What is Goucher College? Are we still a liberal arts school even without majors in math, theater, Jewish studies, and Russian? Even if the recently announced phasing out of certain majors does not directly affect many students on campus today, unintended consequences of these decisions may have a broader impact. What does this mean for our identity and future and, perhaps more importantly, was this the right decision?
Clearly, there will be some short-term and potentially damaging consequences. Professors in cut majors may lose their motivation for teaching in areas now deemed unessential. Through this process, many of us students who are future alumni and future donors felt disenfranchised. We were not meaningfully invited to critical meetings where decisions were made, and the most important meetings were strictly closed to students. This neglect may impact students’ current and future commitment to the school.
That being said, with every decision, there are winners and losers. Even at a non-profit institution, hard decisions have to be made. Higher education in the United States ultimately must face economic reality, and we risk losing everything if we fail to make hard financial decisions. If, as argued, many of the discontinued majors were unsustainable from an economic standpoint, their continued funding posed a real problem for Goucher’s big picture. If student enrollment did not support these programs, why and how can we justify maintaining them? Do these curriculum changes have an existential impact, calling into question our status as a liberal arts college?
Technical skills education versus general study have been pitted against each other since the institutionalization of education. Roman Patrician families bought Greek slaves as tutors for their teenage boys to ensure proper education in areas of mathematics, grammar, rhetoric, history, and logic. These skills were essential for a liberalis, a free man, to participate in civic life. Specializing in a technical skill was exclusive to slaves. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, all education was further limited only to the clergy; even noble families were largely illiterate for hundreds of years. The first universities, such as Oxford, were established in 1096. As time progressed, Late Medieval education primarily required choosing between training to be doctor, lawyer, or clergy, or, for the wealthy, the study of the artes liberales.
Higher education in the United States took liberal arts to the next level during the 19th century. Harvard and Yale, once religious institutions, became centers of liberal arts. Higher education was no longer reserved for elite white men. Women’s colleges, like Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and the Women’s College of Baltimore, later renamed Goucher College, were founded. Historically black colleges were established: Spelman College, Howard University, and many more. Educating these once marginalized populations was critical to women’s suffrage and desegregation, along with a huge liberalizing impact on society in the United States.
The 20th century challenged this wave of liberal arts enthusiasm with the creation of research universities and large state schools. These larger institutions promised specialized skills much more affordably than private institutions and threatened small liberal arts colleges. As such, public universities expanded higher education across class lines to more people than private institutions could ever hope to reach. By simply increasing the number of students in a lecture hall, costs per student for professor salaries, heating, and administration could be reduced.
In the 21st century, the major financial challenges to Goucher and other small, private liberal arts schools nationally have only increased. Higher costs due to health care, pensions, and the demand for high quality updated physical structures on campus have only put more demands on small private colleges. Specifically, over the past several years, Goucher has been suffering from serious financial deficit. Phasing out of unpopular majors is only one correction to address this. Investing in new First-Year dorms and a new dining hall, while increasing short term costs, will hopefully attract more students to Goucher and make us more competitive. Keeping unsuccessful majors is not an investment in the future.
On the bright side, despite the loss of some student majors, perhaps the unspent funds could be redirected to better supporting successful departments. For example, psychology is one of the most popular majors at Goucher, yet the department’s funds were essentially redirected to support the book studies minor. Fundamentally, that is unfair to the psychology department, who could use their own funds to invest in themselves, helping attract the best and brightest students to Goucher.
But how does this impact our status and does that matter? Liberal arts in the 21st century cannot be the liberal arts of the ancient Greeks or the Middle Ages, or even the 19th century. The world has changed and the unfortunate truth is that the phased-out majors are unpopular nationwide. Peace studies is one of our most popular majors, but it is only is sixty years old; a baby when compared to most departments!
We must adapt and endure in spite of the fact that we may feel forgotten or ignored. We as a student body must pull together. I am not advocating passivity; I am advocating for clear heads and a willingness to evolve. I hope with time we can begin working together—all Goucher students, administration, faculty, and alumni—for a better community on campus.