Sermon on “The Mount”

Steven Volk, Feb. 22, 2016

The MountI have thought a lot about the rolling catastrophe that has engulfed Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. If you haven’t been following events there, you’ve been spending way too much time watching reruns of the Super Bowl halftime show…or preparing your classes! In either case, the Chronicle of Higher Education has prepared a handy packet of articles to help someone in your situation. Or, in case you don’t want to go there, here’s a short summary:

In December 2014, Simon Newman, a private-equity chief executive with no real higher-education experience, was named to be president of the Roman Catholic, liberal arts institution in north-central Maryland. Among Newman’s early initiatives was a plan to improve The Mount’s (as it’s called) metrics – numbers that US News & World Report pays attention to when compiling its “best colleges” edition – by addressing first-year retention. The way to do this, he reported in an email to the faculty, was to get “20-25 students to leave” at the start of the fall semester, before these new students would be counted by reporting agencies. He planned to send incoming-students a “survey” which welcomed them to make use of this “very valuable tool” to help them “discover more about” themselves. They were told that the survey was “based on some of the leading thinking in the area of personal motivation and key factors that determine motivation, success, and happiness. We will ask you some questions about yourself that we would like you to answer as honestly as possible. There are no wrong answers.”

National Police Gazette, 1880

As it turned out, there would be “wrong” answers, as the survey was not about happiness, but an attempt to find first-year students who should be “culled” before the end of September. The plan was opposed by Provost David Rehm (OC ’83), and Dr. Greg Murry, Director of the Veritas Symposium, a “first-year seminar” course designed to initiate students into a “Catholic liberal arts community dedicated to the pursuit of truth,” and where the “survey” would be distributed. Murry conveyed his concerns to President Newman, and it was during their discussion that President Newman delivered his by-now infamous sentiments:

This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.

Students weren’t the only ones in the bathtub, as it turns out. Joshua P. Hochschild, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and an associate professor of philosophy who was critical of the “survey,” was removed by the president last fall. Then, on Feb. 12, Provost Rehm was fired. Newman suggested that it was common practice for new presidents to appoint senior administrators: “It’s all a part of moving forward, bringing in new ideas, and continuously improving,” he wrote. And there certainly was to be plenty of room for new ideas as Rehm and Hochschild were part of 8 other senior administrators fired by Newhouse in his first months at The Mount. These included the director of communications and the chief information officer.

Still, it’s one thing to dismiss administrators, another to fire faculty, and it was only when Newman moved to terminate faculty that opposition truly blossomed. On February 15, the president summarily fired Ed Egan, an untenured faculty member who directed the university’s prelaw program and served as adviser to the campus newspaper (Mountain Echo) which broke the story, and Thane M. Naberhaus, a tenured associate professor of philosophy, who was sent packing without a hearing for a breach of his “duty of loyalty” to the university. He was declared persona non grata and escorted off campus by security.

personanongrataNewman was forced to retreat and reinstate the two faculty members (he called it a Lenten “act of mercy”) in the face of widespread opposition including a petition signed by more than 8,300 academics and opposition from major faculty rights organizations. A week ago, the faculty voted 87-3 for Newman’s dismissal.

So far, the narrative seems straightforward, if appalling: a president more comfortable with the culture of private equity than private liberal arts colleges unilaterally institutes a plan to help the university look better by identifying “weak” students at the start of their college careers (what could go wrong?), is not afraid to fire his “underlings” for disloyalty, and berates the faculty as a bunch of timid idealists who have no idea how the world really works.

Then, a week ago, a poll of students taken by the Student Government Association found that more than three-fourths of students who voted — approximately 60% of the undergraduate population of 950 students took part in the vote — backed Newman. One initiated a petition supporting the president as an “intelligent businessman with only the Mount’s best interest at heart.” He expressed his upset that “faculty cannot embrace the much-needed change.” (Perhaps the student hadn’t heard Newman remark that, “Twenty-five percent of our students are dumb and lazy and I’d like to get rid of them.” Or maybe he agreed.)

Newman prepares to address a group of 70 students supporters at a rally accompanied by his wife and the rugby coach; Feb. 15, 2016. Photo: Bill Green, Frederick News-Post

Locke or Latte?

