Editorial Note: Although we serve as Presidents of Hobart Student Government and William Smith Congress respectively, the opinions expressed in the following piece are personal opinions, not an official stance of the student governments or the student body.
Sometimes criticism is opportunistic contrarianism. This is not the case here; our criticism reflects how much we care about this institution and its future. Finally, at times we quote or vaguely refer to a Professor/Faculty Member; these are direct attributions to faculty who wished to remain anonymous given the sensitive nature of the piece.
If a prospective student were to visit the Hobart and William Smith website today, they would be greeted by a plethora of new programs: 12 new varsity sports, a new minor in public health and new major in Management, and even new masters’ programs in Management and Higher Education Leadership. What they don’t see is the impetus behind such programs, several years of dwindling enrollment, forcing HWS, like many of its liberal-arts peers, to adopt a more vocational curricular tilt. However, in an environment of scarcity, curricular trailblazing inevitably leaves behind some scorched earth. Our primary concern is, as Professor of Religious Studies Richard Salter put it, that the “Colleges are making critical decisions of identity in a state emergency.” While appealing to prospective students’ concerns about securing jobs may make short-term fiscal sense—and perhaps such initiatives can still be executed in the spirit of the liberal arts—such benefits are overshadowed when they erode our core disciplines in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, which have defined HWS’s robust liberal arts curriculum for decades.
Hobart and William Smith’s struggle with enrollment is nothing new. For several years the Colleges have fallen further and further behind our liberal arts peers in the New York Six Consortium. Over the course of just eight years, total enrollment has steadily dropped from approximately 2,400 to 1,600, a 33% decrease, while our consortium peers have remained somewhat constant. As a result, what once was a 11:1 student to faculty ratio is now 8.5:1, which on the surface may appear beneficial to a school that prides itself on a “relationship rich education,” however a lower student faculty ratio puts further pressure on an already cash-strapped institution: faculty expenses remain high while operating revenue from tuition is significantly reduced. A myriad of factors can explain the precipitous drop in enrollment—a series of turbulent transitions in the office of the President, the 2014 New York Times article outlining the failures of our Title IX office, and alleged missteps in the office of Admissions. COVID-19 put further pressure on enrollment numbers, and this coincided with a significant decrease in the Colleges’ endowment performance—at a time when many higher-ed institutions saw record gains—further compounding the Colleges’ financial difficulties.
New York Six Enrollment Enrollment Figures Retrieved from Respective Institutions ”Common Data Set” Reports
This predicament forced the Colleges to make critical decisions about the institution’s future. Some of the above problems were easily addressed, e.g., President Gearan returned during the 2022-2023 academic year, providing familiar stability after turbulence in the President’s office, and at the beginning of the 2023 academic year, the Admissions leadership team was entirely replaced. While these changes address the crisis in leadership, the Colleges still require additional reforms to address the accumulated budgetary deficit, namely balancing the operating budget by restoring an 11:1 student faculty ratio. To achieve this goal, the Colleges have pursued two strategies: increasing student enrollment—and thus tuition revenue—and decreasing faculty size—the Colleges’ largest expense. We contend that these adaptations are fiscally and curricularly misguided.
First, in what one Professor has described as a “scattershot” strategy, the Colleges have trundled out a number of new programs to increase student enrollment. The most publicized, ostensibly enrollment-driven initiatives prominently include the addition of 12 new varsity sports, two new graduate programs, and the new Management & Entrepreneurship major. While there is much to say about the impact of student athletes comprising near 40% of the total student body population—especially on the vibrancy of co-curriculars—we are most apprehensive about what appears to be the College’s adoption of a more “vocational” curricular tilt in an effort to attract students. Such a shift is most clearly embodied by the establishment of a major in Management and Entrepreneurship, as the Colleges seek to add what Professor Jack Harris has coined a “bulletproof major.” Or, in other words, a major that parents and prospective students believe to be “practical,” resulting in a clear, post-grad, career path and a reliable return on their invested tuition. Harris described this strategy as, “Advertising to what we think the audience wants.” The chair of both the new Management and Entrepreneurial major and the new Master’s in Management, Professor Tom Drennen pointed to a survey of high school students, which found some 30% of students were interested in business related majors/studies. The addition of the new Management and Entrepreneurial major and Management master’s program therefore appears to be a prudent move, especially in light of HWS’s peers in the New York Six Consortium—four out of five of which have some variant of Business in the Liberal Arts. Other Professors, though, have questioned whether HWS is 10-15 years too late in adding this major, abandoning its competitive niche as a true liberal institution for a field in which it has limited presence or reputation. Similarly, Professor of English Danny Schonning suggested HWS might see success doubling down on our liberal arts identity, pointing to other institutions, such as Bard College, that have seen marked success with a similar strategy. Professor of Africana Studies James McCorkle suggested that the Colleges could leverage their innovative and unique liberal arts programs to its advantage, highlighting the TRIAS Writer in Residence program, the Human Rights and Genocide Symposium, and its history as the first college or university in the United States to offer a major in LGBT/Queer Studies.
