Opinion: SNC Needs to Stay True to Liberal Arts Roots


Samantha Bankston, Humanities Professor, Contributor

What kind of citizens do we hope to send into the world? What kind of society do we want to create? What role does the college play in serving the public good?

The most important questions related to academia are often the ones left unasked in the United States, since the responses cannot be confined to the historically recent injunction that education be measured in terms of utility, efficiency, and profitability—key features of instrumental rationality.

Instrumental rationality has become naturalized in American society, forming the ideological framework of the status quo in academia. Accordingly, this operational mode of thinking structures the imperatives of Sierra Nevada College’s current strategy of financial solvency. While financial sustainability is a priority for everyone at the College, the democratic values of liberated thought and service to the common good should be at the forefront of decision-making processes. Truly liberated thought challenges dogmatic forces in society, and may be incommensurate with usefulness, efficiency, and profitability, resisting quantification in terms of positivistic outcome assessment. However, if free and critical thought is not encouraged in the academy—the last institutional outpost for the pursuit of knowledge as its own end—then colleges and universities no longer educate students to be free-thinking citizens, but rather, monocultural consumers of vocational training. In this sense, SNC is a microcosm of the identity crisis currently facing the Anglo- American academy, and it has the power to take a stand against the subjugation of knowledge to instrumental ends that often neglect greater ethical concerns pertaining to the world, society, and individual. An ominous sign that SNC is simply following the marching orders of instrumental rationality is evidenced in recent austerity measures that overlook qualitative values of education.

SNC’s enforcement of austerity measures is not only dimming our campus culture, but it is unclear that this methodology will prove successful without degrading academic quality. With every cut to academics we become closer to DeVry than, say, Amherst College. Over the past two years, SNC has cut $2.1 million from its budget, with 65 percent of those cuts coming from academics. The value of each professor, each academic program, is universally measured in terms of student enrollment. With greater operating margins associated with higher student to faculty ratios, the leadership is evaluating a program’s viability according to this metric, regardless of concerns about what kinds of citizens we help shape, or what kind of world we want to create. And in the fall of 2017 we need 175 incoming undergraduate students to remain budget neutral; however, with an expected enrollment of around 150 new students we may face a budget shortfall of at least $500,000. President Walker has stated that there is nothing left to cut in the operating budget; meaning, employees and academic programs are next on the chopping block. When asked which criteria are being used to determine what could be cut, he said that he does not know, but nothing is off the table. The logical conclusion is that faculty members and/ or programs will be eliminated according to student enrollment numbers. (For a dystopian vision of academia, see: Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services, by Robert C. Dickeson, the text being used as a guide to reallocate funds at SNC via instrumental metrics.)

To preserve dynamic, liberated thought, we must nourish the academic programs that identify and challenge dogma, lest SNC lapse into one-dimensional thinking, getting its ethical cues solely from the landscape of market forces. The greatest bulwarks against the totalization of instrumental rationality can be found in the very academic programs and courses that face potentially irreparable budget cuts at Sierra Nevada College. Literature, creative writing, art, philosophy, psychology, foreign language, history, and science play an integral role in questioning inveterate ideas and the conditions that give rise to prevailing forms of ideology. German philosopher Theodor Adorno states, “The kind of thinking which shuns the effort to overcome inveterate ideas is nothing but the mere reproduction of what we say and think without more ado [the reproduction of ideology].” If SNC wants to stand out in a climate where nearly all colleges are following the same temporary market trends according to identical metrics, then the College should champion principles that withstand the vagaries of the market. Doing so would restore hope to what has become a downtrodden campus.

The combination of austerity measures and a lack of transparency about potential budget cuts has cast a pall over the campus. Where formerly there were vibrant exchanges of ideas amongst the faculty, there is now silence and separation. Academic freedom exists under a bell jar when professors have no job security and are consumed with fears of job loss, or whether the programs they have spent decades building will be summarily slashed over the summer when public outcry is minimized. As a consequence, much of the faculty suffers quietly, being forced to justify the worth of their programs through a worldview that does not value knowledge as an end in itself, and does not abide structural critique. If knowledge cannot be pursued as an end in itself at a college or university, then where can it be? Not only is the identity of Sierra Nevada College in crisis, but so too is that of the university system itself. SNC can retain and enhance its uniqueness by casting off the shackles of instrumental rationality as its means of survival, modeling itself, instead, in light of the questions that began this essay. Liberated thought will always be market independent, will repel dogma, and if harbored at Sierra Nevada College, the college will serve as a beacon of knowledge and imagination for our entire society.