Challenges to Humanity

The Death of the Modern University

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The modern university is dying.

But don’t take my word for it. Merely read the headlines. Every week, news breaks of another institution shutting down, selling assets, laying off faculty, or closing programs. It’s so common now that it’s no longer a surprise. It’s expected.

And none are immune. Private and public institutions, seminaries and universities, American and Non-American alike are experiencing decline.

  • Several years ago Liberty University, a large private Christian institution in Virginia, decided to dissolve its philosophy program.
  • Last year Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary sold its 102-acre main campus.
  • More recently, West Texas A&M has indicated they will prohibit assigning resources that require a purchase to students to reduce cost.
  • In September West Virginia University moved to cut several dozen programs, including laying off 143 faculty members.
  • In an ongoing story  Australian Catholic University disestablished the Medieval and Early Modern Studies program, laying off over 30 faculty.

Yet there are common threads. The commonality between these varied instances is not merely a shrinking market but the withering of the traditional liberal arts education.

The once shining purpose of educational institutions to train young men and women to read and think about a wide range of topics in a residential community is no longer seen as indispensable. Educational institutions are moving to digital formats while cutting traditional humanities programs. Due to declining enrollments, increasing costs, and expanding administrative departments, the future of the university is apparently purely vocational.

Some may think this development is good. Stop funding programs that offer no immediate job prospects. Go where the revenue is.

But such a view is wrong. Just look at any statistical analysis of earnings potential for college majors and you’ll find humanities majors among the top earners. While engineering majors and other STEM fields are naturally present, so too are Philosophy, Political Science, History, and English. But even if starting salaries for certain majors had a greater disparity, such data tells us nothing about lifetime earnings wherein humanities majors are well equipped to excel as they have highly sought after skills for C-suite level roles. All the more proof that we need those that have been taught to think critically about all things, including data analysis and reporting! But most fundamentally, such a view is toxic to wisdom and the life of the mind.

True. Vocational schools are necessary. They are beneficial. But they do not teach wisdom. Universities used to exist to educatethe whole person. They used to prize teaching them to seek and reflect on the good, the true, and the beautiful. They used to desire the things that are intrinsically good for their own sake and not just for the sake of a paycheck. Institutions of higher learning were once designed to seek the transcendental.

Such education created curious people with the skills necessary to understand our world. It taught people how to communicate ideas, how to understand and develop arguments, and how to appreciate life beyond a career. It taught them wisdom.

And we desperately need people like this. We need people that are curious, creative, and compelling. We need wise guides.
With the rise of Artificial Intelligence, it is not the wise who will become obsolete but those with skills that are limited to the harder sciences with repetitive and predictive work. Nothing can replace the imaginative rationality of the human person. And such training comes through the liberal arts and humanities departments.

Instead of pursuing the classical vision of the educational school, our institutions are settling for cheaply made vocational programs with sports teams.

Instead of pursuing the classical vision of the educational school, our institutions are settling for cheaply made vocational programs with sports teams. And then they are charging students astronomical fees for the “experience.” But people are starting to notice. Taking on tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt in exchange for four years of online discussion boards and sporting events isn’t worth it.

And so, enrollments are declining. And institutions are dying. But no amount of blaming the medieval history department is going to save them.

As time has passed, the decisions made by the leaders of our institutions are telling. They clearly do not share the classical vision for education. Instead, education is about revenue. It is about analyzing every conceivable data point. It is about maximizing profit and minimizing cost. And so, they move to eliminate areas that aren’t obviously profitable to the bottom line of the Profit and Loss statement. After all, what good can come from seminars discussing abstract concepts? We need more computer science majors.

Yet such decisions do not resurrect institutions. They merely cement the rot. The disease continues to spread.
Of course, this is not to say majors like computer science are bad. Nor is it to say that some institutions don’t stand out as bright lights fighting against the current. The growth of programs like the honors college at the University of Tulsa or Davenant Hall, both of which are designed to focus on classical texts within a community for the sake of the common good, offer hope. There are many longstanding institutions that also remain resolutely committed to a holistic vision of education despite the shifting sands of culture.

But many of our legacy institutions are at a crossroads. And most of them are too diseased to redeem. They have multiplied their administrative teams and executive salaries while outsourcing education to part-time adjunct faculty and non-subject matter expert “curriculum developers.” They’ve crushed the spirit of the lifeblood of the institution: its educational faculty. Faculty are treated as disposable. Their tasks are treated as entry level time punching activities to be tracked and monitored for “productivity.” They’ve placed their endowments in the hands of sports teams, online courses, and Artificial Intelligence.

The vacuum of leadership and true educational institutions not only erodes the vibrancy of our culture but invites bad actors and empty entrepreneurs seeking to peddle mythical solutions to real problems.

So, enough is enough. I suggest it is time to build new institutions. It is time to invest in, partner with, and support the remaining institutions dedicated to a vision of education that accounts for us as humans and not merely cogs in the machine.

While the future is nimble, it must remain focused on real community and real relationships. There is a deep power in presence and place. We cannot rely on the internet alone to connect us with others. We need physical places that spur us to imagine a better future and the resources to act. Such places are a return to the old vision of the educational institution.

We need wise visionaries with grit and the willingness to take risks to build toward the future. But these institutions require more than dedicated individuals. They require benefactors to fund them beyond our own generation. They require passionate individuals who partner with institutions that share the vision for holistic education that goes well beyond mere information transfer. They also require time. And now is the time to build so we may reap the harvest in the future.

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  • Challenges to Humanity
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Jordan Steffaniak

Research Fellow

Jordan L. Steffaniak (ThM, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is married with two sons. He is co-founder of the London Lyceum, a weekly podcast and online center for analytic, baptist, and confessional theology. He has published in academic journals such as Journal of Reformed Theology, TheoLogica, The Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies, and Jonathan Edwards Studies. He works full-time in the finance industry, constantly pursuing his curiosity for all things.

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