What is the change that students are supporting? According to some, Newman has “improved the quality of life on campus.” Newman defends himself by pointing out that he’s done a lot in less than a year at the helm, citing specifically a new on-campus Starbucks, investments in athletics, and forums with students. Chocolate Chip Cream Frappuccinos aside, it appears that central to Newman’s educational vision is a desire to shift The Mount away from its traditional liberal arts (and Catholic) orientation. “Catholic doesn’t sell,” he is reported as telling faculty; “liberal arts don’t sell.” What does sell, according to Newman, is to give students what employers want, which isn’t French and German, but programs such as cyber security. Further, the focus of the The Mount should be shifted from the concerns of “internal constituents” (i.e., the faculty) to the students.

Not surprisingly, some students are down with that. Stephen Witkowski, a senior, supports Newman because he [Witkowski] is exploring graduate programs in data analytics and has heard that Newman is seeking to implement that program.

So here we are: at a place where private equity capitalists-turned-university presidents and students looking for employment both define liberal arts (and liberal arts faculty) as the enemy. Stefan Collini wrote of this unusual alliance in a recent London Review of Books article “Traditionally,” he observed, “students have been understood…as part of the problem. They ‘sponged off’ society when they weren’t ‘disrupting’ it. But now,” he continued, “students have come to be regarded as a disruptive force in a different sense, the shock-troops of market forces, storming those bastions of pre-commercial values, the universities. If students will set aside vague, old-fashioned notions of getting an education, and focus instead on finding the least expensive course that will get them the highest-paying job [in data analytics, perhaps],” then the government (in the case of David Cameron’s UK) or the administration (in the case of Mount Saint Mary’s) “will go to bat for them.”

But who will it be batting against?… The universities and, more particularly, academics, who, unless kept to the mark by constant assessments and targets, will revert to type as feather-bedded, professional-class spongers. A curious inversion has taken place whereby academics now occupy the demonised role formerly assigned to students, who must now be defended in their efforts to obtain ‘value for money’.

I would note, with Collini, that the phrase “value for money” is utterly vacuous in the context of higher education since it tells you nothing about the values that are embedded in an education (and because it presumes that the fuddy-duddy faculty favor giving our students no value for increasing bundles of money.)

Defending a Liberal Education

So what IS the value we seek to impart to our students and how do we make its worth evident? This is the point where I left the discussion two weeks ago (See: “Who Brings the Fight for Equality?”) and to which a faculty colleague (tip of the hat to Denny Hubbard) added a valuable critique: “[S]houldn’t we be thinking less about how short-sighted” the people are who push the position that higher education is only about vocational training, he argued, and instead work on “fram[ing] our views in a way that might convince them to think otherwise? These people aren’t stupid… they are just responding to a different set of life experiences.” He continued, “I’m not arguing that we invite the ‘Tea Party’ in for a seminar, but we might want to think a little more about how to frame our arguments in ways that aren’t so easily dismissed. If we just fall into the trap of thinking, ‘they’re stupid and just never will get it,’ we are going to watch liberal arts disappear as we talk among ourselves about how wonderful [such an education] is. Maybe a little introspection is in order.”

stoolAt least at one level, I couldn’t agree more. The liberal arts approach to higher education is, in my view, a three-legged stool, and each “leg” has its history, meaning, and value. The first leg is critical citizenship, cultivating, generating, encouraging young adults to participate in democratic citizenship by understanding the world around them and making critical evaluations based on evidence. (See John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, for example, or Leon Botstein’s “Are We Still Making Citizens?”)

The second leg is humanistic engagement and personal transformation. William Blake asked some two hundred years ago: “How do you know but that every bird that cleaves the aerial way is not an immense world of delight closed to your senses five?” These are questions of humanistic intent, and to ask them is to engage in what poet and scientist Diane Ackerman called a “love affair with life.” “The great affair,” she wrote, “the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop…”

But those “happy few” of us who teach in liberal arts colleges (a select few, to be sure, even if less and less a “band of brothers”) run the danger of appearing/being either snobby elitists or hopelessly clueless if we neglect the third “leg” of the stool: preparing our students for a future in which the great majority will seek gainful employment. This is something that incoming students certainly do not neglect. The most recent (2015) survey of American freshmen published by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reported that 85% of entering first-year students at U.S. institutions of higher education indicated that “getting a better job” was a very important reason for pursuing a college degree (although, interestingly, this figure has been declining slowly since 2012, as has the “desire to make more money”).

