Writing@CSU Home Page | Writing Gallery | Talking Back | Volume 4, Issue 1

logo“Essential Knowledge: Liberal Arts ”

Shannon Duty

            I am a first generation college student, and as such I was raised to value the opportunity to gain a university education. The chance to go to college was to be treasured and not taken lightly. When I first started college three years ago at Auburn University, I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. There were so many new ideas and points of view. There was always something to be learned. College really was, as I have often heard it called, a “marketplace of ideas”. That was only a short time ago but the changes I have witnessed in higher education have been happening at an alarming rate. Never would I have imagined that my education would be in jeopardy, that classes I was so excited about would be cut or that my programs of study could be in danger. Universities promise a classical, well-rounded education but that is a promise too many schools are forgetting. The Liberal Arts are at risk. Everyone wants to point the finger at someone or something else, but most people feel that it is the financial situations among universities that are to blame.

            Budget cuts are a fact of life for most institutions of higher education. There are numerous reasons for the lack of funding, and the issue is becoming increasingly complex. In Colorado, policies such as TABOR, Amendment 23, and the new College Opportunity Fund are having a major impact on the percentage of the state budget that state universities will receive. A letter to the Colorado General Assembly, written by presidents of Colorado’s public universities says, “The higher education system in Colorado affords access to most Coloradoans, regardless of income or location, to a top quality public higher education system. If meaningful TABOR/Amendment 23 reform does not occur this valuable resource will almost surely become less accessible and will be forced to absorb budget cuts from which it might take decades to recover” (Glasscock). At a national level, President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act is absorbing much of the state’s budget that previously might have gone to fund higher education (MacPhereson). Also, states are dealing with rising Medicaid costs and “other federally mandated expenditures” which are effecting university funding (Pratt).

            In recent years, Liberal Arts programs have been competing unsuccessfully for funding with other programs that receive large grants and public funding (Pratt). In an article titled “The Crumbling Intellectual Foundation,” Scott Smallwood writes, “…Scientific fields can bank on corporate support, state money, or even big donors who wants to direct their giving to science or technology.” In the same article Kenneth Wissoker, editor and Chief of the Duke University Press, makes the point that “universities encourage venture capital thinking.” Schools are much quicker to cut programs that do not have the potential to bring in much money and that is a major reason why Liberal Arts programs are under attack. Many universities also cut Liberal Arts programs because they believe the loss of these programs affects the least number of students. They often site low enrollment or student interest as reasons for the cuts. Universities also target these departments because they feel that in doing so they are protecting their “marquee” programs and most honored professors.

            It is easy to see that universities are feeling pressure to cut funding or eliminate many programs, but are the Liberal Arts receiving an unfair, larger portion of these cuts? Liberal arts compose the majority of most schools’ core curricula, but still they are the first cut. The University of New Hampshire’s College of Liberal arts was cut in 1998 by $566,000, more than a quarter of the total 2.2 million dollars slashed from the budget. They were forced to eliminate “35 classes in literature, composition, fiction, journalism, linguistics, five geography courses and classes in foreign languages, logic, public speaking and social sciences (Liberal).” The University of Wisconsin-River Falls cannot afford to hire another full time philosophy professor which is leading people to within the philosophy department to believe the program will be cut (Majak). The University of South Carolina is considering merging the College of Liberal Arts with the College of Math and Sciences. The reason they cite for this is to “tack on the under funded College of Liberal Arts onto the better funded College of Math and Sciences, where, lacking any new funding, it will remain the ugly stepsister in the new mega-college” (Oppermann). There has also been a major problem with overcrowding in many Liberal Arts classes at many schools. The University of Iowa says the enrollment in many of these courses has gone up by 10-15%. Larger class sizes cause a decline in the quality of education for the students because it affords less access their professors (Kamm).

            While the sciences and business schools in higher education are suffering in the current fiscal crisis, it is not to the same extent of the Liberal Arts. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville business department recently received a 300 million dollar grant from the Walton family of Wal-Mart store “with the goal of sparking economic development” (Pratt). Life sciences, which are so highly valued at Colorado State University (CSU), have received twice as much funding in the past four years from the National Institutes of Health, an amount of more than $23 billion (Smallwood). CSU also ranks third in the nation for total research funding among universities without a medical school, according to President Penley (Thompson). In general, business and the hard sciences can count on large grants from wealthy alumni and corporations. It appears that it has become fashionable to have one’s name attached scientific research or new technology, “We honor people who make enormous profits or invent gadgets that are useful” (Smallwood). As for business schools, in the past 20 years their alumni have seen an incredible surge in income and have a lot of money to donate to their alma maters or other business programs.

