Higher Education

Last month, Brandon Busteed, the Executive Director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup, published an op-ed titled “Higher Education: Drop the Term ‘Liberal Arts.’” Readers might be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a sensationalist title designed to generate web traffic, but no—it very succinctly captures Busteed’s argument. He reveals his thinking most clearly in his second paragraph, where he writes, “‘Liberal’ is politically charged, and ‘arts’ has a negative connotation regarding improving graduates’ job prospects, which is the main reason why Americans and currently enrolled college students value higher education.”

Let me see if I have this right: Because some Americans don’t understand that the term “liberal” has multiple meanings, and because they have grown accustomed to seeking career training and calling it “education,” we should cheapen an idea that has served us well for millennia? I’m not buying it. There is a lot of garbage on the internet these days, but it’s been a while since I read something so wrong-headed.

To be fair, Busteed is very clear that he is not criticizing the notion of liberal arts education per se. Rather, he focuses on a “branding” challenge. “Putting the words liberal and arts together is a branding disaster,” he writes, “and the most effective way to save or defend the liberal arts may be to change what we call them.”

The problem with Busteed’s claim, as I see it, is that he gives in so easily to the anti-intellectualism that currently pervades our culture. He is certainly correct in that some Americans—perhaps even many, though it’s hard to say since he only cites survey data from Republicans—see “liberal” as a loaded term. And my own conversations with my students confirm that many do view “education” as a means to a very specific end (that is, getting a job). Unfortunately, these are egregious misunderstandings of the terms themselves, and they completely miss the point of a liberal arts education. The deep irony here is that those who decry the “liberal arts” as nakedly ideological or useless are probably themselves the most ideological, and possibly the most in need of a liberal arts education.

Let’s examine etymology for a moment. (Early purveyors of the liberal arts, after all, would have read and spoken Latin, so we should have at least as a passing familiarity with it before we degrade their legacy.) The word “education” comes from the Latin educare, for “to teach” as well as educere, for “to lead or draw out.” This latter origin brings to mind for me Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which comes from Republic, itself a work of educational philosophy. Without wading too deep into Plato’s theory of Forms, one purpose of education is to draw students out of the cave of ignorance—to lead them from a world of shadows into the light of reality.

Building on this, the word “liberal” comes from the Latin liber, for “free.” It is the also the root of “liberty,” which was and is the real aim of a liberal arts education: to develop students’ ability to think critically and for themselves. Interestingly, the Latin liber is also translated as “book.” It is no accident that at the very core of the liberal arts are a set of skills—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—that we would today define as “literacy.” It is also no accident that these same skills form the foundation of a healthy republic. (And while we’re on the subject, should we also “re-brand” our republican form of government before the left-wingers work themselves into a tizzy?)

Without the skills and mindsets imparted by a liberal arts education, our democratic republic will fail. Maybe not tomorrow, but someday. As Jefferson famously wrote, “[I]f a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” As he (less famously) also wrote, “[L]aws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education [emphasis mine] worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” And before anyone tries to dismiss Jefferson by placing him on our present-day political spectrum, allow me to note that Jefferson was, in point of fact, a Democratic-Republican! (What does that even mean, you ask? Well, a liberal arts education might tell you.)

Contrast Busteed’s stance with the following quotation from the recently published The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance: “[A] liberal arts education—which should be a radical act against dependency and for self-sufficiency—was once conceived of, wrongly, as a luxury that only the rich needed.” The author is Ben Sasse, Republican senator from Nebraska. Clearly, this conservative recognizes the value of a liberal education, and moreover, he has no problem calling it that.

Perhaps I am being unfair to Mr. Busteed. After all, he does at least pay lip service to the notion that the liberal arts still have value in preparing students for civic life. (“The liberal arts curriculum is as important today as it was in ancient times,” he acknowledges.) But he also capitulates to the critics of the liberal arts without exposing the serious flaws in their thinking. We need not abandon the liberal arts themselves to lend credence to the notion that they are left-wing and/or useless, and to “re-brand” them in the face of ignorance would do just that.

Personally, I believe there are legitimate conversations to be had about the ideological skewing of the professoriate and the development of illiberal speech codes on college campuses. (I also think these issues are often blown out of proportion by ideologues, but that doesn’t mean the criticisms contain no validity whatsoever.) Likewise, I recognize that the prospect of finding remunerative work after graduation is a very real concern, especially for students from middle-class and working-class backgrounds, many of whom accrued significant debt for the privilege of becoming (like myself) the first in their families to earn a degree.