CIRP-why-get-degree-17

Higher education, particularly from the 19th century on, has had a vocational focus, even more so after World War II when it first opened its doors to non-elites. The percentage of the population (25 and older) with at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 6% to 24% from 1950-2000. The percentage of high school graduates going on to college has increased from about 45% in 1960 to nearly 70% today. So yes, for sure, if our critics think that liberal arts colleges (and we, the professors) are dismissive of the economic reality our students face, our future will hardly be a rosy one.

But no, the critics of a liberal education are not stupid; were it only so easy! Yet they are ignoring (either deliberately or through naïve omission) both the real values that go into higher education and how a liberal education must address all three of its purposes

When governors, university presidents, or other critics contend that liberal arts “doesn’t sell,” or blast the study of anthropology or French or philosophy for not preparing students for the jobs that the state needs, they are not only ignoring the (full) purposes of higher education, they are willfully ignoring the evidence that liberal education actually better prepares students for employment than narrow vocational education. At least if we are to judge by what employers say. The argument here is not that students shouldn’t study data analytics, for example, but that students who go into that career will be better able to do their job because they also studied philosophy and art; or that they shouldn’t study anatomy, but that they will be better nurses if they can empathize with patients, communicate with health care teams, and speak to patients and their families in their own language.

The most recent jobs outlook survey published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (“2015 Job Outlook”: The Candidate Skills/Qualities Employers Want) indicates how employers rated the importance of various skills and qualities in job candidates:

National Association of Colleges and Employers: “2015 Job Outlook”

These numbers are broadly comparable to the previous year’s figures with a few differences. In the latest survey, employers rated the first two categories as even more important than in previous years; and the ability to communicate has nudged up one step. These findings are also broadly consistent with those reported by the American Association of Colleges & Universities from a study commissioned by Hart Research and Associates (2013): “It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.”

  • 95% of employers “put a priority on hiring people with the intellectual and interpersonal skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace;”
  • 93% of employers say that they are asking employees to “take on more responsibilities and to use a broader set of skills than in the past;”
  • 95% of employers say that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major;”
  • 91% of employers say that “the challenges their employees face are more complex than they were in the past.”

That Reads “Liberal Arts,” Front and Center

In a recent article in Knowledge@Wharton Robert Lytle, managing director and co-head of education at Parthenon-EY, a global education consultancy, confirmed these findings, commenting that a liberal arts background is what most employers are seeking in job candidates, although they don’t always realize it. “Often, they can’t really articulate what they’re looking for, but they will come back to you and say critical problem-solving skills, group ability, communication skills…. That kind of reads ‘liberal arts,’ front and center.”

This breadth of this data struck me in two ways. In the first place, and as many others have noted, the surveys consistently confirm that what employers are looking for is the bread-and-butter of what a liberal arts education offers: collaboration, intellectual and interpersonal skills, critical thinking skills, clear communication, the ability to plan, understand complexity, and operate in a diverse and international environment. One may rightly ask why governors, legislators, and some university presidents who are comfortable with higher education being driven by market forces seemingly ignore what employers are saying. To answer would require a longer post, but I would suggest that two issues are involved, one of which has to do with what we in the liberal arts don’t do, and one of which has to do with what we do do.

In terms of the first, to quote Lyle again, “There’s a lot of empirical evidence that suggests students who go into a liberal arts program actually do not advance in their critical thinking skills over time. [Combine that] with the fact that they don’t get a lot of what [employers] are pointing at, which is real-world experience, soft skills and the ability to work in a group.” While I would argue that the data suggests that liberal arts colleges do a much better job of this than Lyle would acknowledge [see, for example, the critical study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, Academically Adrift (Chicago 2011)], I would also say: physician heal thyself. It’s up to us to see that we are providing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that our students should be getting, continually evaluating ways that we fall short, and applying new pedagogic practices of reflection and re-engagement to address any shortcomings.

In terms of the second, I would argue that our critics are often uncomfortable with the two other “legs” of higher education: our responsibility to create a critical, democratic citizenry and our potential to become transformational by introducing our students into a broad humanistic framework which we share with all people and across all times.

So, let’s take the employers’ concerns to heart as we work to insure that a liberal arts education incorporates all three “legs” of its stool. Take a glance back at the qualities employers seek in their new hires. What is it they value? Someone who works well in a team, communicates effectively both inside and outside the organization, has the capacity to analyze and solve problems, and possesses an abundance of interpersonal skills. These are skills and dispositions that are a central part of the liberal arts experience. One could only imagine how different the outcome would have been if Simon Newman brought these skills with him to the presidency at Mount Saint Mary’s.

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