A publication of Sacred Heart University
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Cuts to the Liberal Arts are a Social Sin

With this post, I am retiring from writing for this blog, which I have been doing since its inception in late 2018. Most of my previous posts have explored the interactions of church reform and parish life (a few of my favorites on this topic are Civility, Civics and Church Vitality, Breaking the Distrust Doom Loop and Unlike Any Mass I've Ever Attended). For my final post, I return to a theme I discussed in September 2020: how Catholic universities ought to be—but are not yet—a paradigm for ethics in the Church.

In that post, I launched from Fr. James Keenan’s central argument in his 2015 book, University Ethics: Universities too often fail to look inward and examine their motives. They cover up this lack of self-critique by spewing hot air about their missions. Keenan intimated, and I argue explicitly, that Catholic universities, as a group, do not notably excel over other private and public institutions.

Of course, universities, like any human institution, are not all bad or all good. Like any human institution, they are subject to the dynamics that Reinhold Niebuhr diagnosed in Moral Man and Immoral Society: “In every human group there is less reason to guide and check impulse… less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.” Niebuhr is talking about what Catholic social teaching now calls social sin. Sure, we are all sinners, but might not we expect Catholic institutions to be particularly attentive to resisting structural sin?

Take the cuts in faculty and majors that have been in the news in the past year. When one compares how, when faced with worrying budget situations, leaders at the University of Mississippi and the University of West Virginia acted compared to leaders at Marymount University and Manhattan College, the latter two Catholic universities did not distinguish themselves. They did not differ from their public university counterparts by the purely instrumental and financial language that their leaders used to justify their decisions, nor did they use a more deliberative process that involved all stakeholders.

Beth Ann Fennelly, a former poet laureate of her state who has taught at the University of Mississippi for over 20 years, powerfully called out the implications of this shift in vision:

“Reducing education to a business model changes what, and who, gets taught. Framing students as entry-level employees emboldens this nudge toward the vocational. But students need a wide horizon to explore, dream, try, fail, try harder, fail better. They need, if you will, to be useless—for a while, anyway.

It’s true that a great majority of my students won’t go on to be writers, but they will go on to be readers who, through literature, educate themselves cognitively, emotionally and spiritually. They’ll leave my classroom prepared to think critically, to consider another’s perspective and muster empathy and to recognize fake news, fearmongering and demagogy.”

University leaders love to say that they are preparing students to think critically and to develop empathy and democratic skills. But when the chips are down, what do they do?

Take Manhattan College. As reported in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) last month, more than 25% of faculty have been terminated over the last seven months. Among the programs that stand to be eliminated is the college’s religious studies major. Interestingly enough, at Marymount College last year, theology was also expendable, because it and other humanities majors were “no longer serving Marymount students.”

Now, two objections that Catholic university presidents and boards of trustees would make to what I’ve been arguing are (1) universities must protect the bottom line, and in the case of Manhattan and Marymount, they were in crisis; and (2) even Catholic universities that trim humanities majors still do plenty to promote a Catholic liberal arts education for all their students. Neither objection is without merit, but the second can be distracting, because there are dozens of “but what about…?” activities at every college. For instance, there will still be campus ministry activities, volunteer programs and courses in English and history. But Marymount’s and Manhattan’s actions show no commitment to maintaining a community of teacher-scholars in the liberal arts who can develop a community of learners over the course of their studies.

As to the first objection, Keenan’s critique is that universities don’t establish processes to ensure ethical oversight of routine decisions and to guide them through ethical crises. The ethical way to deal with a crisis is to involve all stakeholders, including students, in whose name cuts are being made, and faculty, who by long tradition are the primary caretakers of the academic enterprise at universities. It’s not the fact of financial difficulties or the need for budget changes that are in question, but how the decisions are being made. “The administration doesn’t want to discuss the situation as equals. When the faculty asks questions, they seem to respond with threats,” Adam Arenson, a Manhattan College history professor, told NCR.

For these reasons, 89% of 147 participating professors voted to express no confidence in Manhattan president Milo Riverso in January, while a student-led petition against the cuts has gained over 3,100 signatures.

Rev. Jim Wallis, leader of the Sojourners community of Christian justice activists, says that the operating principle of God’s economy is that “there is enough if we share it.” Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fishes was meant to show that an abundance mentality based on sharing is far more powerful than a deficit mentality based on hoarding. Are Catholic universities taking their Scripture seriously?

Changes to the current dynamic are not going to be easy, and they probably only happen through more collective action by faculty, both full-time and adjuncts. But for a start, we can at least get honest with our language.

To conclude with poet laureate Fennelly, “So let me suggest that higher education administrators jettison the corporatese. My students’ degrees are high value only if they’ve reason to value them highly. My campus is not your corporation. My classroom is not your boardroom.”


Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

Comments

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Dr. Brian Stiltner

As a follow up, here are two interesting recent reports. One about how bad pay for professors is: https://www.chronicle.com/article/your-pay-is-terrible-youre-not-alone. One about how exorbitant pay for private university presidents is: https://www.chronicle.com/article/president-pay-private-colleges.

Dr. Brian Stiltner

The periods at the end of my URLs messed them up. Here they are again:

https://www.chronicle.com/article/your-pay-is-terrible-youre-not-alone

https://www.chronicle.com/article/president-pay-private-colleges

Jon Walker

Dear Brian, I have had the utmost respect for you as a colleague and professor for over twenty years. I understand and agree with what you are saying. I have had said similar things in less collegial ways in the past. But be open and truthful, do you feel that Sacred Heart University has been any less or more faithful to the liberal arts mission than the institutions you have mentioned? Do you believe a sixty million dollar hockey facility serves the mission of the liberal arts? A golf course and restaurant are taking the scriptures seriously? I retired from SHU for many good reasons, some very personal, but I have never looked back and felt that I had abandoned the Idea of a University. I still believe that the institution had abandoned that idea and that I no longer belonged there. We were quite profitable, but I remember the quote of the rich man, the camel, and the eye of a needle. Thank you for the thoughtful essay.

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