*The Cutting of the Liberal Arts*

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Toyin Falola

Apr 9, 2024, 9:28:42 AMApr 9
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*The Cutting of the Liberal Arts*

*At public comprehensive universities like SUNY-Postdam, the humanities are being hollowed out*

By David C.K. Curry

APRIL 8, 2024

The State University of New York at Potsdam, where I teach, recently fired seven tenured faculty members, at least one of whom had worked there for more than 35 years. The precise number of contract nonrenewals on top of this is a closely guarded secret. Eighteen programs have been discontinued, and more have been so depleted as not to have any full-time faculty members at all. This, it was recently announced, is just the first round of cuts.

Without warning, the soon-to-be-retrenched were summoned to a mandatory meeting and told they would be let go in a year. A “realignment” plan announced in February 2022 was the writing on the wall. In my own department, philosophy, the realignment plan seemed to confirm what we had suspected: that we were victims of a multiyear effort to kill off our program, first revealed by the refusal to replace two of our department’s four full-time faculty colleagues when they retired, in 2018 and 2020.

While faculty members in programs awaiting “realignment” dealt with sleepless nights, many of my colleagues who escaped the cuts reacted by keeping their heads down. Department chairs, understandably, have tried to shelter their programs and staff from the coming storm, which, unfortunately, places programs in direct competition with one another for students. This bunker mentality plays right into the hands of the administration.

In May 2023 our Faculty Senate resoundingly passed a motion of censure objecting to the opaque process guiding the cuts. In September it passed another resolution calling for a pause in the implementation of the financial plan until financial justifications for that plan were shared with the faculty. Both resolutions were ignored. The supporting data never came.

This is a tale that is already old from the retelling. The steep cuts at West Virginia University brought the story into national focus, but similar “realignments,” “transformations,” and “restructurings” have been unfolding for the last three years. At Emporia State University, in Kansas, 30 faculty members were laid off in September 2022 because of “extreme financial pressure.” SUNY-Fredonia and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro have recently announced planned program and personnel cuts that follow the template to a tee. Marquette, Valparaiso, Wright State — the list is constantly growing.

The template is worth considering, even if it hasn’t yet reached your campus.

In May 2021 the American Association of University Professors published a prescient report (“Covid-19 and Academic Governance”) noting the post-pandemic trend to “realign” institutions suffering from enrollment problems. Trustees and presidents of many institutions …

suddenly began operating in a state of panic after years of fiscal mismanagement, seized upon the pandemic to assert the need to “right-size,” “be nimble,” “realign,” “innovate,” “be decisive,” and “take bold action” by unilaterally altering their institutions’ governance structure, curriculum, and labor force, thus creating an acute crisis in academic governance. The baneful results have included the loss of faculty members’ careers and livelihoods, the cheapening of students’ educations, and the transformation of institutions’ identities.

The results are no accident. As an interim dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder put it: “Never waste a good pandemic.”

In 2020 Kenneth Macur, the last president of the now defunct Medaille University, suspended and then rewrote the faculty handbook, laid off several professors, cut programs, and rescinded tenure. “I believe that this is an opportunity to do more than just tinker around the edges. We need to be bold and decisive,” he wrote to the faculty. “A new model is the future of higher education.” In a 2023 speech, amid the “Academic Transformation” that would lead to the elimination of dozens of programs at West Virginia University, President E. Gordon Gee offered a similar sentiment: “Imagine a garden that is filled with flowers but is never pruned … we have been overgrown for a very long time.”

At Potsdam, a few facts are indisputable. We face a $9-million annual operating deficit. Enrollment has fallen from 4,224 in 2012 to 2,501 in 2023, a decline of around 40 percent. “There will be no bailouts,” President Suzanne Smith announced last fall, explaining that the SUNY system refuses to help. Personnel costs account for the vast majority of Potsdam’s expenses.

But focusing on the fiscal tree, as the administration wants us to do, causes one to lose sight of the forest. Echoing Gordon Gee, Smith aims to restructure the academic programs offered. Potsdam’s “Financial Stability Plan” is meant to “close the gap and focus our finite resources toward those programs that are most in demand in today’s marketplace.” The rhetoric unsurprisingly echoes that of higher-education consultants like the rpk Group, which focuses on “maximizing Mission, Market, and Margin®️.”

