Ill Liberal Arts
In September, the administration of Marian University, a small liberal arts school in Indianapolis, Indiana, put a proposal before its Academic Policies Committee. The administration stated that it wanted to eliminate the political science department and terminate the college’s only tenured faculty member in that department. “I had no idea this was coming, I was completely blindsided,” Dr. Johnny Goldfinger, the professor in question, told Inside Higher Ed. Earlier in the year, the department’s other tenured professor, Dr. Pierre Atlas, had resigned from the department when his request for a sabbatical was denied. Atlas’s subsequent requests for unpaid research leave were also denied.
In Goldfinger’s case, the Faculty Assembly voted overwhelmingly against the proposal in November. The administration, however, was not interested in heeding faculty opinion. Nor were they swayed by the letter that the American Political Science Association wrote to them. Goldfinger, who has decades of teaching experience and a PhD from Duke University, saw his job eliminated last week by the college’s board of trustees. All departments other than political science were left intact.
This is not the story of one department at one college. An hour’s drive to the northwest of Marian, at Purdue University, it is the English department that faced threats. Citing budgetary concerns, the board of trustees halted the acceptance of any new students and proposed cuts to non-tenured faculty. This includes the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, which until recently included the trailblazing Haitian American author Roxane Gay. Other departments at other universities and colleges around the country are facing similar cuts.
The ostensible reason provided for these cuts and terminations is “prioritization,” a term used by university administrators to rank which programs deserve funding and attention. One such “prioritization” committee at St. Joseph’s College in New York described it as a ranking of “centrality and essentiality,” “demand and opportunity,” and “productivity, revenue, and resources.” If the terms sound like university administrator gobbledygook, that’s because they are, cleverly disguising administrative judgments as some sort of due process. Around the country it is terms just like these that have been thrown at social science and liberal arts departments. Suddenly, faculty in these departments are expected to justify why they exist and why anyone would need a degree in English.
The two examples from Indiana, from Marian University and Purdue, also reveal how terms like “prioritization” are being used to disguise politically motivated excisions. Prioritization routinely argues that engineering departments need to be the ones getting more money and resources from the administration. Unlike English or political science, which are seen as useless and pointless majors, engineering and computer science carry an implicit promise of a job. Who needs to have read Shakespeare or know about how our political system works when you can rush off to be one among the armies of coders who make our digiverse possible?
Cutbacks at Marian University and Purdue reveal how terms like “prioritization” are being used to disguise politically motivated excisions.
That is the dream. In reality, “prioritization” debates, particularly in deep red states, are excellent cover for changing the political demographics of American colleges and universities. The Marian University case is instructive in this sense; the ostensible championing of STEM fields maps neatly onto the project of eliminating the most left-leaning professor, inevitably in departments that teach English or history or political science. If you have a right-leaning board of trustees in a red state like Indiana, professors like Johnny Goldfinger are unwanted, even threatening to those who would like student voters to know less rather than more about the processes of democracy. In a country where everything is riven and divided around political lines, this could well be a covert attack against the otherwise enduring liberal-ness of the college campus.
This is not to say that academia and small liberal arts colleges are not facing budgetary crises. Lower enrollment rates at liberal arts schools, especially those that have been forced to go online during the Covid-19 pandemic, have been hit hard. With students losing family members or being forced into the workforce instead of finishing college, lost revenue is a reality that no one can deny. I also acknowledge the questionable utility of graduate degree programs that require students to take on large loans in order to attend, without giving them a realistic assessment of what this degree will do for them.
It is wrong to blame students for taking on crushing debt without knowing the value-added component of the degree they are seeking. It is often university administrators who sell bright, shiny degrees to prospective students. For proof, just consider the sharply produced admissions materials that are mailed out to students before they enroll. The disparity between the resources allotted to these versus the moldy, leaking buildings where liberal arts disciplines are housed, and the answer should be quite evident.
If the goal is truly to protect students, then the solution is not firing professors and eliminating liberal arts and social science departments. If students are graduating with degrees whose utility is questionable, then the solution lies within student advising and oversight. Student advisers need to be honest and upfront about post-graduate employment statistics—and about what kind of debt is too risky. States could also pass legislation to require that advisers provide certain sorts of information to students. Ideally, these same student and career advisers could also help students think of ways in which skills they have learned as part as of their liberal arts education can become the basis of careers. Despite what current debates about liberal arts would have you believe, not all employers are looking for software developers.
A long-range perspective proscribes a rounded education, geared not just for the moment we are in. It is very likely that coding and other functions that administrators believe are the ones that deserve the most priority will be carried out via artificial intelligence processes that can do the painstaking work with far greater accuracy and speed than a human ever can. A liberal arts education is essential to surviving in our polarized world. In educating students in how to respect differences and create dialogue over disagreement, a liberal arts education provides skills essential to maintaining a healthy and functioning democracy. Creating arbitrary epistemological rankings, where one kind of knowledge is given precedence over others, is failing to attend to the needs of the whole student capable of earning a wage but also of leading a good life.
There are innumerable ways in which universities and colleges can create programs that combine liberal arts instruction with other degrees so that students can get the best of both worlds. Chopping off liberal arts education is shortsighted and dangerous and not unlike trying to cure a sprain with a total amputation. It only makes sense if the actual purpose of slicing off departments and professors is part of a larger political project that has nothing at all to do with providing the best education.