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College Cuts in the Green Mountain State

Al Fenn/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Graduation day at Marlboro College, Vermont, 1948; founded in 1946, the college closed this year

On December 2, the University of Vermont announced cuts to twenty-four majors, twenty-seven minors, and four master’s programs in its College of Arts and Sciences. The geology, classics, and religion departments will be closed. Others will be consolidated, likely after cuts to faculty and programming. The German and Italian majors will go. The program in Vermont studies will be cut, along with the university’s master’s program in historic preservation. In all, twelve of the college’s fifty-six majors, eleven of its sixty-three minors, and four of its ten master’s degree programs will be eliminated. The announced cuts came only from the College of Liberal Arts, a strategic choice nowhere addressed or defended. The memo from Dean Bill Falls described a “data-informed process” used to identify “low enrollment programs” over the last three academic years.

The summoning of data to determine which areas of humanistic inquiry should be cut forever from a university suggests an irony that a liberal arts student would appreciate. “Data” seem to many in higher education to be unassailable: they tend to end the conversation. Yet the question with data is always how their parameters have been set by living, inevitably interested, actual humans, and how they are then, in turn, expressed in narrative form. What comes out depends very much on what was put in. In the case of UVM, the data reflect a very circumscribed evaluation of a program’s worth based solely on a narrow band of its enrollment figures, and over a very limited period of time, three years. And the data may have measured performance in programs that had been disadvantaged by the university. If I collect data on an unplugged toaster, they will show no activity during the period during which its cord dangled down from the counter.  

The reasons that a department might find itself on the block appear to vary from case to case. Not every “low enrollment” program will be cut; with the exception of geology, the cuts fall most heavily on languages and the humanities. Classics has graduated an average of 2.1 majors per year during the three-year period under review, while supporting four tenured professors and a lecturer. Religion seems to have the opposite problem: its major has shown “a modest increase” in enrollments, but pending retirements mean that, with a hiring freeze, there soon won’t be enough faculty to teach its students. Geology, according to the memo from Dean Falls, has suffered from “an increased interest in Environmental Studies,” which suggests that the pool of students entering the discipline has grown, though many of them now enter through a different door.

The data do not show how many students choose to study any of these fields in adjacent departments, but one would assume that, if the university wanted to keep its geology department, some of those environmental studies students might be enticed to move. The same is true of English or history majors moving to classics or religion. Students sometimes have to be shown the way to small departments, but when they turn up there, they often find a home. Nor do the data have much predictive value about the future demand for these programs. All it takes is one splashy cultural artifact to swell an obscure program’s enrollments. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History did that for classics in the 1990s; some of the popularity of medieval studies courses today can be traced back to Harry Potter.

But the data are stark—and they have done their work. A number has been assigned to the crisis: $8.6 million, the current budget deficit of the College of Liberal Arts. When cuts come to any college or university with an endowment (at more than $400, UVM’s is relatively modest), the laity howls about priorities, and the trustees serenely point to “restricted” pools of endowment funds, “pots” of money designated only for a given purpose. That pots labeled “classics” or “religion” or “geology” might also be put out in the general rainstorm of fundraising might not have been considered. The philanthropic class has yet to be rallied to the cause of, say, religion departments, but it isn’t hard to imagine the case that would be made. “STEM without humanities gets you Facebook,” argued Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, a UVM religion professor, in a recent interview with VTDigger: “It gets you this place where the algorithm drives all.” At many US universities, it’s the STEM faculty who argue most passionately for the importance of the humanities. (Dr. Anthony Fauci was, after all, a classics major.)

Vermont’s plethora of small, private liberal arts colleges, settling like the fog in so many of its valleys, have struggled. Some were liberal arts colleges only really in name, drawing their revenue from preprofessional programs and granting associate’s degrees. Some lost their accreditation and, with it, their access to federal funding. Some, like Goddard College in Plainfield and Marlboro College in the southern part of the state, were essentially collectives, attracting students who stayed on in the area, bought land, opened stores, or taught in the local schools. Bennington College, where The Secret History is set, was a society redoubt, dependent upon the generosity of its wealthy arts patrons and graduates.