Hobart and William Smith does deserve a significant amount of credit for its structuring of the Management and Entrepreneurship major. Drennen highlighted that the program is distinct from a conventional Business major, which the Colleges, and Drennen himself, have resisted for some time. Drennen pointed to the liberal arts structure of the management major, explaining that not only is the content of the core courses taught more in line with a liberal arts education, but also that of the 15 courses required for the major, five must be spread across various other departments. Drennen specifically noted it is unique to have a business major with cross-listed courses such as “Peace and Violence in the Quran,” and asserted that these course requirements not only ensure students in the program receive a liberal arts education, but also give our core humanities and social science departments key exposure.
It appears that the Colleges’ general strategy is to appeal to prospective students with the vocational offerings students think they want, then uncover their passions—what they really want but don’t yet know—by exposing them to a well-rounded liberal arts education. In theory, this approach sounds promising, but it is questionable whether such synergies exist. An ethics professor who previously taught courses cross-listed with the entrepreneurial minor claimed their courses increased dramatically in size, which under normal circumstances might have been encouraging; however, the professor described many of these students as uninterested in the course beyond fulfilling the requirement. This indifference interfered with the quality of education for those who were passionately and actively engaging with the subject.
Ironically, other professors have called into doubt whether these students are even passionately engaging with the Management course’s materials. Professor Salter, for example, questioned “how many students really have a passion for the idiosyncrasies and technicalities of management?” Salter said he in no way thinks management is a “bad” major but stressed that it “must be framed in a liberal arts context,” noting that it may be a “good major to go along with something students are really passionate about.” Part of our concern is that management in isolation may yield practical skills but have limited applicability and longevity compared to the enduring habits of mind offered by a liberal arts education. It is, for instance, questionable whether industry-specific skills and techniques will remain useful in 10-15 years, especially with the rapid development and integration of AI, which will significantly alter the business landscape. In contrast, Professors we interviewed emphasized the lasting relevance of the skills obtained through liberal arts fields which, as Professor McCorkle stated, “cultivate a certain complexity” and “activate new ways of thinking.”
The College’s vocational shift highlights what is an overarching challenge for liberal arts institutions: appealing to prospective students who were raised in an era of intense focus on job security following the 2008 recession and what both Salter and McCorkle characterized as a period of renewed American anti-intellectualism defined by the belief that endeavors without clear economic value are not worth pursuing. This of course does not entirely excuse Hobart and William Smith’s poor enrollment numbers, especially when so many of our liberal arts peers in the New York Six Consortium continue to thrive, and institutions such as Bard have shown marked success in doubling down on the liberal arts. Will these new programs help to “right-size” the student to faculty ratio? Perhaps, but we ask at what cost?
The other half of the College’s attempts to “right-size” the student to faculty ratio, and thereby balance the operating budget, is to eliminate professorships. Over the past eight years, the size of the faculty has already decreased approximately 16% as professors retire and visiting professors’ contracts are not renewed. In the next few years, several faculty members have suggested that the Colleges will eliminate between 20 and 30 faculty positions in attempts to restore the 11:1 student to faculty ratio, a decision which, to us, makes neither fiscal nor curricular sense.
Discussions with a number of professors have revealed that the Colleges are operating with a several million-dollar-deficit. It appears that in the short term, the proposed scope of faculty reductions will account for less than one-fifth of the total deficit, a far cry from completely solving the underlying budgetary crisis. Moreover, if the Colleges are to solve their enrollment issue and return to peak enrollment of 2,300 students, or even to the previous running standard of 1,800-2,000, they will inevitably have to re-hire professors. The cuts to faculty, therefore, are ostensibly at odds with the theory that students attracted to vocational offerings will branch out into more liberal-arts-centric departments. It would seem the only way to justify such faculty reductions is to expect that these departments will remain stagnant.
It is also questionable whether cutting faculty positions will have the intended fiscal benefits. The Princeton Review regularly ranks the Colleges among the top 25 institutions in the country for the “Professors Get High Marks” accolade. This Princeton Review ranking, and the Colleges’ current low student to faculty ratio, regularly appear in the Colleges’ marketing materials, which attempt to sell a “relationship rich education.” McCorkle suggested that faculty cuts, and failures to replace beloved faculty and course offerings, may therefore endanger HWS’s inclusion on the list. This could, in turn, further hurt enrollment and associated tuition revenue. Notably, none of our peers in the New York Six Consortium appeared on this list, providing an important point of distinction against “like” institutions, which have so far been immune to the Colleges struggles with enrollment.