In fact, I think there are problems with our educational system at basically every level which demand solutions. What I do not think is that abandoning the term “liberal arts” will solve any of these problems. If anything, what we need are more people trained in the liberal arts: free citizens willing and able to read and to think, to question assumptions, to unpack and expose faulty logic, to marshal evidence in support of ideas, and to argue persuasively for a better way forward.

In order to equip more people with these skills, we must make a better case for the liberal arts—not simply “re-brand” them as something different. (And let’s not forget that the data Busteed cites comes amidst a widespread and coordinated emphasis on the so-called STEM fields—what amounts to a massive marketing campaign for one particular vision of education.) What we need today is a broader, more civic-minded vision.

Busteed’s conclusion misses the mark, but his piece does serve a valuable purpose: to alert us to an erosion of confidence in one of the cornerstones of our republic. If we don’t rise to meet this challenge head-on, our educational system will continue to narrow in its focus, and the liberal tradition in education will continue to slip away—with serious consequences for the liberty that we all cherish.


Note: In my last post (several weeks ago), I wrote about the “administrative coup” that had taken place at my alma mater, the University of Virginia. (I’m very happy to report that the besieged Board of Visitors did vote unanimously to reinstate ousted President Teresa Sullivan—and even more happy to report that they did so in an open meeting live-streamed over the web to an audience of more than 10,000 people.) I also wrote about how this had prompted a good bit of thinking on my part about the governance of K-12 independent schools, so this post will be my attempt to connect the two.

Although it may not appear to be so at first glance, K-12 independent schools are similar in many ways to public universities like the University of Virginia (perhaps that’s one reason why I chose to teach in independent schools). True, independent schools are much smaller and don’t have the same public mission, but they do—as I suggested in my previous post—share similar administrative and governance structures.

More importantly, though, they are “service institutions.” Unlike corporations, schools and universities are accountable first and foremost not to an external group of shareholders, but to the individuals who are moving through them at any given moment. Now, I generally hate to use industrial metaphors when discussing education, but in this case I find it irresistibly valuable. Along those lines, if education is viewed as an industry—and a school as a factory—it is as if the factory is accountable not to the shareholders, but to the widgets themselves.

From a business perspective, this makes no sense. In the eyes of a shareholder, widgets are but a means to an end—by-products of the more important profit-generating mechanism. But this metaphor illustrates a crucial point about education: namely, that schools cannot be judged by the same calculus as free enterprise. University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan makes this point eloquently in an article about Sullivan’s reinstatement:

Universities are supposed to be special places where we let young people imagine a better world. They are supposed to be able to delay the pressures of the daily grind for a few years. They are supposed to be able to aspire to greatness and inspire each other. A tiny few will aspire to be poets. Many more will aspire to be engineers. Some will become both. Along the way they will bond with friends, meet lovers, experience hangovers, make mistakes, and read some mind-blowing books.

For better or worse, I’d say that’s basically the vision for all educational institutions. (It would be nice if we K-12 educators didn’t have to worry about the hangovers, but you see my point.) In the next breath, Vaidhyanathan asks:

Does that sound wasteful? Does that sound inefficient? . . . Damn right it does.

In fact, schools are “wasteful” and “inefficient” by design, and again, I happen to think this applies to independent K-12 education as well.

They are wasteful and inefficient because we are not trying to manufacture widgets. We are trying to nurture human beings, each of whom comes to the institution with his or her own view of the world. Regardless of whether we’re working with two year-olds or twenty year-olds, how can we even begin to educate without acknowledging that basic fact?

Although independent schools are not subject to the same calculations as traditional businesses, they must attract and frequently compete for students, and so they are susceptible to market pressures. The situation at Virginia provides a powerful example of what education columnist Kevin Carey calls “status anxiety.” He writes acerbically:

[W]hatever good intentions that the University of Virginia Board of Visitors may have had were quickly overwhelmed by its parochial anxieties. Apparently, they were afraid that their beloved alma mater might not be able to compete with rich private universities . . . They were worried that revenues would be used to support money-losing subjects like classics instead of recruiting “star” professors who never teach undergraduates. That the task of teaching young people might distract from the pursuit of status competition with rival universities on whose boards their fellow plutocrats sit. That the university would be forced to get by with $5 billion in the bank.

