“Change the Narrative”: Another Private College Makes Cuts to Liberal Arts

Another day, another private liberal arts university cuts back in the liberal arts. Last week it was Calvin College. This time, it’s Drury University in Springfield, Missouri:

Drury University logoCiting an enrollment drop, Drury University notified 12 faculty members Friday that they will lose their jobs at the end of this school year — or next.

Five of the faculty members, three of whom are full time, will be let go in May. The other seven, all full time, will only have contracts through the end of the 2016-17 year….

The 12 faculty members teach in one of the following areas: architecture, theater, philosophy, music, education and languages.

“It’s in areas where we see less demand,” said Brothers, noting there are fewer students majoring in those areas. “We are not cutting programs. Faculty remain in those areas.”

Drury describes itself as “a new kind of university that honors and effectively links liberal arts and sciences to the study of professional areas.” But despite rating well in recent surveys (#11 among Regional Midwestern Universities for U.S. News; one of the “Best in the Midwest” according to The Princeton Review), it’s seen day-college enrollment drop by 10% this year.

What makes it especially dismaying to see this announcement show up this afternoon in the Chronicle of Higher Education is that it was a year ago this month that the same publication featured an essay by two Drury professors — philosopher Christopher Panza and English professor Richard Schur — celebrating how their school was attempting to “change the narrative” of humanities decline. While there was plenty of data to counter the “constant stream of articles proclaiming a ‘crisis in the humanities,'” it didn’t change the fact that “false crisis narratives have real effects.

Stone Chapel, Drury University
Stone Chapel at Drury University – Creative Commons (Rich Johnstone)

Here at Drury, we saw those effects become reality a few years ago. Despite the rhetoric of integrating the liberal arts and professional education, strategic planning and institutional marketing seemed to focus on everything but the humanities. Although close to 20 percent of our students majored in a humanities field, those programs gained little attention or financial support. This was no antihumanities conspiracy. Rather, the sheer persistence of the crisis narrative led the humanities to be simply overlooked. Drury’s humanities professors responded with collective despondency, hunkered down in their separate departments, protecting the few crumbs they had out of despair and frustration.

But, said Panza and Schur, things had changed. Humanists at Drury had “regrouped” and come up with ways to “change the narrative.” After listing a few such initiatives, they concluded:

Transforming ourselves in this way has altered our way of thinking. We used to see strategic plans, advisory boards, and development efforts as standard practices only for business schools. No longer. With every new program, excitement about the value and relevance of the humanities—from students, faculty members, and even the administration—continues to bubble up.

Yes, the acorns continue to drop, here in Missouri and throughout the country—but at Drury we’ve learned to take charge of the narrative. It’s no longer one of crisis, but one of opportunity. We hope other humanities departments join us in the open air.

I still think they’re right: despondency is no solution, and there are steps humanities professors and departments can take to change how they’re perceived. But announcements like today’s make that narrative of crisis seem a bit less irresistible.

2 thoughts on ““Change the Narrative”: Another Private College Makes Cuts to Liberal Arts

  1. Interesting article…thanks, Chris! I’m guessing part of the story at Drury involves the fact that one or more of the positions involve faculty in teacher education. We are seeing the impact of several years of state mandated changes in the certification process that are confusing students and their parents and demoralizing faculty members who have dedicated their lives to the profession. These changes are contributing to declining enrollment in many teacher education programs. There are additional hoops that potential teachers have to jump through…implementation of high stakes tests before higher education faculty can alter their curriculum…not to mention fees here and fees there to pay for all the assessments…it will be a miracle if anyone wants to become a teacher here in a few years.

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