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What's in a Name?

A liberal arts education is timeless. From its very beginnings, Purdue has produced well-rounded graduates able to think, communicate, and be successful. Liberal Arts has transformed from a service department for engineering and agriculture students at Purdue to its own distinct entity, with finely educated undergraduate students and nationally acclaimed graduate programs. It has evolved to become a powerful and important part of the University, at times surpassing engineering as the largest college at Purdue. But it wasn't always such a distinct organization. From humble beginnings to a promising future, the College of Liberal Arts has come a long and winding way.

A 1950s aerial photo of Purdue's West Lafayette campus.
A 1950s aerial photo of Purdue's West Lafayette campus. (Courtesy photo by Purdue University Libraries, Archives, and Special Collections)

A Noble Cause

Photo of Alan H. Monroe.
Photo of Alan H. Monroe.

As a land-grant university, Purdue embraced the Morrill Act of 1862 in promoting “the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.” Faculty developed specific courses in communication, social sciences, and humanities, which eventually grew into departments within the School of Science. The school later became the School of Science, Education, and Humanities (SEH) to acknowledge the growing departments.

Henry Scheele, professor of communication, came to Purdue to teach 50 years ago. “I was attracted to Purdue because Alan H. Monroe, who was one of the most outstanding speech teachers in the country at the time, was teaching here,” Scheele commented. Starting as a teaching assistant under Monroe, Scheele remembers those early days.

“Dean Potter in Engineering asked Monroe to set up a speech course,” Scheele remembers. “They needed a liberal arts education to supplement the technical aspects of their engineering degrees. We ultimately developed perhaps the largest communication course in the United States, COM 114 (Introduction to Public Speaking).” The motivation behind this and many other courses was to produce well-rounded students. It wasn’t long, however, until the humanities and social sciences departments were ready to break away from their School of Science home.

The Sixties: A Decade of Growth

Photo of Margaret Rowe.
Photo of Margaret Rowe.

Liberal arts at Purdue officially came into its own in 1963, when it split from the School of Science to become the School of Humanities, Social Science, and Education (HSSE). In about a decade, it had grown to be the second-largest school at Purdue, following Engineering.

During this time of growth, many departments started establishing graduate programs. Margaret Rowe, professor of English, remembers how different the school was when she came to Purdue in 1969. “It certainly wasn’t as large as it is now, and it was going through a real growth spurt because so many departments in the early to late sixties started graduate programs,” she comments. “That was the situation throughout the country in graduate education, and HSSE was a growing school in that respect.”

Another important milestone in the sixties was the development of interdisciplinary programs. Robert Perrucci, professor of sociology, cites the appearance of interdisciplinary programs, including women’s studies and African American studies, as major indicators of growth. “It sort of developed out of the political turmoil of the sixties, out of the growth of the feminist and civil rights movements,” he says. “The impetus didn’t come from the academic world, it came from the outside.”

Both of these developments, in addition to President Frederick Hovde’s emphasis on educating the whole person, showed that HSSE in itself was a valuable asset to the University.

As it came into its own, it became important for HSSE to be comparable to other peer institutions. This was the major trigger for the school’s next structural change.

Liberal Arts Emerges

Many of Purdue’s peer institutions had a school of arts and sciences, but education was usually its own school. In 1989, the School of Education split to become its own entity. This change was instrumental in numerous ways. Not only did it redefine the structure of the school, but it also required yet another name change. Ralph Webb, professor of communication, rose to the challenge, responding to an invitation from Dean David Caputo to submit a new name for the school. “I guess I envisioned if I didn’t come up with something new, we’d be the School of Humanities and Social Science,” Webb remembers.

His suggestion to rename it the School of Liberal Arts was accepted. “Most people go through life without the opportunity to name anything,” Webb says, “and here I was able to name an entire school.” He says that liberal arts is at the core of the University, and the new name helped emphasize that importance.

Still Growing

Most recently, the School of Liberal Arts, along with eight other Purdue schools, changed “School” to “College” to reflect the diversity of the programs and departments within it. With 11 academic departments and 13 interdisciplinary programs, the college offers a wealth of knowledge to students.

And a liberal arts education still has timeless appeal. "At best, a liberal arts education teaches you not only how to learn” Rowe comments, “but it also liberates your imagination. You’re going to live longer with yourself than with anyone else, and you have to know how to use your imagination to make your life rich.”