I think Carey is on to something here. Of the few vague explanations for Sullivan’s ouster given by Rector Helen Dragas, nearly all hinted at a fear of decreased “competitiveness.” If you weren’t aware that you were reading about a university, you might have gotten the impression that the U.Va. brand was losing market share.

Although competition can spark innovation in education as in other industries, we should acknowledge that an overemphasis on competition can also lead to rash decisions and a myopic focus. This is especially true when decision-makers come to feel that their institution is being “left behind.” Ironically, the “save-our-ship” choices that look so appealing in the near-term often turn out to be underwhelming—or worse, overwhelming—in retrospect.

For an example, take a look at the trajectory of classroom technology in K-12 independent schools. What started out a decade or so ago as a “cutting-edge” value-added (translation: a symbol of institutional status) has essentially become the norm nationwide. And schools that rushed into it without sufficient forethought are probably still behind, given that they likely paid little attention to how technology might reshape their school’s culture. All of this ignores the fact that technology has come to claim a considerable portion of a school’s budget, sometimes with only marginal benefits.

I don’t mean to malign educational technology. I am no Luddite, and technology in the classroom is important and quite valuable when well-integrated. (I deliberately stop short of saying it is “invaluable.” Technology certainly has value, but that value is not infinite.) My point is instead this: I suspect that schools making decisions from a position of fear or a desire to “compete” in the marketplace often pay dearly for those decisions in the long run.

To be truly effective in the long-term, everyone involved in education (board members, administrators, teachers, parents, students, alumni, etc.) needs a clear recognition that

  1. good, lasting change in education takes time.
  2. real, meaningful change in education can’t be mandated—it must be cultivated.

Don’t get me wrong: this should not be an excuse for sitting on one’s hands, but rather a plea for patience. Rather than rushing into the latest and greatest thing, schools should proceed by a structured series of checkpoints at which to assess the institution’s progress. (At Virginia, Teresa Sullivan was criticized for her tendency toward “incremental change.” What the Board should have realized is that, when it comes to education, all change is incremental. There’s a reason why college takes four years.)

Similarly, this should not be an excuse for waiting until there is complete agreement before moving forward. True consensus is admittedly rare. Rather, this recognition simply suggests a willingness to engage various constituencies in a transparent process for distilling their ideas into action, whether that comes from voting, representative committee work, etc. (At Virginia, the Board presumed to make wholesale changes to the University without consulting the faculty, students, alumni, etc.—as if such a strategy were likely to be successful without the support of the rank-and-file.)

Educational institutions would benefit from a tripartite shared governance model . What I have in mind is not a disingenuous call for “faculty input” or a spineless submission to “faculty demands,” but a genuine collaborative discourse between teaching faculty, administrators, and board members. However, this highlights the need for faculty tenure, or at least some sort of longer-term job security that will allow those educators working “where the rubber meets the road” to have a meaningful voice in school policy, whether public or private, primary or post-secondary.

I maintain that schools favoring consensus will be healthy institutions, because schools—even private schools—are not business ventures, and they should not be run as such. I’m not saying that the bottom line doesn’t matter. It obviously does. But we should not forget for a moment that it is not the only thing that matters, or even the most important.

In the end, the management style of a school’s leadership filters down to its students. What kind of message do we want to send to the next generation of leaders? That if you sit in a position of power, you needn’t bother considering the people who will be affected by your decisions? That titular authority matters far more than respect and trust?

Save perhaps a few members of the U.Va. Board of Visitors, I don’t know anyone in education who would answer those questions in the affirmative (and even they have learned their lesson, it seems). And yet there are plenty of institutions still organized in such a way as to send those very messages. Perhaps it’s time we rethink how we govern our schools.

Note: The following post was prompted by the firestorm currently taking place at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, the New York Times provides a decent overview. Basically, a faction within the University’s Board of Visitors—led by Rector Helen Dragas—maneuvered privately to oust the well-respected Teresa Sullivan, who was only two years into her term as president. The story is exceedingly complex, and it seems to grow even more so by the hour, but if you’re interested in learning more, there has been fairly extensive coverage in the Charlottesville, Richmond, and Washington media, as well as the Chronicle of Higher Education and various blogs.

