Don’t Forget to Connect the Dots

Mitchell Smith, Editor in Chief

This weekend, Whitman’s Board of Trustees will likely approve the search and subsequent filling of three new tenured faculty positions, in the economics, music and chemistry departments. The real story, however, is the treacherous path the administration has set for Whitman through its method of choosing which positions to approve and which areas of Whitman’s curriculum to ignore.

Provost Alzada Tipton and President Kathy Murray whittled the original requests for faculty positions next year down to this small number at the Board’s request—in an effort to begin to increase Whitman’s student to faculty ratio from 8.4-1 to 10-1. According to Tipton, the factors considered when choosing which positions to renew or add were the position’s department’s popularity among students, whether the loss of the position would cause the department to lose an area of specialty or threaten the existence of the department, and whether the position fits the mission of the college.

This list of reasons seems to ensure that Whitman’s curriculum is not damaged by cutting faculty seats. But instead of using these criteria, the school seems to be haphazardly subtracting by not retaining retiring professors. Among positions not recommended to the Trustees are replacements for retiring professors David Schmitz, who specializes in twentieth century U.S. History, and Dennis Crocket, a professor of European Art History.

Allowing these positions not to be filled suggests that Murray and Tipton failed to meet their own criteria. Despite the History and Art History Departments not having many majors, classes in Schmitz’s and Crocket’s subjects have always been popular and are integral to both departments. Imagine an Art History department without a specialist in the Renaissance, Baroque art or Impressionism. It would almost be like teaching chemistry without using the periodic table, and it’s happening next year at Whitman.

In addition to losing areas of expertise within these departments, the non-renewal of these seats contradicts the school’s mission to provide an “excellent, well-rounded liberal arts and sciences undergraduate education.” As for whether the loss of these positions threatens their departments, students admitted to Whitman interested in History or Art History will likely turn to one of Whitman’s peer institutions that still value the contributions of twentieth century American History and European Art History to their respective departments.

The Trustees and school administration are clearly making a numbers-based decision. While these types of decisions make sense on paper and in boardroom meetings, they do not adequately encompass the importance of equally valuing all academic disciplines in a liberal arts institution. Whitman must respond to what students want, but not to the extent of allowing the whims of 18 year olds to permanently alter a liberal arts curriculum.

Like everything at Whitman, this is not made in a vacuum. The suspension and subsequent review of the Global Studies Program was also a numbers-based decision made, ironically enough, because the college needed more professors to teach social science classes. Despite the college’s insistence that the new sophomore residence hall’s goal is to centralize the sophomore community, others see it as a first step towards making Whitman an entirely residential campus and increasing the college’s revenue—another numbers-based decision. Finally, the transition of the Student Engagement Center from under student activities to the Dean of Faculty is another numbers-based decision, made to increase the SEC’s funding and integrate it into the Whitman curriculum.

Instead of allowing these small steps to happen without question, we should notice the larger context in which they are made. Whitman has moved towards more numbers-based decision-making and away from encouraging the non-vocational, learning for the sake of learning kind of curriculum that forms the basis of any liberal arts institution. If that’s what the Whitman community wants, so be it. But we should at least recognize, ask questions, and have a say in the direction of the college.