Op-Ed: Open Letter To Whitman Board of Trustees

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

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.”