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Op-Ed: Open Letter To Whitman Board of Trustees

Matt Reynolds, Associate Professor and Department Chair, Art History and Visual Culture Studies

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An Open Letter to the Whitman College Board of Trustees:

In a famous scene from the 1984 film Amadeus, composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart confronts his patron, the Emperor Joseph II, who has just seen a preview of the 1786 opera Le Nozze de Figaro. “A good effort,” the Emperor says to the eager composer. “Of course now and then…it gets a touch elaborate.” A confused Mozart asks his patron to explain, to which the Emperor responds that there are simply “too many notes.” He continues: “Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.” To which Mozart replies: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

The movie presents this exchange as a farcical joke—a patently ridiculous quantitative assessment of a musical composition that entered the canon of Western culture almost as soon as it premiered to the public. That phrase “too many notes” looped in my brain the other day after a meeting with new Provost and Dean of Faculty Alzada Tipton who was given the thankless task of informing the Art History and Visual Culture Studies (AHVCS) department that our request for a Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) position to replace retiring Associate Professor Dennis Crockett was rejected. This decision leaves our department without an expert in European art or someone able to teach the Renaissance—two core curricular areas shared by nearly all art history departments at colleges and universities across the country, if not the world. In other words, we were just told that the Whitman faculty consists of “too many notes.”

How was the decision made? Metrics. At the direction of the Board of Trustees, the administration was instructed to correct the low student-to-faculty ratio (8:1) by not replacing retiring teachers or those entering the Salary Continuation Program. Board members set an aggressive timeframe for this fix, instructing administration that the ratio needs to be (10:1) over the next five years. Those majors and programs with lower rates of graduating seniors or a low percentage of tenure track faculty to majors are just two data categories used to determine which departments would be targeted for attrition. An analysis of data compiled over the last 15 years shows that AHVCS has averaged 4.4 graduates a year from 2012-15, down from 7.7 from the previous four-year period, and down even further from 8.2 from 2002-06.

While our numbers don’t look so great on paper, we’re not the only department facing austerity measures. Without identifying those departments by name, I’m sure it’s not hard to imagine which ones are most at-risk. Here’s a hint: a bunch of them are in the Humanities (although our friends in the Social Sciences are confronting their own crisis, as well). Less than two weeks after President Trump announced that his proposed federal budget would seek to cut all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Whitman College began its own mini-purge of its Arts and Humanities curriculum.

It’s no coincidence that the crisis in the Humanities and AHVCS’s declining metric measures coincide with the promotion of STEM starting at the elementary school level on up with a corresponding allocation of resources. One piece of evidence for the effectiveness of these efforts is the fact that I no longer have to explain what the acronym STEM stands for, so thoroughly has the STEM Education Initiativeä been adopted by the culture at large. I have no wish to denigrate the contributions of my colleagues in these fields, whose work I respect and with whom many shared conversations have enriched my own teaching and scholarship. It is one of the unfortunate byproducts of metric analyses, however, that it tends to pit the haves against the have-nots. And right now, STEM fields are where the students, and the money, are moving at ever-increasing rates.

During our meeting with the Dean, she reviewed other data sets that addressed the number of advisees per FTE, course availability and class sizes at the 100, 200, and 300 levels, overall credits generated, average credits per semester and average semester credits per faculty FTE between 2014-2017. That first category didn’t look good for us because, again, you’re not going to have as many advisees if you don’t have as many majors. Our course availability numbers told a different story. Our classes at the 100 and 200 level routinely fill up or are close to capacity, while the 300 level classes fill less frequently and are occasionally taught with fewer than 10 students. As for credits generated, I confess that I don’t understand what this category even means or how it’s being used to determine the future of our department.

What these numbers do not demonstrate is our department’s commitment to the overall mission of the college. We are a service department. Our 100 and 200 level courses are consistently full because they count for the General Distribution requirement, or are required for other majors or programs, or are cross-listed with other majors or programs. Two of my colleagues have a 1/5 course allocation to the Race and Ethnic Studies Program and the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program. Prof. Crockett teaches courses cross-listed with German Studies and I myself teach a class that is required for the Art major. The Art major requires its students to take three art history courses to complete the degree. Recently, I have worked with faculty members in the Art department to develop an Art-Environmental Studies major, for which I will begin teaching a course entitled Art/Environment in spring 2018. We recognize and embrace this service. As a department that defines itself by its interdisciplinarity, we would have it no other way.

