THR Web Features   /   June 8, 2016

Two Cultures, At Least

B.D. McClay

Imposición del Birrete doctoral Universidad Complutense (Anonymous), via Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this year, connoisseurs of higher-education horror stories were introduced to Simon Newman, the erstwhile president of Mount St. Mary’s University. Descending on this small, Catholic liberal-arts college from the world of private equity, Newman made a few things clear: It was too Catholic and too “liberal arts.” He referred to some students as “Catholic jihadis” and—according to one tenured faculty member he’d fired—proclaimed that “Catholic doesn’t sell, liberal arts doesn’t sell.”

That’s not why Simon Newman made the news. He landed there because he’d tried to weed out students who could turn out to be low-performers—before those students had a chance to perform well or badly. Because Newman illustrated his thinking by comparing students to bunnies that needed to be killed, and because he responded to public criticism by firing tenured faculty, he found himself national news.

How does a small Catholic liberal-arts school end up with someone so unsuited to its particular mission? Why was someone from the world of private equity presumed to be so immediately suitable to the task? The answer lies in the kind of people who made up the board of Mount St. Mary’s. They, too, came from that kind of world. It is, to them, the real world of sensible people. Less important: Catholic education, the institution of tenure, the mission of a liberal-arts college, or the obligations an institution has toward struggling students.

But it’s also a truism, even to people who disapprove of Newman’s actions, that his is the real world of sensible people—that (as a friend said to me while the story was unfolding) in dismissing liberal-arts education, Newman wasn’t saying anything untrue. Even if the liberal arts (or tenure, or Catholic education, or students) are the important things, they can’t survive on their own. They require a sensible overseer. And that overseer cannot come from within the university.

This is a pattern of governance that reveals itself in many stories about higher education. It happened at the University of Virginia (as recorded in these pages, in fact), at Shimer College, and proved to be a factor in the attempted closing of Sweet Briar. And it’s been spotted at my alma mater, St. John’s College, which is currently (and controversially) changing its governance structure. Though (by way of full disclosure) I’ve been involved in these arguments over governance almost from the beginning, they were recently introduced to the world by Roger Kimball at Real Clear Politics.

Some background: St. John's College is a small liberal arts college with two campuses. One is in Annapolis, Maryland, and one is in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It has a set curriculum,  required of all students, that covers philosophy, literature, music, mathematics, and some of the sciences, among other things.

Because of the distance involved, governing both campuses together has never been easy: After the founding of the Santa Fe campus, they were initially governed by one president jointly, and later—after that proved to be untenable for most humans—by two presidents with parallel administrations. The current proposal involves one “real” president and one subordinate president to be placed at each campus. The “real” president will have executive authority over both campuses. For the time being, this position will be filled by Mark Roosevelt, the new president on the Santa Fe campus.

In itself this proposal is mostly strange because it does not seem to eliminate any high-level salary positions—like that of, let’s say, an extra college president. But between today and June 18th—when it will be voted on by the Board of Visitors and Governors—the language could certainly change.

The nature of the proposal caused a great deal of controversy on the Annapolis campus and some formal protest from the faculty, including a unanimous faculty resolution proposing an alternate governance structure. This controversy was subsequently exacerbated by an email leak in which one board member refused to recognize the unanimous Annapolis faculty resolution as such and snapped at a dissenting board member: “Your email indicates that you seem interested in being popular with [faculty].”

I’m grateful to Roger Kimball for his article, because I think the larger trend here is deeply troubling, and also because I think we all benefit from holding these arguments in public rather than in private. (If some of the concerns raised over the legality of the Board’s actions are true, there’s been far too much privacy.) But I take issue with Kimball's framing it the way that he did. In the sense that he means it, what is happening at St. John’s is not about culture war or social justice. St. John's itself is an institution that has never been conservative or liberal. The ruckus is not even about politics, if by “politics” we mean American party politics. Mark Roosevelt's political commitments are irrelevant here.

What's of concern here is not the threat of changes to the curriculum but the disrespect the board's action shows for faculty governance.  And at a college where the faculty still hold (comparatively speaking) some administrative power, that’s no small cause for concern.

When asked about dedicating financial resources to faculty, for instance, Roosevelt indicated that resources would be spent on faculty only after all other financial needs were met. In saying this, Roosevelt is certainly no worse than any other college president. (And indeed, there are other reasons to suppose him to be a capable leader.) He’s just speaking in the pragmatic language of hard truths and tough choices. The faculty aren't the consumers of the college. And they aren't the caretakers of the college—that's the board. The faculty are a selling point. So they come last.

Some people are moved to agreement and others to suspicion by this kind of language. To me, such language does signal that there is a culture war, but one different from the kind that Kimball sees.

As Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University, writes in A War for the Soul of America:

In the 1980s conservatives like William Bennett criticized the academic Left on the grounds that it had destroyed the humanities with its newfangled relativistic theories. Today, in contrast, the national discussion is about whether the humanities are worth supporting at all.… The terms of the debate in the 1980s—a debate over what kind of humanities would best serve a democracy—seem quaint by such standards. Today the decision is not Locke versus Fanon but Locke and Fanon versus Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric whose book on management coauthored with his wife Suzy Welch, Winning, is widely read in American business schools. The literary theorists who did so much to challenge the almighty Western canon seem feeble up against Winning.

As unpleasant as it might be to hear for veterans of the first round of culture war, critical theorists and lovers of the traditional canon are now in the same boat. We’re living in a world where “philosophy major” is held up by candidates running for the presidency of the United States as derisively as they might hold up “gender studies major.” Art history majors have become another favored target, whether of President Barack Obama or of Donald Trump’s policy advisor. And this derision doesn’t just affect the humanities. Studying anything for non-instrumental reasons is the punching bag. You can hate the kids who want to put trigger warnings on Ovid, but they're also the ones who want to read Ovid.

The world of higher education may still be ruled by culture war. But it’s not, these days, about the canon or dead white men. It’s about a corporate view of the university that holds students to be consumers rather than citizens, regards alumni as nuisances or donors merely, and considers faculty only as an afterthought.

In conversations with faculty at St. John's, I've been told that during the session to discuss and vote on the proposed governance changes, the deans were excluded from the room. What, after all, could they have contributed to a conversation about college governance? That’s the real war. And it’s one, sadly, that faculty are going to struggle to win, whether at St. John’s or on any other front.

B.D. McClay is associate editor of The Hedgehog Review. Some disclosures: She is a graduate of St. John’s College and related to the member of its Board of Visitors and Governors who allegedly wants to be popular with faculty.