Liberal Arts Colleges Fight To Survive

If you want to understand why, consider the case of Albion College in Michigan. Fill in the names of 85% of liberal arts colleges with similarly modest endowments. 

A key comorbidity.  

Screen Shot 2021-02-15 at 12.44.41 PM

Is the eventual outcome of the discount rate race to the bottom Admissions and Financial Aid administrators saying to prospective families, “Pay what you’re able.”?

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.