The data also doesn’t show our department’s absolute commitment to “inclusion, diversity, equity, and access.” These are foundational issues in every single course we offer in the department. Let me repeat: every AHVCS class that students take supports the college’s mission in this crucial endeavor. No understanding of the history of art is sufficient without understanding the gaps, biases, prejudices, and omissions of the Western canon and how that canon creates a hegemony of artistic expression that simultaneously devalues and delimits the cultural production of the rest of the world. All of our courses emphasize this ideological formation, whether through the study of colonial India, Renaissance Europe, the Modern world or contemporary art. We are unwavering in our commitment to examining issues of race, class and gender and how all of these periods and regions construct their own frames of vision that privilege some and marginalize others. These are qualitative contributions to the campus climate. They are extremely difficult to quantify, no matter how much we pay an external consulting agency to provide us with data.

Lurking behind this wall of numbers is, as always, money. Whitman has chosen to channel future expenditures towards diversifying the student body, a decision that is almost universally supported by the campus community and one that will require a greater percentage of the operating budget to be directed towards financial aid. At the same time, faculty, staff, and students have been repeatedly told by the administration that the college is in “good shape” financially. We watched (and helped) the “Now is the Time” donation Clocktower fill up to the top and then some. We embraced, albeit with some skepticism, the multi-million-dollar plan to build new dorms, dining facilities, and outdoor volleyball courts. And yet we are simultaneously being told that the current level of faculty employment is fiscally “unsustainable.”

That may well be, but the optics sure don’t look good. There’s no money to support the curriculum that you, the Trustees, approved over the last decade but there is money for a massive construction project? If the number of faculty truly cannot be sustained at current levels into the future, why then is this not a topic during our “strategic planning” meetings? How can we, the faculty, participate in conversations about strategic planning in good faith with the Board knowing that the same Board may change its mind again in two or three years?

I believe that the Board of Trustees is dedicated to ensuring this College’s stability. I believe that the Board believes it is doing what is necessary to provide educational opportunities to less privileged communities and students historically underserved by our institution. The view from the classroom provides a different perspective, however. By thinning the ranks of Humanities courses, this decision imperils the very curriculum that will serve those communities and students. A diverse student body with fewer and fewer classes that reflect and engage the issues important to such students, and to us all, threatens to further impoverish their educational experience and risks reinforcing the very structural inequities that marginalize diversity in the first place. To be told by the administration at the behest of the Board of Trustees that the “metrics” do not merit the renewal of our tenure track position in Art History and Visual Culture Studies is not only infuriating, it is antithetical to the very concept of the liberal arts education the College is dedicated to providing. A quantitative approach to making such decisions that does not take into account the qualitative contributions of faculty members from all departments, not just the Humanities, is like saying that an opera has too many notes. Even Forbes magazine, the Bible of corporate culture, acknowledges that “metrics drive mediocrity.”

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10 Comments

10 Responses to “Op-Ed: Open Letter To Whitman Board of Trustees”

  1. Ali on April 10th, 2017 8:26 pm

    As a student who took 7 art history classes (partially because of major requirements) partially because art history helped me be a more informed citizen and well-rounded citizen, it makes me incredibly sad to see the trustees looking only at metrics (I couldn’t get into a 300 level art history class because there were 20 people signed up for it!!). We as a college need to choose to value different disciplines, especially a department that works very hard to offer classes centered around race, class, the environment etc. If Whitman wants to really make it part of the mission to embrace diversity rather than advertise about it, continue to offer AHVCS classes. I learned just as much about the intersections of race, class, and gender in those classes as I did on my sociology classes.

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  2. Tristan on April 11th, 2017 8:05 am

    I agree with Professor Reynolds and would remind the college not to take its academic quality and breadth of available study for granted, as that quality is the primary​ reason students attend. Beyond a certain level of quality in student living facilities (which I felt Whitman exceeded when I attended) they simply aren’t that important – look at the kinds of places we regularly choose to live off campus.

