BELL Core Student Forum: A Long Hard Look at Belmont’s Liberal Arts Education

I had the idea for this student forum when I and some other concerned students heard about some BELL Core reforms that have been in the works since January. I spoke to some of the faculty involved in the process, and together, I, Dr. Noel Boyle, chair of General Education, and Dr. Bonnie Smith-Whitehouse, Faculty Senate President, decided to put together a student forum where students could get clear on the proposed changes to the BELL Core and ask questions, make comments, and/or voice concerns. This forum was co-hosted by the Department of General Education, Belmont SGA, and Faculty Senate. Last Thursday, March 16th between 50-70 students attended the BELL Core Student Forum, where Dr. Boyle laid out what the current BELL Core requires, the Provost’s proposed changes, and then the BELL Core Committee’s counter-proposal (see included photo attachments). Once the presentation portion of the Forum was over—it was roughly 15 or 20 minutes—the rest of the hour was reserved for students to ask questions and comment. 

To better gauge the academic backgrounds of the students attending, every student who spoke was asked to give their name, year, and major. As a result, we were able to see that there was indeed a diverse turn out of students across all fields of academic study (humanities, social sciences, business school, foreign languages, music school, natural sciences, etc.). Ultimately the major changes to the “liberal learning” portions of the BELL Core were as follows: 

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While it may seem that these changes are not major, the result is a significant cut in the requirements for the liberal studies in the humanities, social sciences, and languages across the board, to the extent that Bachelors of Science, Business Administration, Science in Nursing, Social Work, and of Fine Arts and Music are only required to take a bare minimum of these liberal learning courses. One wonders: will these degrees be truly reflective of a liberal arts education, or a vocational one?

In response, most students attending the forum felt weary of these changes. Although Dr. Boyle communicated that the rationale for these changes were to give students “more flexibility,” students across disciplines were concerned that this added “flexibility" would backfire given that in their experience with their peers has shown them that people would avoid taking courses in the liberal arts and would rather stay in their fields. One question that was brought up on several occasions was why would the University not seek to grow their academic departments in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and Math and Sciences proportionally to meet the projected growth of future student enrollment. Another was why Belmont would proclaim the slogan “From Here to Anywhere” when the only majors required to study a foreign language were those getting a B.A. Furthermore, students were deeply concerned that in making these sorts of changes to the general education curriculum, Belmont is turning its focus to growing more professional degrees and limiting the growth of liberal arts, which includes the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and foreign languages. 

Overall, there were only about three or so students of the total that attended who had little concerns with the proposals. On the whole, students were very pleased to have been allowed this opportunity to be a part of this conversation. After the forum, a number of students expressed an interest in holding another one of these forums before a final decision about the BELL Core is reached by the BELL Core Committee. When I relayed this interested to Dr. Smith-Whitehouse and Dr. Boyle, they told me that this would be a reasonable possibility, though no date has been set for a second forum yet. In the end, I was inspired by the dedication and concern that the student body seems to have for the quality of their liberal arts education and for that of future Belmont students. If I have learned anything about this experience, it’s that students, when given a platform to reflect on their education, will turn out and will speak their minds. 

Khadija Ali Amghaiab