Troubling 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?