When I first received word of Teresa Sullivan’s “decision to resign” on Sunday, June 10, I was—like most alumni—caught entirely off guard. Given that she had served for only two years, my first thought was that Sullivan must have been wrapped up in some kind of scandal. Two weeks later, I almost wish that had been the case.

During those first few days, even as I watched my inbox and Twitter feed blow up, I tried not to become too emotional. If anything, I was hopeful, because I saw Sullivan’s departure as an opportunity—a chance for the University to go out and get Ed Ayers, respected and prize-winning historian, former dean of the University’s College of Arts & Sciences, current president of the University of Richmond, and more or less my academic idol.

My only encounter with Teresa Sullivan came during Reunions last summer, when I shook her hand in the receiving line at the reception she hosted at Carr’s Hill, the president’s house. She was entirely pleasant, but really, who wouldn’t be pleasant in a receiving line? Although my impressions of her were favorable, they certainly don’t constitute evidence of her ability to do the job, and really, all of this is just a long way of saying that I did not receive news of the split as a pro-Sullivan partisan.

Although it quickly became clear that Sullivan’s “resignation” was in fact a termination, I gave the Board of Visitors the benefit of the doubt. If they asked her to step aside, I assumed, they must have had a solid reason. Over the past couple of weeks, though, my opinion has evolved slowly but steadily. Every article I read leaves me more disheartened and angry, and these posts will represent my attempt to express my own thoughts, not only about where the Board of Visitors went wrong, but about what we as educators can learn from their mistakes.

First off, I’ll admit that I am not terribly knowledgeable about the issues that seem to have caused the rift between Sullivan and the Board. Personally, I’m skeptical of online education, but I also recognize that—in some form—it will likely play an increasingly important role. And I’m willing to admit that there’s probably some value in it, particularly if you’re trying to communicate basic factual information. Either way, I have much more to learn before I can make a definitive judgment there. I also acknowledge that while my own financial literacy probably leaves something to be desired, budgets do matter. To ignore the financial stresses that the University (or any educational institution) faces does no good.

Reports that the Board ordered Sullivan to cut the Classics and German departments are troubling, to be sure, but let’s be honest: in the midst of a general economic downturn, shrinking state support, and strong pressures to resist further tuition increases, the bottom line does become a crucial concern. The University’s endowment is healthy, but if they want to keep it healthy, they can’t afford to draw on it too much or indefinitely simply to keep struggling programs afloat. Sometimes, unfortunate though it may be, cuts do have to be made. I get that. So I’m not even saying that the Board of Visitors is necessarily wrong in its policy prescriptions.

(It’s worth noting, of course, that the faculty of the University has spoken against those prescriptions with near unanimity over the past two weeks, a fact that should impress teachers at all levels. As they well know, getting a large group of educators to agree on something—especially educators who have tenure and don’t have to worry much about what their co-workers think of them—is a true feat.)

No, what bothers me most about the Board’s approach is that it exhibits a general disrespect for—or perhaps a willful ignorance of—academic values. This concept, as I see it, takes two basic forms, the first of which is a willingness to share information and debate issues in an open forum. Consistently over the past two weeks, the Board has made its decisions behind closed doors. As the governing body for a public institution, this is unacceptable. The Board also made the conscious choice to communicate as little as possible with the University’s core constituencies—almost as if faculty, staff, students, and alumni don’t matter. Almost as if those people could have nothing of value to add to the discussion (assuming there was an honest and open discussion). This leads me to my next point.

The second way that basic academic values manifest themselves is in an acknowledgement of the limits of one’s own expertise. In academia, historians don’t tell chemists how to run their experiments. Mathematicians don’t analyze literature. Specialization has its downsides, to be sure, but expertise is revered and respected because it is earned.

By now, I probably don’t need to point out that the members of the Board are not academics. They are, by and large, business executives who are probably accustomed to issuing directives without being questioned.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to stereotype broadly about businesspeople and I don’t mean to suggest that they have no place in universities. Many businesspeople—including some on the Board, I would imagine—are highly intelligent, thoughtful, and caring individuals. And institutions of higher education—especially public ones—should not be entirely self-governing. Lastly, truth be told, businesspeople have something valuable to offer to educational institutions, because most professors of English or sociology or physics are ill-equipped to manage the finances of such large institutions. If we want the Board to recognize the limits of its expertise, we have to be willing to recognize the limits of our own.

