Liberal Arts at the Brink?

A provocative new book of the same title by Victor E. Ferrall, Jr. is not always fun to read. Ty Buckman has arranged a discussion of the book for FA11, and the book is also being read by some members of our board of directors at the suggestion of David Boyle, our board chair.

Ferrall’s thesis is that our beloved institutional type is in danger of slipping away into vocational education or disappearing altogether. His logic is relentless, and he says we need to get our act together before it is too late. What we offer is too costly, no longer sufficiently in demand (or poorly understood and explained), or structurally inefficient.

Ferrall is not a crackpot. As past president of Beloit College, he has thought about the plight of liberal education a lot. He loves liberal education and wants it to survive into the future. In other words, he is like you and me.

One especially provocative suggestion of the book is that we need to collaborate rather than compete with other liberal arts institutions. What would this mean? Consider our sister institution down the road – Capital University. At least with respect to departmental structure, we are pretty similar. We both have Music, Math, Economics, etc. A boring but critically important ECON 101 concept – economies of scale – reveals the problem Ferrall takes up.

Here is a thought experiment I have contemplated recently. What if we “merged” with Capital but managed somehow to keep our separate identities? Lest you think that farfetched, what were two Lutheran seminaries are now one. In another venue, school consolidation at the K-12 level has proceeded at a relentless pace for 50 years.

We could teach Music here and it would be discontinued at Capital. They could teach Economics or French and we would discontinue those departments. Students and faculty might seamlessly (remember, I am an economist, and we love frictionless planes, too!) go back and forth between Columbus and Springfield. Remember, the idea is to exploit economies of scale and eliminate duplication.

Whether a “merger” is too wild an idea to consider, Ferrall  thinks we need to reconsider our business model and look for kinds of innovation we would not have considered in earlier times -  all in the cause of saving what we love.

Please join the discussion led by Dar Brooks Hedstrom and me, upcoming in September. Look for a detailed announcement soon.

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