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A Concerned Faculty Member on the Fate of the Humanities

Note: The following post is by a concerned SLU faculty member.

Over the past weekend I attended a symposium on “Political Theology, Democracy, and Virtue Ethics” at Duke University. While there, I reunited with an old college friend who just happens to be Dean of Natural Sciences at the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University. The conversation inevitably turned to the struggles at SLU over the proposed Common Core.

First, some interesting facts and statistics about Duke University: (1) Duke is ranked 10th among the best national universities by the U.S. News & World Report; (2) 80% of their undergraduates reside in the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS); (3) 49% of the undergraduate class of 2019 are students of color; (4) 31% of undergraduates participate in service learning; (5) 82% of Duke students double major; (6) Duke undergraduates cannot declare a major until their sophomore year; and (7) all Duke undergraduates complete a core curriculum that includes history, philosophy, ethics, and foreign languages.

Despite its vast resources, Duke University—like all universities in the US—is concerned about enrollments. Like SLU, Duke is worried about the national downward trend in the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded in humanities disciplines (though at Duke those numbers remained flat rather than declined). Unlike SLU, however, Duke University made a major commitment in 2006 to support the central role of the humanities in tackling the world’s largest and most complex social issues. This commitment to funding humanities research, recruiting humanities faculty and students, and weaving the humanities throughout its new strategic plan through a series of cross-discipline collaborations soon led to a $6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for Humanities Writ Large, an initiative aimed at transforming the humanities in undergraduate education.

Meanwhile, during this same period at SLU we have witnessed a systemic reduction of humanities tenure lines within the CAS, exacerbated by an undergraduate recruitment strategy that has starved the humanities disciplines of undergraduate enrollments while producing a disproportionate number of General Business Administration & Management, Nursing, and Kinesiology & Exercise Science majors. When confronted with evidence that SLU undergraduates have been disproportionately recruited in STEM fields or business education, the administration responds by claiming that they are simply following market trends.

As recently discussed in this forum, a SLU alum reports that the university’s new historic $500 million fundraising campaign has set “the strategic priorities of academic excellence, health sciences, business education, athletics and scholarships,” with no mention of the liberal arts and humanities. This fundraising campaign serves as a de facto strategic plan for the university, which—unlike the intentional, long-term effort at Duke University to shore up and integrate the humanities across the curriculum—actually serves to undermine and erode what has been a key component of SLU’s longstanding Jesuit Catholic mission and identity.

When it was pointed out at a Nov. 6, 2019 forum that the Common Core proposal as it currently stands greatly diminishes the role of the Jesuit Catholic liberal arts tradition, Interim Provost Chet Gillis responded by reminding the faculty of his credentials as a Catholic theologian, then reassured us that this proposal is solidly Jesuit and Catholic. It does not take a theology degree to posses a basic knowledge of, or to recognize that the SLU Common Core proposal betrays key aspects of, the classical Jesuit liberal arts tradition. Sadly, such concerns from faculty, alums, and current students alike continue to fall on deaf ears. Sorry, Interim Provost Gillis, but “Trust me, I’m a theologian” is not an adequate response to the serious concerns that stakeholders are raising about the proposed Common Core. By the way, you can trust me on this, since I too am a theologian.

At the forum, faculty were reminded that the UUCC invites questions, comments, and requests for clarification from faculty councils and assemblies and that the deadline for submitting such requests is Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. The UUCC will receive responses with the intent of changing or improving the SLU Common Core proposal based on faculty feedback. On Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019 during a meeting of the CAS Faculty Council, a preliminary discussion on the Common Core began, but a special meeting was called for one week later on Nov. 14, 2019. The procedure outline says that all responses from groups, departments, and individuals in CAS will go forward to the UUCC, but a vote will be taken on that date to indicate the relative support for each proposal. One wonders what can be accomplished on such a tight schedule. The UUCC deadline for responses from faculty assemblies is the very next day, and the final version of the SLU Common Core will be presented in January 2020. Can the committee give due process to all the recommendations submitted from all the faculty assemblies in 1½ months?

To be fair, the SLU Common Core proposal is not an assault on the humanities. However, in the context of the recent history of “starving” the humanities at SLU—especially in light of the longstanding desire from natural sciences, business, and nursing programs to reduce core requirements—the current core proposal constitutes a leveling of the Common Core requirements at the expense of key components of the Jesuit liberal arts tradition (foreign languages, philosophy, theology, and history). Rather than challenge programs to integrate the Jesuit mission into their degree programs, we are eliminating important aspects of the Jesuit tradition for pragmatic reasons without adequate reflection as to why and without exploring alternative pathways.

I worry that the mission of the university has shifted without out our knowledge and consent. The agenda of the last 10 to 20 years—to devote more and more resources to business and STEM, while actively recruiting primarily in these areas—has already transformed the university to such a degree that irreparable damage has been done to the humanities. SLU stakeholders have been fooled by a shell game, unaware that while we focused our energies and resources on preserving the Jesuit Catholic identity, the university rebranded itself and is now involved in a campaign to quell dissent and convince us that, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, 2 + 2 = 5, black is white, and the SLU Common Core is Jesuit.

I will not defend the humanities or justify their place within the university curriculum; I should not have to. As a recent article in America: the Jesuit Review opined, “thinking about literature and philosophy exclusively as useful—effectively, as tools—ultimately undermines the humanities. The humanities should be studied for their own sake.” In lieu of a defense I offer the opening words of the university mission statement: “The Mission of Saint Louis University is the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity.” I remind the reader that at one of the nation’s top universities, Duke, professors in the natural sciences are working to integrate the humanities across the curriculum, which, I venture to say, is more in keeping with the Jesuit mission and identity than the Common Core proposed by the UUCC.

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