            It is not only the students that are suffering because of these budget cuts. Faculty within the Liberal Arts departments are possibly at the greatest and most immediate risk. At CSU the problem has recently been brought to everyone’s attention. Adjunct faculty within the college of Liberal Arts are handling larger teaching loads than their tenured counterparts and are receiving disproportionate pay. They teach on average 4 classes per semester but are still considered part-time for purposes of health care. They also make substantially less than adjuncts in other fields of study such as engineering or biology. For example, an adjunct in the English department is paid $24,000 a year, which is less than third of the pay that universities reports for the average faculty member and approximately $8,000 per year less than that of an adjunct in the the College of Natural Sciences (Noriega). The faculty in the English department believe that inequities of this kind “damages the quality of higher education,” and causes faculty to seek employment elsewhere, and even “discourages students from becoming teachers” (Equity). It would be misleading to say that budget cuts are the only reasons for this problem, but they do play their part.

            It is often overlooked that our libraries, which are an important foundation for the Liberal Arts, are also suffering immensely. At the University of Massachusetts the library lost 20% of its staff and about $20 million for the acquisition of new books. The University of California’s university system is in such budget constraints that they are only able to afford one book for the entire system, where previously they were able to by one book for each campus. In Arkansas Paul Babbit, a Political Science professor at Southern Arkansas University, is forced to wait until he returns home to New Jersey every year to use the Rutgers University library for his research because his library cannot afford to purchase the journals he needs. A budget cut of 5.5% caused the University of Idaho to cancel subscriptions to approximately 130 journals. With libraries cutting back on the number of books and journals they purchase it is getting harder for graduate students and professors to get published, and as a result get tenure (Smallwood).

            But why are the Liberal Arts still so important in this day of science, technology and big business? They encourage creative thinking and teach valuable creative thinking skills. They teach us how to interact with others and how to look at problems in new and different ways. Some believe that the Liberal Arts are more important than ever because “at a time when the explosion of multimedia technologies compels us to expand our very notion of literacy to include visual and even auditory literacy, the arts have become particularly relevant” ( Bartlett). There is also evidence that the study of music, art and related subjects improves students’ aptitude in more traditional academic disciplines and helps foster social and emotional development (MacPhereson). The Liberal Arts are the foundation of a universal and well-rounded education. More importantly Liberal Arts teach us what it is to be human. They help us to understand our culture, our beliefs and our language, things that are the basis of who we are as individuals, as a society, and as part of the larger world at hand.

            The future of the Liberal Arts does not look bright, especially in Colorado. I do not think most people understand the implications of some of the state’s new legislation on higher education. At first glance The College Opportunity Fund, Colorado’s new higher education voucher system, seems promising. The fund will allot each student $2,400 to use at any state university or public school they choose, or $1,300 for use at any of the approved private colleges. Now universities will not receive one lump sum payment from the state ( Henley). The College Opportunity Fund has been criticized as a method to take away funds from already under funded public schools and give them to private institutions. Many students are lead falsely to believe that these vouchers will lower the amount that they pay in tuition, but in reality it just allows students to see in a different way the state contributes to their education (Robins). The main benefit of the voucher system, from the point of view of university administrators, will be that it allows the university to file for enterprise status. With enterprise status, the university is freed from many of the restrictions imposed by TABOR because the school is no longer funded by the state. Under TABOR, a cap is set on tuition that allows for a 1% increase in tuition every year over inflation. For most universities this 1% increase is not enough is not enough to keep up with the financial demands of their institutions, so by being freed from TABOR restrictions, they would be able to raise tuition to offset the decline in state funding. Being free from TABOR would also allow schools to act more like private enterprises ( Henley). If universities start operating like private businesses they have the potential to starve the Liberal Arts. In essence each college is left more and more to fend for itself and find its own funding, and as a business model, the schools’ administration are more likely than before to give money to those programs that make the most money. This is disastrous for the Liberal Arts. Without large research grants and other funding, these departments might not have enough funding to survive.

            The problems being suffered by the Liberal Arts do not, I believe, have their roots in fiscal concerns. The roots are much deeper. The problem lies with society. The situations within universities “reflect public sentiment” (Smallwood). There will be no significant change unless a change is made in the hearts and minds of the people. It will be a proud day for me as a student when education is valued once again as an end in itself. Our society needs a better balance of practical and intellectual needs. There is utility in “useless knowledge,” the utility is that it is not useless at all. It is essential.