Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Petsko's Letter to SUNY-Albany, the Mission of the University, and the Faltering of Humanities Support

Have you had the chance to read Professor Gregory Petsko's open letter to the president of SUNY-Albany? If not, read the open letter here. If you have any interest in higher education at all, it is worth your time.

Essentially, President Philip announced that due to budget strictures, SUNY Albany would be eliminating the French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts departments. Reasons included that 'there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs' and that, as Petsko writes, "the humanities were a drain on the institution financially, as opposed to the sciences, which bring in money in the form of grants and contracts."

The letter goes on to detail the value of liberal arts as integrated into the university curriculum. Petsko is more eloquent than I am, and I leave you to read his letter for the rest of it.

But what I want to return to is this: what is the mission of the university? Petsko states, "the word 'university' derives from the Latin 'universitas', meaning 'the whole'. You can't be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore."

I am inclined to agree with him. The business-model as applied to the university is having exactly the impact many predicted, which is to cull out that which made people holistic thinkers and to focus all attention on that which is profitable. That in itself is not an education.

Even more concerning to me was a discussion among high level library administrators (I was not involved in the discussion, merely an attendant) at a well-respected University. The discussion boiled down to the fact that these administrators actually felt it was a good thing that independent liberal arts colleges in their area were closing, since it would up the enrollment at the larger university. The conversation went on to address how great it would be if more humanities programs would close at the university so that those collection funds could be funneled "where they belong," towards collections more suited to the technical programs of a land-grant university.

Now, I know it is Pollyanna-ish to expect that academic disciplines have more in common than they have differences, but I expected some degree of respect to be shared. Is it a free-for-all with every discipline out for themselves to avoid the axe? If so, that's a damned shame. Particularly since there's no guarantee that being saved this time means that you'll be seen as something worth saving in the future.

And as American political discourse becomes ever more insular and hyperconservative, as xenophobia becomes more pronounced even as we are expected to be more integrated with other cultures around the world, doesn't it behoove us to value those humanities departments that give us a glimpse into other worlds and times? Economic recession is no excuse to start curtailing what is considered an education.

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