But who decides what the employment needs of the future will be, and which courses will be most relevant? In a humanizing moment, Smith teared up while announcing the cuts. While I have no doubt that her news was genuinely difficult to deliver, it was more difficult to receive.

The cuts at Potsdam are clearly designed to support the justly renowned Crane School of Music (which mostly produces music educators) and the School of Education and Professional Studies (composed of the departments of teacher education, public health and human performance, and business administration) at the expense of the School of Arts and Sciences.

Keep in mind that SUNY has a whole sector of technical and community colleges (37 of them). It is the 13 traditional four-year “comprehensive” or liberal-arts colleges that are under attack. As just one indicator, three comprehensive SUNY campuses — Potsdam, Fredonia, and Plattsburgh — all of which had flourishing philosophy programs 10 years ago, have discontinued the major and now employ one full-time philosopher each.

Years of state disinvestment have laid the groundwork for these cuts. Frederick E. Kowal, president of United University Professions, argues that SUNY’s financial crisis is “manufactured,” and the real crisis is that the State of New York has failed to fulfill its obligations. In 2004 New York funded the SUNY system at just under $1.9 billion; in 2023 the funding for SUNY was just $1.34 billion. If you factor in inflation, SUNY received almost twice as much state support in 2004 as it did in 2023. Similar funding cuts have occurred nationwide.

That decline in funding combined with the pandemic-era enrollment declines created the perfect opportunity for authoritarian administrators to impose their increasingly corporate visions of higher education onto their institutions. While faculty and staff members scrambled to educate their students during a pandemic, administrators sharpened their knives, shamelessly seizing the opportunity to gut programs, the faculty, and faculty governance.

What is clear about the new “sustainable” model of a “revisioned” university is that it will have less of the arts and humanities. The American public has become convinced that the only justifiable purpose for higher education is to get people jobs (though it isn’t), and they are convinced that one can’t get a good-paying job with a degree in philosophy, art history, French, sculpture, or dance (though one can).

Parents are understandably concerned about the job prospects of their children. And they believe that having a degree in business administration is more likely to lead to a job and a sustainable income than a degree in philosophy or art history. Yet the data doesn’t bear this out. One indicator, Payscale’s College Salary Report, ranks philosophy the 275th highest-paying major out of 800 degrees listed; Business administration ranks 373rd.

In August 2018 the historian Benjamin Schmidt argued in The Atlantic:

Evidence does indicate that humanities majors are probably slightly worse off than average — maybe as much as one more point of unemployment and $5,000 to $10,000 a year in income. Finance and computer-science majors make more; biology and business majors make about the same. But most of the differences are slight — well within the margins of error of the surveys.

He goes on:

In other areas of the economy, we view these kinds of differences with equanimity. The difference between humanities majors and science majors, in median income and unemployment, seems to be no more than the difference between residents of Virginia and North Carolina.

This attitude toward certain majors is no longer confined to the humanities — even traditional STEM disciplines like physics and chemistry and math meet the same fate as Spanish and theater. The risibly misguided question “What does one do with a degree in physics?” is now as resonant in the public mind as the equally misguided question “What does one do with a B.A. in philosophy?” has been for some time.

Shared governance is intended to protect faculty oversight of the curriculum. Tenure is meant to protect an individual faculty member’s academic freedom, not just in the classroom but also on the Faculty Senate floor. It is a way to ensure that truth is at least sometimes spoken to power. The liberal-arts model promotes education, not just for career but also for citizenship and life. Yet faculty governance is being eroded or simply sidestepped with impunity; tenured faculty members are being let go across the nation in unprecedented numbers; and education is no longer geared toward good citizenship but is conceived of as a series of hoops folks must pay to jump through to get “certified” for some particular job or another.

More than a year after its faculty cuts, enrollment at Emporia State has fallen 12.5 percent even though enrollment at other public institutions in the state rose 2 percent. It is too early to tell what the longer-term consequences of the cuts will be for institutions like Emporia State and WVU, and for those of us who remain at SUNY-Potsdam. Common sense says that gutted public institutions are probably not particularly attractive to prospective students and their parents. But perhaps these cuts will have the financial benefits the administrators, consultants, and legislators are gambling on. Maybe once the immediate outrage calms down, enrollments will rebound. But at what cost will that possibility of success come?

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