Liberal Arts Lamentations

I teach at a smallish, private liberal arts university that’s $5m in debt. Our president has “resigned”. A special faculty committee has been formed to determine which programs and tenure-track or tenured faculty should be eliminated. The guess is 20-60 faculty will be let go in one year’s time.

I’m skeptical of our newest religion, data analytics, because I reject data’s omniscience. I’m partial to stories. Numbers can tell stories, but the emotionally rich stories that resonant most deeply with me are told with words, photographs, video, film, dialogue, music, and acting.

My university’s ability to turn things around is complicated by the resistance of Religion, Language, Music, Philosophy, Art, and English faculty to change. My militant liberal artist friends are struggling mightily to accept their declining influence. Here are just a few recent signs of their struggle:

• At Faculty Assembly, a faculty member stands and says, “Many people don’t realize it, but some departments aren’t nearly as productive as they once were.” A religion professor turns to his colleague, makes air quotes, and quietly and derisively mocks the speaker by repeating, “productive”.

• A faculty leader from the Religion department writes a letter to the Board informing them that they should hire an interim-President for two years, not the planned for one, so that the campus can spend two years on the search for the next president. Humanities faculty dominate the growing list of signatories.

• Following an administrator’s decision to cut one liberal arts department’s budget, the chair says, “Are we going to become a trade school?”

We are not going to become a trade school, but we are not immune to the disruption that’s riddling wide swaths of the economy. At the price families are paying, it’s understandable that they want a “return on their investment”. And yet, business phrases like “return on investment”, and “productive”, and “market forces”, really anything related to the business model, set my militant liberal artists friends’ heads spinning.

The MLA’s (pun-intended) are trusting that our University’s mission will save their bacon. And I’m confident the most economically successful departments will continue to subsidize some especially mission-critical academic majors and programs. But not nearly as many as in the past and not nearly as many as the MLA’s are hoping.


5 thoughts on “Liberal Arts Lamentations

  1. Colleges do have to abandon liberal arts and become trade schools, Ron, but I do think it is time to pay attention to our date-driven society and its needs. It seems to me that the last two generations of students have finished college with very poor preparation for their future. Time to re-evaluate, I think!

  2. RSB for Interim President! You’ll have one or even two years of job security before you move on to your new career as an investment coach. Sounds like PLU would benefit from a courageous leader who dares to name the hard realities that students, faculty and administration are facing today.

  3. I grew up with a “you must get good grades in school so you can get into a decent college” mentality instilled by my parents. It worked out well for me and all three of my siblings who grew up under the same “conditioning.” However, all four of us are now over 50 years old and, in honor of Bob Dylan – THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN’.

    Trade schools are the future (with an option of STEM universities for excellent students). Liberal arts schools are “wilting on the vine” as you are currently experiencing. Technology is the next wave for students wanting an above-average income but no one can accurately predict how long this will, in fact, be the case. Fortunes were made in railroads . . . real estate . . . oil and are now being made in technology with no one having any clue as to how technology will eventually either implode or be supplanted by the “the next great thing” and future fortunes will be made.

    People will always need construction workers, concrete / asphalt layers, plumbers, electricians, mechanic shops, key shops . . . ad nauseum. We must begin teaching young people something (anything) that will allow them to make a livable wage and to become productive members of a community.

    It’s “enriching” to know the Sistine Chapel was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni took four years to paint the ceiling but it isn’t going to earn one a livable wage in today’s world.

    • I agree; however, I favor a “both/and” approach to this conundrum. Humanists (like me) have to do a much better job of explaining the many non- or extra-monetary benefits of a good liberal arts education. I always found Marx’s premise, that we’re primarily economic beings, flawed. A livable wage and adequate health insurance are very important, but so is a social conscience and sense of purpose. Technical skills yes, but also creativity, imagination, empathy. Neither a peanut butter sandwich or a jelly sandwich sounds very appetizing, but peanut butter and jelly, sublime.

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