Op-Ed: First years barred from declaring majors

Jacob Klusmeier, Senior

We need the arts because they make us full human beings. But we also need the arts as a protective factor against authoritarianism. In saving the arts, we save ourselves from a society where creative production is permissible only insofar as it serves the instruments of power. 

“Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts,” by Eve L. Ewing


These are unconventional times at Whitman College. First years are ascending the steps of Memorial Hall with major declaration forms in hand, only to be turned away from the Registrar’s Office due to a new ruling that restricts first year students from declaring a major. The President’s Cabinet made the decision immediately before the FSR preliminary reports were released to the public on Feb 2. Provost and Dean of Faculty Alzada Tipton communicated the order in a faculty meeting on Feb 8. In that meeting, Tipton described the decision as a short-term ruling to avoid any conflicts with the FSR process, yet it appears to be more like a stroke of bureaucratic maneuvering. It has preemptively impeded first years from declaring majors in solidarity of protesting the proposed budget cuts contained within the FSR reports. This change came alongside several others to the first years’ program, but with a far greater impact.

Nothing about this regulation has been publicized or circulated by the President’s Cabinet to the Whitman community. The Registrar’s Office conveyed that the restriction would be implemented “until next year” because of “the switch to First Year Seminar and the writing requirement,” which are “not on the 2020 major catalogs.” Upon inquiring about this policy to Alzada Tipton, the Provost wrote back in an email on Feb 9, “When we started this process we weren’t sure if there might be recommendations to eliminate programs, and introduced a hold on first year students declaring majors to allow us the possibility of teaching out majors as quickly as possible to maximize savings. While eliminating programs is not recommended in the draft reports, this hold will stay in place until the end of the FSR process to avoid foreclosing options prematurely and leave open as many avenues as possible to achieve short term cost savings.”

While the rhetoric behind this statement is somewhat confusing for those outside of the administrative sphere, the message rings clear: swift actions are being taken to capitalize on short-term fiscal cushions at the expense of academic programs core to the college’s liberal arts curriculum. Students who wish to defend endangered majors or protest increasingly inaccessible financial aid become sidelined by the Board of Trustees’ bureaucratic decision-making. Although we continue to live through a global pandemic in which financial insecurity is a recognizable threat, the ultimate decision should not lie with the few and powerful while the majority are left stranded.

Whitman College is unique in many ways — we know this. We are all members of this remarkable community, and to put in effect our potential for collaboration, we must all work together to make difficult decisions. While it is easy to obscure actions that give preferential treatment to first years, it would be exceedingly more productive to embrace a broader unity and work collaboratively with the concerned student body, instead of subduing them. We need a greater commitment to transparency on the processes and decisions that affect our education, and not more sleight of hand that distracts from the issues and silences student voices. 

 I urge the administration to take into more serious consideration not only my voice but the voices of every single student, for I am not alone in my grave concern for the future of our college. It would be unconscionable and inexcusable to exclude, discount or ignore our pressing concerns in the decision-making process. If we do not hold on to the elements that make Whitman “A Place Like No Other,” we are not setting the college up to succeed in its proposed goals to “develop and support programs that support Whitman’s liberal arts mission.” We are abandoning the principles this institution claims to stand for.

If you are interested in standing in solidarity with the silenced and dismissed at this school, there will be a peaceful, physically distanced demonstration on Friday, Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. in front of Memorial Hall. (Please remember to wear a mask and respect COVID-19 safety protocols.) First years can no longer submit their forms, but as members of this community, we can demonstrate our conviction through a symbolic declaration of our own forms. We are acting now Because We Love Whitman.