,000 people, and grants nearly 100,000 degrees every year.  Additionally, SUNY awards 920 million dollars in research funding each year, providing over 7,000 research grants.


Here’s the SUNY mission statement from the SUNY website; I’ve italicized an important sentence:

The mission of the state university system shall be to provide to the people of New York educational services of the highest quality, with the broadest possible access, fully representative of all segments of the population in a complete range of academic, professional and vocational postsecondary programs including such additional activities in pursuit of these objectives as are necessary or customary. These services and activities shall be offered through a geographically distributed comprehensive system of diverse campuses which shall have differentiated and designated missions designed to provide a comprehensive program of higher education, to meet the needs of both traditional and non-traditional students and to address local, regional and state needs and goals. In fulfilling this mission, the state university shall exercise care to develop and maintain a balance of its human and physical resources

The mission statement continues, but for the purposes of our project, we’re interested in “campuses which shall have differentiated and designated missions.”  For starters, this mission statement paints SUNY as an incredible portal of accessibility, one that crosses boundaries of geography, class, and race.  In the portal of access that SUNY provides, different campuses fulfill different roles. With our extensive general education and “liberal arts breadth” courses (of which the Humanities sequence is a part), we see Geneseo as the designated SUNY liberal arts college.

Many people–even those attending such universities–don’t understand what it means to attend a liberal arts college.  Generally speaking, the liberal arts will play out most evidently in the courses you take; more subtly, however, at a liberal arts college, the idea of liberal arts and fulfilling the liberal arts mission influences all important conversations on campus.  In fact, in all of our interviews for this project, professors stated that the liberal arts was an integral part of their decision to teach at Geneseo.  One professor even noted that liberal arts is the very reason we could have our conversation, but few people realize the benefits of receiving a liberal arts education.  This professor’s statements highlight the exact necessity of our project:  creating visibility for the importance of liberal arts.  So what does it mean to attend a liberal arts college, and how is it different from attending any other public institution of higher education?

If we look at Geneseo and the SUNY system, a few points stand out immediately that demonstrate the difference between the liberal arts and the non-liberal arts:

  1. The mission statement.  While the SUNY mission statement is incredible in its sense of responsibility for educating everyone, the nuances of the statement are secondarily a form of economic involvement and commodity appreciation.  Take for instance, the section, “[SUNY] encourages and facilitates basic and applied research for the purpose of the creation and dissemination of knowledge vital for continued human, scientific, technological and economic advancement.”  The primary mission is advancement of human knowledge, but the specter of the market is ever present.  This is not a criticism–after all, colleges are businesses–rather, a recognition of different modes of existence for college universities.  On the other hand, we have Geneseo as a liberal arts insitution–an institution that seeks to provide students the skills to be informed citizens, as opposed to appreciating a commodity for the market.  (For more on this, see our post “The Future of Higher Education,” which focuses on the bifurcated ideologies that support higher education).  Geneseo’s mission statement reflects its liberal arts orientation:  “the entire College community works together to advance knowledge and inspire students to be socially responsible and globally aware citizens who are prepared for an enriched life and success in the world.”  While this liberal arts orientation stands out to anyone who stumbles upon this part of Geneseo’s website, many students aren’t aware that understanding the mission statement can help students understand the nuances of Geneseo’s administrative conversations, and discussions surrounding academics, student affairs, and the community.
  2. The general education requirements.  Following the revamping of general education that has dominated conversations regarding higher education in the past few years, in 2010 SUNY changed their gen ed requirements. Students in the SUNY system are required to take two “competency” courses, and then seven courses in a field of ten disciplines (this works out to about 28 credits).  Beyond these requirements, individual institutions mandate what courses a student must take.  Geneseo adopted and expanded these requirements:  students must take at least one course in all ten disciplines, and two courses in four of the disciplines–fine arts, western civilization, natural sciences, and social sciences.  While students can fulfill the requirements with a variety of courses, every single student has to take the humanities sequence.  In our opinion, the humanities sequence is the primary means by which Geneseo achieves its liberal arts mission, as the learning outcomes of the sequence include the ability to “demonstrate knowledge of the contributions of significant Western thinkers to ongoing intellectual debate about moral, social, and political alternatives.”


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