Minor potential fiscal gains associated with cutting faculty come at a very clear curricular cost, and while there are vacancies across many of the Colleges’ departments, the effects have been disproportionately borne by the disciplines at the core of a liberal arts education, namely, the humanities and social sciences: English Professor Grant Holly and Philosophy Professor Carol Obenrunner recently passed away. Art and Architecture Professors Michael Bogin and Stanley Mathews recently retired, and Philosophy Professor Chetan Cetty’s contract was not renewed. At the end of this year, several professors are expected to retire, including Jack Harris and Wes Perkins in Sociology, Clifton Hood in History, and John Halfman in Environmental Studies. At the end of next Fall, Professor of Religious Studies Michael Dobkowski is expected to retire. Several other professors have also been rumored to retire in the coming semesters, though accurate numbers have yet to be publicly announced. Failure to replace essential faculty members such as these deals a significant curricular blow to fields deeply integral to the liberal arts. These prominently include, but are by no means limited to, English concentrations in Film Studies and Screenwriting, the entire branch of Political Philosophy courses–which was once a tenure track line–and the entire Judaic Studies concentration in Religious Studies.
According to the College’s Provost Sarah Kirk, key decisions regarding the strategic hire of recently retired faculty, as well as decisions regarding future cuts to departments will be made by the faculty Academic Program Review committee. The committee’s decisions will be informed largely by four-page self-evaluations submitted by every department. Several professors have taken issue with these evaluations, aptly claiming the institution is asking departments to “defend their right to exist.” Professors have also expressed concerns that the review has been hastily assembled and the criteria by which each department will be reviewed is not clear. This prompts the question—will academic departments be judged on popularity alone or their inherent importance to the liberal arts? Speaking to the criteria which informs the Committee’s decisions, Kirk states, “There are several factors being considered in the Academic Program Review. The Committee is considering the various ways in which a department or program contributes to the student experience and enhances the general curriculum, as well as the representation of students across all demographics, including the number of students majoring in a particular area. Finally, we want to continue to offer programs that reflect the broad diversity of an excellent liberal arts and sciences education.” The weight assigned to these various factors remains to be seen. To inform their evaluations, departments were sent copious amounts of data, which signal which criteria is at the fore. Regarding the directions given to departments to conduct their evaluations, Professor Karen Frost-Arnold stated that, “numbers drive the conversation in a certain direction,” and that, “centrality to a liberal arts curriculum was not a question asked.” Not only are the exact criteria of evaluation unclear, but also many faculty members question if the process itself is being conducted in good faith. Some believe that asking faculty for their input during this process, is just a “fig leaf” and a “show of consultation,” and they suspect that, in fact, the administration has already made major decisions regarding the Colleges’ curricular future.
In the meantime, departments are left fighting a battle of attrition, as remaining faculty step in to take over courses vital to their major’s requirements. In some cases, it seems the existing cuts are spreading faculty too thin. Frost-Arnold noted that the Philosophy department will be significantly reducing the number of First Year Seminars it sponsors, noting that faculty are already spread too thin, attempting to teach the courses required for the major. This impact is already being felt, with no Philosophy FSEM being taught this semester. FSEMs are an essential part of the Colleges’ curriculum and, in some sense, an act of faculty service, given that the courses, by design, do not count toward any particular major or minor. Frost-Arnold added, however, that they do serve as an effective recruiting pipeline for departments, offering a chance to share the value of their respective disciplines with new students who have yet to declare a major. These cuts, therefore, are not only a disservice to current majors, who may lose the opportunity to take highly-sought-after courses, but also significantly hamper a department’s ability to attract new students. Given that part of the Academic Program Review committee’s criteria is the number of students majoring in a particular discipline, we also worry that these faculty reductions may lead to a vicious cycle.
Kirk has reaffirmed the institution’s commitment to maintaining the liberal arts, stating that “Hobart and William Smith has a proud history of offering an exceptional liberal arts and sciences education, and we remain wholly committed to continuing to do so.” While we do not doubt that Hobart and William Smith remain committed to the liberal arts, it has been made apparent that in an environment of scarcity, additions in one area inevitably lead to subtractions in others. As integral faculty positions and associated course loads disappear within departments, the future of HWS’s liberal arts tradition becomes uncertain. Professor Salter questioned how HWS can maintain its standing as a liberal arts institution without essential areas of study, such as Hinduism, Judaism, and a robust Classics Department asking “at what point are we no longer credibly a liberal arts institution?” Another member of the faculty echoed these concerns calling back to the philosophical thought experiment of the Ship of Theseus, asking how many seemingly small curricular changes the colleges can undergo before its core identity as a liberal arts institution has been fundamentally altered? While the Colleges are clearly not wholesale abandoning their liberal arts identity, it is inarguably being chipped away with every professor retirement, death, and unrenewed contract. If HWS is losing its core liberal arts identity, then perhaps T.S. Eliot’s words are appropriate, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”