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  3. C Widmayer on April 11th, 2017 12:27 pm

    There are three remaining professors with Ph.Ds, but none of them are “able to teach the Renaissance”?

    Hopefully the Math department still has someone who can teach Calculus.

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    Jeremy Reply:

    Unhelpful and from the hip, hope you feel better tomorrow.

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    A prossor Reply:

    This comment is exactly why non-academics (which includes the Trustees and clearly college administrators who are now out of touch) should not be making curricular decisions for the college. Whitman once prided itself on hiring teacher-scholars who excel in their areas of expertise. Those areas are not interchangeable like bolts in a machine but are molded in the best doctoral programs in the country. A professor of American art history is not trained in modern German art, nor is a professor of American politics interchangeable with a professor of International politics. While teaching broadly and all over campus at the pleasure of one’s dean “to fill in the gaps” is the norm in a community college, where an MA is sufficient to teach, it should never be a norm at one of the nation’s elite liberal colleges.

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  4. Ellen on April 11th, 2017 6:29 pm

    As someone who has a child at Whitman and who teaches Fine Arts at the college level I am saddened to read this. The college where I teach also has a bias against the arts in favor so STEM curriculum but we are working hard to shift those biases.

    If one cares to look, there’s plenty of evidence that such myopia is detrimental to preparing our students for future challenges and opportunities. Studies have shown that STEAM programs (that include the arts) are actually better suited to developing creative thinkers. It’s too bad the Whitman administration seems so willing to remain inside the box rather than step outside it in order to craft a more dynamic approach to teaching that embraces the possibilities that a strong arts program can help foster. Let’s all remember where Steve Jobs got his inspiration.

    Here are a couple good pieces that offer a glimpse of what’s possible: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/02/education/edlife/putting-art-in-stem.html
    http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/06/steam_vs_stem_why_we_need_to_put_the_arts_into_stem_education.html

    I will be making a donation to Whitman’s fund drive next but in doing so will ask that my donation be directed toward strengthening the arts offerings at the college.

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  5. Pdxer on April 12th, 2017 10:23 am

    As a parent I find this decision outrageous. If the Board of Trustees is using metrics to make hiring decisions, which department will be next? If Whitman moves away from support for the arts, Whitman will no longer be Whitman, and my donations will go elsewhere.

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  6. Chad on April 13th, 2017 3:17 pm

    I am very disappointed to hear that Prof. Crockett will not be replaced! I am a ’95 grad and I majored in Physics-Astronomy. I’ve always loved art and Dennis Crockett was my favorite professor at Whitman and the four art history courses that I took from him were some of my favorite courses, especially his German Art of the 20th Century course. Art history is a very important part of the course offerings at Whitman, a decrease in art history courses makes no sense at a liberal arts college. While it will be surely be hard for Whitman to find someone with as much knowledge about the art history subjects that Dennis knows about, and with the outstanding sense of humor and excellent rapport with students, Whitman needs to try. That position should not go away.

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  7. Nathan N-M on April 13th, 2017 6:35 pm

    I don’t disagree with Professor Raynolds, but I cannot fault the Board of Trustees. The low faculty to student ratio and the transfer of resources away from the Arts and Humanities toward the sciences is a problem of the faculty’s own making, originating in the switch from a 3-3 to a 2-3 teaching course load. I am a relatively recent graduate and was around when the faculty made that “budget-neutral” decision. The short-sighted and fanciful rhetoric that there would not be fewer course offerings, that students wouldn’t have trouble graduating in the major of their choice, and that current academic structures could be maintained was, of course, completely false. By choosing a 3-2 teaching load, the faculty knowingly paved the way for the transfer of resources to STEM fields. Blaming the Board of Trustees for it now is, at best, amnesic.

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  8. Bill on April 13th, 2017 6:41 pm

    I would like to thank Professor Reynolds for making a very compelling argument for greater support for the humanities and art history. If Whitman is concerned about operating costs becoming too high or improving efficiency of the college, i would like to challenge the Board of Trustees to look in other areas and not harm the very essence of a top quality liberal arts college – the professors.

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Whitman news since 1896
Op-Ed: Open Letter To Whitman Board of Trustees