Saturday, November 20, 2010

Another higher education institution lowers itself: SUNY's Faustian bargain

The State University of New York (SUNY) recently joined the growing list of universities that are eliminating humanities and fine arts departments for budgetary reasons. It decided to dispense with French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater arts programs. These departments are vulnerable when the Hollow Men who largely make up university administrations are unwisely given a budget-cutting knife because they want to excise programs with low enrollments, and many of these departments are having this problem.

Why do these disciplines often suffer from low enrollment in our colleges and universities? Part of it is just cyclical: they go in and out of fashion. In the 1960s for example, philosophy departments had relatively high enrollments. But when I arrived on campus in the late seventies, my philosophy department was not as popular as it once was. I am told that it has enjoyed a resurgence or two since I graduated.

Another reason for low enrollment in humanities and fine arts has to do with the fact that many universities have eliminated their academic core programs. Universities once at least gave lip service to the importance of giving students a broad education, and many of them placed specific emphasis--or, we should probably say, a general emphasis--on a basic grounding in Western civilization. But the concern with giving students a generally education is being abandoned in favor of other priorities.

The dominant priority of the soulless bureaucrats who run these institutions is "Diversity," by which they mean exactly the opposite. What they really mean is ideological uniformity. Every time I receive a piece of correspondence--any correspondence--from the University of Kentucky having to do with my son, who graduated and is now in law school there, the letterhead indicates it is from the "Multicultural Department." The University apparently is the Multicultural Department, and the Multicultural Department is the University. That's part of Diversity, you see: making everything the same.

Notice that "women's studies," or "gender studies," or what used to be called "black studies never seem to have to go under the budgetary knife. These places are hives of special interest politics that enjoy favorable treatment in all things. I'm willing to bet cash money that these programs don't have any higher enrollment at SUNY than Italian, French, classics, and theater arts.

Can you imagine the outrage from the political left if a women's studies department were cut for budgetary reasons? Never happen. Why? Because these programs run university administrations, not vice-versa.

Anyway if you want to read the ultimate takedown of SUNY and its ilk, check out Brandeis University's Gregory Petsko's open letter to George M. Phillip, President of SUNY. Here's the very end, but don't miss the rest. There are stingers throughout:

No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it's performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get - well, I'm sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don't, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It's awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That's the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven't given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

Disrespectfully yours,

Gregory A Petsko

HT: Why Evolution is True


Art said...

Petsko says:

As for the argument that the humanities don't pay their own way, well, I guess that's true, but it seems to me that there's a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I'm not saying it shouldn't be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about.

Well, that's about as un-American as it gets. Not running a sizable institution like a business? Taking the tuition from a few thousand pre-med majors to pay for, say, a classics program? How positively communistic.

It figures, Petsko lives in Massachusetts. Typical blue state, what with its high taxes, growing economy, low unemployment rate, near-universal health care, good-performing public schools, and, ugh, pro basketball.

KyCobb said...

Most such brick and mortar Institutions of Higher Learning may be doomed anyway by the same forces which are killing the newspaper industry. As tuition costs continue to rise, on-line courses will become the only affordable method of obtaining a higher education for many Americans. A vicious cycle of ever fewer students paying ever higher tuitions could eventually bankrupt most universities. Cost-cutting actions such as SUNY's is just an early-warning sign of what is to come.

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