History of the MLA


In 1962, the Carnegie Corporation of New York awarded a $47,600 grant to support a new initiative at Johns Hopkins University for a “non-specialized, graduate degree program for adults.” The grant acknowledges the significant number of potential students interested in advanced courses especially designed for adults. The new program, the Masters of Liberal Arts (MLA), would focus its curriculum around “the history of ideas,” and would be taught by the university faculty.” Richard A. Mumma, dean of the McCoy College (the “evening college”) at Johns Hopkins, directed the program during its first academic year (1962-1963). The Master of Liberal Arts Program at Hopkins represents the first liberal arts program in the country, and one of the first multidisciplinary programs. Also known as MLS (Master of Liberal Studies), MALS (Master of Arts in Liberal Studies), there are now MLA type programs at institutions all over the country including Stanford, Harvard, DePaul, and Duke University.

Original advertisements for the program described the MLA as a “year of advanced study in the liberal arts to enable adults to acquire broader knowledge, deeper insight, and greater understanding of man’s cultural heritage and the social, political, and scientific aspects of contemporary society.”

The Liberal Arts designation allowed for teaching and learning across the disciplines. There was some initial concern that the multi-disciplinary nature of the program would result in “disintegration” and lack of focus. The decision to group the courses around a theme originated from a long standing tradition at Johns Hopkins: the “history of ideas.” Philosophy professor Arthur O. Lovejoy along with George Boas, and George Chinard began the history of ideas club in 1922 as a forum for Hopkins faculty to discuss learning and research across the disciplines. The MLA seminars transcended the constraints of traditional departments to offer an interdisciplinary focus that drew faculty from across the campus. Some of the original seminars included “The Idea of Political Obligation,” “The Comic: In theory and Practice,”  “The Literature of Love from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance,” and “The Evolution of Physical Theory.”

Milton S. Eisenhower, President, Johns Hopkins University, offered this assessment of the MLA Program in 1962. “The Master of Liberal Arts program is one more example of this University’s willingness to experiment and to pioneer. The program marks an important new direction in the field of part-time education for adults, and its success reaffirms the importance of seeking new ways to meet new challenges.”

Key concepts:

  • To offer a broadly based liberal arts program without “special training restrictions.”
  • To base the curriculum on and around the “history of Ideas seminars.”
  • To offer an interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary program.


In 1970, the MLA added the Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies in the Liberal Arts (CAGSLA). The Certificate was designed at the urging of program alumni who wanted to continue in the program. The Certificate allowed the student to design a ten course program with no required or core courses.


In 1975, the MLA at Hopkins joined with other liberal arts programs to create a national association to support liberal arts programs across the country. The Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs has grown to over 125 institutional members and includes both small liberal arts colleges and large research institutions. The AGLSP hosts a national convention, has a publications program, and conducts research on the field. The annual meetings emphasize teaching and curriculum development in the liberal arts, and administration of liberal arts/studies programs across the country.


An MLA brochure was developed and distributed, and this was the primary source of marketing until 1982 when money was found to hire a consultant and to place ads in newspapers and theatrical programs. The ads utilized current students who spoke to the benefits of having an MLA. A letter was also sent to MLA graduates encouraging them to continue with the program through the CAS-LA (now known as CAGSLA-Certificate for Advanced Graduate Studies in the Liberal Arts).

A 1982 brochure defines the MLA curricular approach as “intended to counteract a parochial, departmentalized view of intellectual inquiry and to encourage sustained critical self-examination…the collective purpose of these seminars is to consider the historical transformation and development of fundamental ideas or the form of which such ideas reach maturity in the work of particular thinkers and artists and societies.”


In 1993, the MLA expanded to the DC area. Additionally the MLA offered courses in Montgomery County at the Rockville Center.


During the late nineties, the School of Continuing Studies, which housed the MLA program, reoriented its mission and philosophy. On July 1, 1999, Continuing Studies became the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education. This new orientation left the MLA without an intellectual home, and on September 1, 1999, the Master of Liberal Arts Program transferred to the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. It joined five other masters programs in “Part-Time Graduate Programs” (now Advanced Academic Programs) including Biotechnology, Developmental Psychology, Environmental Sciences, Government, and Writing. Nancy Norris, the long time director of the MLA program, retired and a new Associate Chair was brought in to work with a Program Chair and a Program Advisory Board to organize and run the program. The Advisory Board facilitated the move to the School of Arts and Sciences, and the curriculum was reoriented and expanded.


In summer 2007 the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences created the Center for Liberal Arts in Advanced Academic Programs. The MLA moved into the Center and was joined by two non-credit programs with their own history at Hopkins in providing exciting liberal arts courses to the community. The Odyssey Program (established in 1986) provides courses in the evening on a variety of subjects, while the Osher Program (formerly the Evergreen Society established 1986) offers a membership program for retirees.