So again, businesspeople are not to blame here. The problem is instead an organizational one, as the institutional structures in which corporate executives operate tend to be established with the goal of efficiency or profit in mind. They tend not to be established with the goal of promoting dissent, something that is at the very heart of any academic endeavor.

To reject dissent as healthy and productive is to deny the value of scholarship itself. Furthermore, to pretend that one’s knowledge is all-encompassing—that your decisions don’t stand to benefit from the input of experts in a variety of fields—is to invalidate the life’s work of the many outstanding employees with whom you are charged with a fiduciary responsibility.

In sum, the problem is not that businesspeople sit on the Board, but rather that they fail to recognize that a university is not just another business. To govern in accordance with academic values, they should operate transparently, focusing their attention on financial or legal matters and leaving questions of educational policy to the educators. Or, barring that, they should work to promote energetic discourse in the decision-making process rather than working to conceal it from public view.

I’m afraid that the way they have proceeded, though, is indicative of a “creeping corporatism” in education as well as an increasing dependence on high-dollar, strings-attached “philanthropy.” (I place the term in quotation marks because to me, philanthropy suggests a certain selflessness—a love of people or of a cause greater than oneself. To attach strings is to move in precisely the opposite direction.) As state funding declines, universities become more and more dependent on donations, and in the current economic climate, they run the risk of becoming beholden to their wealthiest patrons.

It’s one thing for a donor to use his “power of the purse” to effect a change in who calls the plays on Saturdays in the fall. I don’t agree with that on a philosophical level, but I’m also not going to stomp my feet about it for two reasons: 1) because it affects a relatively limited number of students, and 2) because it is not central to the institution’s mission. Drastically changing the direction of the football program does not risk jeopardizing the institution’s standing as a whole. But it’s another thing entirely to use one’s checkbook to reshape a public institution’s educational philosophy.

Let’s be clear: we don’t yet know what the future holds for the University. It is conceivable—if barely—that the long-term results from this kerfuffle could be positive. But since we can’t predict the future, let’s at least examine the consequences we have seen thus far: extraordinarily negative publicity, a tarnishing of the University’s proud reputation, threats of withheld gifts from donors (except for, presumably, our very own billionaire hedge fund managing alumnus), the potential loss of applications and matriculations (both undergraduate and graduate), faculty resignations and the concomitant difficulty in recruiting strong replacements, as well as a precipitous decline in employee morale. Beyond this, the seeds have been planted for a fracturing of the community as a whole, particularly as the debate veers toward the political/ideological. I hesitate to call these short-term results because each has the potential to affect the University for years to come.

On top of this, let’s not forget that the Board likely still needs to hire a new president, a search that promises to be much more challenging than the last. I suspect that visionary leaders will shy away from working for an oversight committee that has shown such interest in micromanagement, which leads me to believe that the primary qualification for the next hire will likely be a willingness to say, “Yes.”

All of this at an institution where Thomas Jefferson’s words are inscribed over doors as omnipresent entreaties: “Here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Perhaps Teresa Sullivan did err in her approach to managing the affairs of the University. I have seen no clear evidence of this, but I welcome it if it’s out there. At the same time, I wish that the Board had had the intellectual courage to tolerate that error—temporarily, at least—and combat it with reason rather than a reliance on sheer authority.

A willingness to engage all interested constituencies and solicit ideas for setting the University’s course might have produced a stronger, if less efficient, solution. Once that process was complete, assessing Sullivan on her ability to achieve those goals would have made sense, recognizing, of course, that real, lasting change takes time.

Alas, it was not to be.

As an independent school educator, the past two weeks have raised all sorts of questions for me about what school good governance looks like, regardless of level. After all, K-12 independent schools tend to be governed and managed more like small colleges and universities, typically with a number of deans reporting to a president or head of school, who reports, in turn, to a board.

I’ll consider this in more depth in my next post, but the bottom line, I think, is that the educational mission of the institution must always remain at the fore. Losing sight of academic values makes it possible for an educational institution—even one as august as the University of Virginia—to become just another business venture. And I now know that we must be ever vigilant, given just how quickly such a shift can apparently happen.

May the Board of Visitors act in defense of academic values this afternoon.