Bringing It

Bringing It #110: Canaries in the Coal Mine

August 31, 2023

Dear friends,
It’s a new academic year, a time that we usually devote to vignettes of returning students and hopes for Fall Term teaching. This year, however, is different. The past few weeks have brought disturbing news that underscores the accelerating crisis in higher ed—and the urgent need for systemic, positive change. Two recent events feel particularly ominous for the goal of holistic, engaged, and equitable education that BT2P seeks to advance. They are canaries in the coal mine. With apologies for beginning the year with ill omens, we want to speak to the danger they portend and what we can do about it.

West Virginia University

The first of these events is West Virginia University’s announcement of steep reductions in academic programs and faculty positions. WVU’s plan is a response to a perfect storm of stressors: growing budget deficits, ballooning institutional debt, declining enrollments, shifts in student concentrations. It proposes immediate and draconian cuts: 32 graduate and undergraduate degree programs (11% of WVU’s total) would be eliminated and 169 full-time faculty laid off. These cuts are unevenly distributed. Press coverage has focused on the elimination of majors in art history, performance, music, creative writing, and especially language instruction. It will soon be impossible to take a course in Chinese, Russian, German, French, or Spanish on the Morgantown campus. The harm to the arts and humanities—and the creative, communication, and critical-thinking skills they foster—will indeed be great. But even more shocking is that a rural land-grant institution plans to zero out programs in public administration, energy environments, environmental and community planning, higher education, special education, landscape architecture, and recreation, parks, and tourism. Many surviving programs will absorb steep cuts; in the School of Education, the School of Art and Design, the School of Public Health, and the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, at least one-third of the faculty are slated for termination.

To some extent, the budget and enrollment shortfalls driving this proposal reflect structural trends, including rural depopulation and the “fiscal cliff” of shrinking high-school cohorts. To some extent, they’re the result of heedless strategic and policy choices by WVU and the state. During the 2010s, the university launched a debt-driven building spree with wildly unrealistic expectations of enrollment growth, even as state funding declined by one-third. But no matter the mix of structural causes and policy mismanagement, the crisis is real. Solving it will require tough choices and radical action—collaborative action—by the administration, the faculty and staff, and state funders.

That’s not what the WVU plan proposes. Instead it offers Hobbesian management consulting: a vision of the university as a bundle of atomized programs whose value is measured in a hunger-games competition for majors, with the losers slated for elimination. This will hollow out the institution, shortchanging its students, its faculty and staff, and the state-wide needs that a land grant university is meant to serve.

WVU President E. Gordon Gee makes the argument that WVU’s troubles reflect the larger inflection point at which higher ed finds itself: “We are going through an existential crisis in higher education, and we happen to be on the point of the spear.” President Gee is right about that; indeed BT2P’s Paradigm Project is premised on exactly the same idea. Yet we believe that the way forward is still undecided: it can lead to a downward spiral of institutional and educational fragmentation—the direction of the WVU plan—or to new models of holistic learning in holistic institutions. Even when a university is in crisis—especially then—collaborative action that balances shared sacrifice, institutional solidarity, holistic education for students, and increased public support, is not only possible but imperative.

Rutgers University-Newark

The other “canary in the coal mine” is perhaps less dramatic but no less significant. This was the decision of Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway to not renew the appointment of Nancy Cantor as Chancellor of Rutgers University’s Newark campus after ten years of service. Readers of Bringing It and members of the BT2P community will know of Cantor’s extraordinary career of leadership. As Provost at the University of Michigan and an eminent social psychologist, she was a shaping voice in that institution’s legal defense of affirmative action. As Chancellor at Syracuse University and Rutgers-Newark, she has been a leader in the national movement for universities to serve as “anchor institutions” in and with their communities (Cantor’s interview with David in BT2P’s Way Forward podcast explores her vision of what it means to be a fully engaged, “outside-in” university). Less well-known is her focus on the arts and cultural partnerships as a key strand of academic civic engagement. Cantor’s creativity, energy, and passion for community and equity have earned her wide recognition, including the Carnegie Corporation’s Academic Leadership Award.

So it is surprising that Cantor’s desire to continue her work at Rutgers-Newark was ignored. That decision and the dissent that ensued became a lead story in the higher ed press, despite the fact that there was no whisper of conflict or scandal. Indeed President Holloway had nothing but praise for Nancy Cantor’s record of equity-minded and community-minded leadership.

Nancy Cantor’s future may seem a smaller concern than WVU’s eviscerating proposal. Yet together they tell a single, disturbing story. At Rutgers-Newark Cantor has modeled the kind of leadership that offers an alternative to the downward spiral of WVU’s cuts and internal competition. Both leaders understand that—in Gordon Gee’s words—“higher education is at an existential crisis.” Yet they point very different ways forward.

The news of Nancy Cantor’s nonrenewal has provoked strong criticism from Rutgers faculty, the Mayor of Newark, and others. We hope that President Holloway will reconsider his decision and heed his own praise for Cantor’s record. No matter what, our work on the Paradigm Project will continue to be inspired by her example.

Let us continue.

With gratitude for you and all you do,

David, Gianna, Gillian, Kate, Paul, and Todd

Bringing Theory to Practice
Elon University