When Does a Liberal Arts College Cease to Be a Liberal Arts College?

Wartburg CollegeTroubling news from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, where twelve faculty spots are at risk of disappearing, including tenure-track positions in art, English, and ethics and open positions in French, philosophy, and theater. While a college spokesman pointed to a $3.7 million budget deficit and persistent decline in enrollment (down from over 1800 four years ago to just over 1500 today), students, alumni, and faculty are concerned that Wartburg is abandoning its identity as a liberal arts college.

“Experiences in the arts and humanities are invaluable to a liberal arts education,” petitioned two hundred-some students and alumni, “and by eliminating these three positions, we believe Wartburg is demonstrating a disregard for the liberal arts.” Erik Grayson, an American literature professor who was one of the three not recommended for reappointment because of changing “institutional need,” told Inside Higher Ed that

Obviously, institutions change to meet the needs of their students and adapt to the academic climate in which they exist, but a college’s identity as a liberal arts institution will be damaged if current and prospective students perceive that it cannot provide them with full-time faculty members trained in the areas they wish to study…. Because the three currently staffed positions recommended for elimination are in ethics, graphic design and American literature and because it appears we may end up with zero professors of French, philosophy and theater after this year, I can understand why some students and faculty are so concerned with Wartburg losing its identity as a liberal arts college.

I’m especially troubled because I know Wartburg grads well; for example, my brother-in-law studied history and religion there. Whatever disagreements I have with Wartburg’s founding denomination and its model of higher education, I’ve always respected that Lutheran “colleges of the church” were deeply committed to the liberal arts.

But I think Wartburg’s situation — like Drury’s and Calvin’s earlier this fall — raises an important question:

At what point does a liberal arts college cease to be a liberal arts college? What fields are at the core of that educational model?

Now, any smaller institution is going to be unable to support departments that cover the entirety of a discipline. Ours, for example, does well by the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East, and I can offer an array of international history courses. But we can offer only cursory coverage of African, Asian, and Latin American history, and we’ve had to work hard to hold onto a position in pre-modern history.

Still, I don’t think too many people would argue that a school like Bethel could simply do away with a History department, a History major, or a field like U.S. history altogether and still claim to be a liberal arts institution.

But what else is on that list? In addition to history, I’d name philosophy (and theology or religious studies, for any kind of Christian or church-related institution), languages and literature, fine arts, mathematics, social sciences, and natural sciences. Whatever the economic challenges, that core must be preserved to some meaningful degree, or else the mission is compromised. As another Wartburg professor told Inside Higher Ed, “When value and institutional need are measured solely in monetary terms, the institution has ceased to be a liberal arts college.”

Professional programs are another matter. In fields like business, health sciences, social work, education, engineering, and at least some areas within communication studies, I’d tend to think that liberal arts colleges and universities could be more “market-responsive.” Those programs could be engines of growth at times, but if and when the student demand ebbs, cuts — however painful and difficult — would not threaten the institution’s mission. No professional program is at the core of a liberal arts curriculum, and frankly, I believe that anyone who majors in the arts, humanities, or sciences and receives a solid general education could easily come to thrive in any one of those careers. (It may require graduate/professional school or continuing education, but that’s more and more the expectation of work in this country anyway.)

What do you all think? What’s at the core of a liberal arts institution? To what degree can and should it be preserved from cuts?


4 thoughts on “When Does a Liberal Arts College Cease to Be a Liberal Arts College?

  1. This controversy reminds me of another perspective from a nurse I interviewed for a sabbatical research project before I retired. The HealthEast system was developing as hospitals and clinics were being, closed, merged, and changed in many ways. The issues were different than those of the liberal arts in this article. But the underlying problem was similar. What is the core function of a health care system? One question to head nurses was, ‘How long have you worked in this system or hospital?’ The nurse I was interviewing that day was a long term employee of that hospital and had advanced to a head (or charge) nurse position. She sat up straighter and thought for a while. Then she answered, ‘ I have been with this hospital since it was a ‘hospital’ and not a ‘business’. She explained that all the terminology being used in defining changes being made were terms used in the business world and not the nursing world – like ‘market share’ rather than patient care issues’

  2. Years ago (late 1980s/early 1990s) Bethel had a provost whose first address to the faculty was “The Customer.” He informed the faculty at its annual retreat (or perhaps first faculty meeting of the year) that the college’s students are its customers and that no major or department is sacrosanct to the college’s mission. He specifically mentioned philosophy (hypothetically) as a department that might have to be closed, its courses folded into another department, its major cancelled, should “the market” not require it. The faculty pushed back–hard. I publicly called for a moratorium on calling students “customers” which made the provost my enemy. We had one loud shouting match in his office (he started it). So this is not a new issue; it has been “percolating” for a long time. Increasingly American institutions of higher education are adopting business models and are being driven by “the market.” Money is at the bottom of it all, of course. We know when people say “It’s not about the money” it is usually about the money. That provost did not last long; the faculty was more united in opposition to his vision for the college than about anything else. We knew, and let him know, that philosophy (among other threatened departments and majors) was not going away if we had anything to say about it. It was a tense time, but ended with at least temporary success. I don’t know anyone who was sad to see him leave. (I felt bad for the faculty of the college he went to.)

  3. I’ve always wondered how well higher ed has sold the idea of liberal arts to prospective students and parents. While it is easier to see the benefits in hindsight, how do institutions sell the idea early to families that may not have gone through the liberal arts experience? For me, choosing Wartburg was also about some of these key positions. I was a double major in Creative Writing and Print Journalism, but ended up in tech tackling design and development. That was my goal all along, but I still fully appreciate the liberal arts schooling and experience that I had there. And, the key positions cut were key to my decision to go there.

    I also think subjects like philosophy has the potential to bring in diversity to the Christian liberal arts experience as some Christian institutions require two to three courses in religion/philosophy. Even as a Christian, I purposely turned down the college experiences that required three or more courses in religion as I didn’t want to pay for that many courses unrelated to my career endeavors.

    I also valued the experience I had with non-Christian students on campus and we discussed how having the ability to take a broad-reaching religious course or philosophy course was key to attracting them to the campus.

    The only other point I’d bring up is that college is expensive. Private (often liberal arts) education is even more expensive. Endowments are not understood by incoming students and even then, as costs rise, people are going to start looking at the logistical training and perhaps weigh it more heavily than the life training of liberal arts. “Should I go to a college that requires half liberal arts and general courses? Or, should I go through a program that won’t require additional schooling (aka $$$) after graduation.”

    Regardless, I think any institution should know what it is AND what it isn’t as the pool of students grows smaller, especially for regional liberal arts institutions.

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