OP-ED: Alumni reading of the Financial Sustainability Review

North Bennett, Alumnus

Last week, the Academic Subcommittee for Whitman’s Financial Sustainability Review published a set of recommendations aimed at cutting the costs associated with Whitman’s academic program. As an alumnus invested in the future of the College, I would like to provide some of the alumni feedback and perspective that I believe is crucially missing from the subcommittee’s deliberations. Specifically, I write to voice my support for the continued funding of Whitman’s Environmental Humanities (EH) program (and therefore the hiring of a tenure-track replacement for Don Snow upon his retirement later this year), and also for the continued existence of robust offerings in the humanities in general. From my reading of the subcommittee’s recommendations, Whitman College does not share these priorities and is instead committed to making hasty, convenient cuts that jeopardize the very characteristics that distinguish it from other private institutions of higher education nationwide. 

I graduated from Whitman’s EH program (summa cum laude, with honors in major) in 2018, and can say in no uncertain terms that it is the only reason that I completed my degree at the college at all. I recall a single day in particular, when, alone in my North Hall dorm room, I received my first paper back from Don Snow’s Environmental Radicals in Literature course. Don is famous for providing feedback in lengthy “love letters,” and this was my first. In the thicket of his densely typed page, he gave me thoughtful, thorough and exceedingly encouraging comments — comments that made me feel for the first time that I could thrive and grow as a student at Whitman College. When I looked up from his words, I saw on my wall the semester schedule that I had been using to cross out the days before which I could withdraw from the college without academic consequence. Now, I knew that I would be staying, and in the following years found — to my delight — that other professors associated with EH were just as intent on providing their students with some of the most excellent, world-opening instruction that the college has to offer. 

It is common to misunderstand Environmental Humanities as the discipline of tree-huggers, Muir and the metaphysics of plants. It is — or was — all of those things, but not in the ways that you might expect. Environmental Humanities describes a field of discourse concerned with understanding, interrogating and — and this is absolutely crucial — reimagining normative thinking about the environmental status quo. For EHers, Thoreau is grist, not gospel, and the project far exceeds finding ways to justify a solitary retreat to the woods. Today, Environmental Humanities pulls from feminist, critical race and decolonial theories to think about earth/people/culture interactions in all types of landscapes, whether urban, degraded or otherwise. It forefronts concerns of environmental justice, and is perhaps the humanities’ (and humanity’s) strongest tool for shaping action on the world’s most pressing existential issue: climate change. For this reason, many of the most prestigious institutions nationwide (Stanford, Yale, Brown and UCLA among them) have recently convened or bolstered their Environmental Humanities programs, especially as they are available to graduate students. By committing to fill Don Snow’s soon-vacant chair with a tenure-track professorship position, Whitman has the opportunity to capitalize on its leading status and cement itself as the place for undergraduates to study EH. Failing to do so would represent a missed chance to diversify the ES department and would also mean depriving prospective EH students of 4-5 course offerings per year, as well as their only single-appointment major and thesis advisor, gutting the program at its core and severely maiming the larger ES program of which EH constitutes one-third. 

Reading Whitman’s recently revised mission statement should make it obvious that EH is central to the College’s purpose. From the website, I quote: Situated within the rich and complex landscape and history of the Walla Walla Valley, Whitman College provides a rigorous liberal arts education of the highest quality…We help each student translate their deep local, regional and global experiences into ethical and meaningful lives of purpose. At the heart of this passage is the idea of place, the notion that landscapes gain personal meaning and value — and also return those very things — as individuals learn all of the ways that they might read, understand and act upon them. This concept sits at the center of EH, and represents one of the crucial pieces of instruction that Don Snow’s position offers to students. Furthermore, as a designated leader of both ES 120 and the ES Senior Seminar, this position facilitates crucial interactions between students, Walla Walla and the wider world. In ES 120, for example, I remember visiting the Whitman Mission, the Ice Harbor Dam, several wheat farms, a pulp-tree farm, the sewage treatment plant, the waste transfer station and the drinking water intake on Mill Creek, all of which helped me understand my place in the Walla Walla Valley. Four years later, in the ES Senior Seminar, I was asked to look out from that valley and imagine how I could use what I’d learned to become an environmental leader in the world beyond. To be enriching, these exercises — at once time and energy-consuming — require an instructor who is at least partially (but in that partiality, exclusively) dedicated to them, as a replacement for Don Snow would be. 

This last point brings up a broader concern that I have with the subcommitee’s proposed cuts, which I read as an attack on the foundation of Whitman’s humanities program writ large. Like EH, many humanities majors depend on cross-listed courses offered by professors in other departments. If, as proposed, retiring instructor positions in Classics, History, Japanese, and Philosophy are also not filled, it will become increasingly difficult for majors of many kinds to piece together well-rounded, graduation-ready transcripts. The EH major, to take an example familiar to me, borrows courses from all of these departments. Unfilled positions in any of them will put more strain on the professors who are left, who will be forced to balance meeting their own majors’ needs with the needs of other students. If the humanities program is a web made strong by mutually supportive connections, then these cuts threaten to strain it to shreds. And without a functional, robust humanities program, we might begin to wonder what sort of liberal arts education Whitman plans to offer. 

When I look at the proposed re-envisioning of academic programs (which appear to me like the sort of rebranding that is often slapped atop newly reduced offerings — examine the case of Chewy bars, for example), I see a college that has forfeited its individuality so that it might muddle among the mean. I chose Whitman over other private Northwest colleges because it expressed a commitment to the liberal arts and seemed to actually follow through with it. The proposed re-envisioning reneges on this commitment, following instead the paths of the University of Puget Sound, Pacific Lutheran University, Willamette University and the like. The vision is professionalized, hollow and drab, abandoning, as it does, the idealism and honorable history that a liberal arts college is supposed to protect. That the College might make this change based on cuts of convenience — based on who happens to be retiring and who happens to occupy non-tenure track positions — is frankly abominable, and makes me reconsider how I will talk about Whitman to employers, peers and prospective students. I would so dearly like to say that, in a time of financial crisis, Whitman doubled-down on what made it unique, valuable, and personally meaningful, that it didn’t so easily abandon the principles that it once pretended to hold dear, that it found ways to engage in the crises of our time and resist becoming a careerist country club. And if I can’t, I will solemnly say, I think you should probably consider UW. 


With hope toward a humanities-filled future,

A concerned alumnus,

North Bennett