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Some of these schools may yet survive, some have been on probation, and others have closed. The time to make the case for the liberal arts as a public trust, worth preserving, would appear to be now. Down the road a bit from UVM, an eccentric entrepreneur and whiskey distiller who once was a contestant on The Apprentice, Raj Bhakta, just bought an entire defunct liberal arts institution, Green Mountain College, for around $4.8 million. Vermont is full of these types of folks, and more have come to stay in the era of Covid-19. But I am not aware that UVM did any fundraising on the prospect—the threat—of cutting so many of its programs. If they tried now, they might be in a better position than ever: thousands of people have protested the cuts on the UVM green, and a Facebook group—UVM United Against Cuts—serves as a busy online hub for 1,400 or so members, at last count.

To oppose data with any other form of evidence—say, testimony—is almost always to arrange to lose. (Quick: think of an adjective that goes with “anecdote.” I thought of “mere.”) What can’t be measured can’t be considered, I suppose. But if instead of the current microclimate of enrollments in these programs, you looked at their historical impact on the university, the city of Burlington, and the state of Vermont, the “data” would not be a set of numbers but an anthology of stories. In an open letter circulated to the UVM community, Jessica Penny Evans, the sole lecturer in the classics department, tells hers. Evans grew up in Stowe, in poverty, raised by a single mother. “High school was painful,” she writes. “During free periods I hid from my peers in bathroom stalls, chain-smoking cigarettes as I attempted to parse out Virgil’s Latin.” One of her teachers, Karen Knapp, met Evans in the mornings and evenings to get her through high school. Evans ended up studying at UVM after starting at Bard, and is now, based on what I can glean online, a very popular and inspiring instructor. Evans quotes Megan Keefe, one of her students: Classics is only now listening to the “women, slaves, metics, and the lower class”; to cut the discipline as it becomes “more equal would be a shame.” Evans’s teaching and Keefe’s learning suggest a path forward for classics, which has always been a democratizing force in universities: everyone starts Greek and Latin at square one, in a classroom with a teacher—and, now more than ever before, often in college.

I also have stories. Though I left the state for college and now live outside of Boston, I grew up on and around UVM’s campus. My mother worked in Waterman Hall, its main administrative building, and several members of my family attended the university. My uncle was on its last football team before it was cut in 1975, victim of an earlier round of austerity. The university now owns my childhood home at 258 Colchester Avenue and runs it as dorm for grad students. My walk to and from elementary school took me by the university’s art museum and, beside it, its small geology museum. The art museum had a room of medieval armor and weaponry donated by a local tycoon, as well as a mummy, and also the very first Xerox machine I ever saw, which we fed dimes in order to photocopy our faces.

Even better, though, the Perkins Museum of Geology next door had a whale that was found buried in an inland field two hundred or so miles from the ocean, in Charlotte, Vermont. The “Charlotte Whale” was discovered by some men digging the railway in 1849; its skull has been repaired from the blow it took when the men’s shovels made contact. I remember a curator telling our fidgety third-grade class the story of how it got to that field: Lake Champlain had long ago been a sea, its water lapping at the tops of the mountains. The Charlotte Whale was like some ancient key that unlocked the entire landscape for nineteenth-century Vermonters, as it did for all field-tripping Burlington kids. We realized were growing up on the ocean bottom.

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The Perkins Geology Museum may or may not survive the cuts—I haven’t heard. But the discourse that explains the Charlotte Whale will be diffused across other programs and divisions, and some of it may be lost. The perception-altering insights that geology offered to adjacent disciplines—to painting, archeology, engineering, poetry, and others—may not again be locally accessible. It was in a geology textbook, after all, that Emily Dickinson learned about volcanoes. The cuts to the Vermont studies minor and the very important master’s program in historic preservation will have a profound local cost. Historic preservation is a friend to every Burlingtonian with a cornice to fix or some ironwork to track down. Burlington has a greater supply of rather grand old houses in quite poor repair than any city I’ve ever seen, all waiting upon their saviors. When you peel the fire escapes off your Victorian to reveal the ornate shingle work beneath, you call or e-mail the UVM Historic Preservation Program.

Though the cuts seem chosen partly for strategic—that is to say, symbolic—reasons, to reset the university’s foundation in the eyes of the wider world, I thought of the university’s actual cornerstone. It was laid in the university’s oldest building, Old Mill, by the Marquis de Lafayette on his whirlwind 1825 tour of the United States. It is made of Monkton Quartzite, known as Vermont redstone. The rock was quarried on the western banks of Lake Champlain, just south of Burlington, but its source is the tall peaks of the Adirondacks whose rock was eroded, once upon a time, by lapping waves. The questions a person might ask about this old stone with its weathered inscription, “Laid by Lafayette, 1825,” point toward departments and programs that, if the cuts are finalized, soon will not exist.

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