Friday, February 11, 2011

The New Inquisition

Inquisition by Francisco Goya

In the academic community, among professors of Literature, Philosophy, History, and Culture (also known as the Liberal Arts), there is great concern about the governmental budget crisis of 2011.  Public universities are scrambling to find funds, state governments are broke, and college students look forward to bad times.

Business departments at universities are frequently asked for consultations.  Colleges are businesses now, needing a "branding" and a business plan.  

While there are no direct insults or attacks on the Liberal Arts - the attacks are coming by way of budget cuts.  Language departments are closing at different universities... as very serious thing in our day of globalization where learning additional languages beside English is a must.

The University of Houston is also in the middle of this turmoil.  A "Budget Committee" has been established, but no  representative from the Liberal Arts was named....  

Its the Inquisition again, without physical torture ---  elimination by red-lining, layoffs, cuts in student financial aid, and department closures.  Knowledge of our world is no longer as important.  Its all about money folks.

p.s.  as you may note, the campus a number of new buildings... the budget crisis has not affected their construction, nor the athletic department.

below is an essay written by my colleague Robert Zaretsky:

Panel shaping UH future excludes liberal arts input


Feb. 10, 2011, 9:11PM

In 1950, the conservative British philosopher Michael Oakeshott published an essay titled "The Idea of A University." According to Oakeshott, the university "is not a machine for achieving a particular purpose or producing a particular result; it is a matter of human activity." By that activity, he understood a collective and sustained intellectual effort — a conversation, really, grounded in a common curriculum - that would leave a lasting mark on the participant. Oakeshott's ideal university may not equip a student "to earn a living, but he will have learned something to help him lead a more significant life."

Never has a separation of 60 years felt more like 600.

Earlier this week, Provost John Antel announced the University of Houston faced massive cuts in state funding - somewhere between 16 percent and 20 percent - requiring "significant cost savings" on our part. To reach this goal, he will review all university programs, as well as mount a search for "new business models" - a phrase he used twice - to meet the challenges we now confront.

Toward this end, the provost named an advisory committee whose report, presumably, will extend to our "new business model." The committee has 11 members, two hailing from the Bauer College of Business, two from the College of Optometry and the rest from other professional schools. The humanities did not make the cut, despite the fact that two committee members - David Francis from Psychology and Mark Clarke from Health and Human Performance - have offices in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS). Both men are excellent scholars, but their research has little to do with the humanities, while CLASS - the product of a long series of misbegotten administrative decisions - has as much internal coherence as the former Yugoslavia.

Only a cynic, perhaps, would conclude the liberal arts faculty was not asked to discuss the "new model" because we belong to the "old model." This model emphasized the centrality of history, literature, philosophy and languages for a proper education. Now, however, what are we to make of the Oakeshottian idea that a university's role is not to prepare students "to fill some niche in society," but instead to initiate them into the great conversation begun more than two millennia ago? It has become a positively quaint and apparently elitist notion. In a world subject to the claims of the free market, an Old World conservative like Oakeshott (or William Buckley, a great fan of Oakeshott) has no more in common with New World conservatives than he does with Vlad the Impaler.

Obviously, the university's financial predicament, like that of other state-located, formerly state-supported institutions, is dismal. It is also part of a much broader phenomenon. Last year Great Britain's conservative government, facing a deep deficit, introduced a set of radical reforms for higher education. The plan focuses state funding in science and technology departments, while slashing support for teaching in the arts and humanities. Students still flock to the humanities, but even an English major can work out the odds of finding a job - and repaying his or her loans - in an age when science, engineering and business are the only games in town.

(It happens that the British reforms were heavily influenced by the report of an advisory committee, created in 2009 and led by John Browne, the former chief of British Petroleum. Of the committee's seven members, six came from industry, banking or sciences; the seventh, David Eastwood, is a historian. In an interview with the BBC, he insisted repeatedly that the committee's meetings were open-minded and fair. His critics, citing the final proposals, reply that Eastwood doth protest too much.)

Will this be the "new business model" for UH? Where the teaching of history becomes history and the study of Shakespeare is much ado about nothing? For some, the writing is already on the wall - quite literally in the case of the "You Are The Pride" ad campaign. By my (admittedly rough) count of billboards, of the 27 or so UH faculty and alumni featured, just one represents the humanities. (There is, to date, no billboard with a zoologist to tell us cougars do not live in prides but like commuters, travel alone.) The writing is also there metaphorically: The Texas State Coordinating Board directed the university to close down its Classical Studies Program as soon as its majors have graduated due to insufficient student enrollment.

Given the history of the Browne Commission, it may not matter in the end if the humanities are represented on a committee whose mandate is to conceive of a new business model. There are so many other and more powerful forces at work. Ultimately, the university and humanities may not have a future in common. But they do have a present in common - it's a pity they cannot have a conversation, Oakeshottian or otherwise, while they are still under the same roof.

Zaretsky is professor in the Honors College and Department of History at the University of Houston and is co-author of the forthcoming "Boswell's Enlightenment."

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