January 2011

A Faustian bargain

In this special, online-only editorial, ASBMB Past-president Gregory Petsko writes an open letter to George M. Philip, president of the University at Albany, SUNY.


PetskoDear President Philip,

Probably the last thing you need at this moment is someone else from outside your university complaining about your decision. If you want to argue that I can’t really understand all aspects of the situation, never having been associated with SUNY Albany, I wouldn’t disagree. But I cannot let something like this go by without weighing in. I hope, when I’m through, you will at least understand why.

On Oct. 1, you announced that the departments of French, Italian, classics, Russian and theater arts were being eliminated. You gave several reasons for your decision, including that “there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs.” Of course, your decision was also, perhaps chiefly, a cost-cutting measure – in fact, you stated that this decision might not have been necessary had the state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed your university to set its own tuition rates. Finally, you asserted that the humanities were a drain on the institution financially, as opposed to the sciences, which bring in money in the form of grants and contracts.

Let’s examine these and your other reasons in detail, because I think if one does, it becomes clear that the facts on which they are based have some important aspects that are not covered in your statement. First, the matter of enrollment. I’m sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn’t have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn’t required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy – humanities, social sciences, the fine arts, the physical and natural sciences – and to attain minimal proficiency in at least one foreign language. You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it’s because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs – something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.

Young people haven’t, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it’s hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in chapter five of his great novel, “The Brothers Karamazov.” In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.

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COMMENTS:

This one line caught my attention: "...humanities don't pay their own way..." If you REALLY want to find units of university systems that don't "...pay their own way..." just look to the athletics departments. Not only do such entities NOT pay their way they draw down hugely disproportionate subsidies from students, parents, taxpayers and institutional foundations. No one would be surprised to learn that 20 to 25% of a student's tuition and fees bill goes directly to the sports entertainment "business" on campus. Charging academic departments with "not paying their own way" is simply a pathetic excuse to not educate our populace (while giving thme the best sports entertainment their money will buy even when they don't want to purchase that "entertainment"). James Joy 10 January 2011

 

 

 

Absolutely wonderful piece! So right you are Greg.

 

Unfortunate, but true.

 

Next should be a letter to Mark Wrighton, Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, regarding the treatment of four senior faculty in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics. Garland R. Marshall Professor, WUSM

 

Terrific, erudite letter/article. It is wonderful to see a scientist make such a effort to support the teaching of the humanities. The faculty of the humanities program owe you a debt of gratitude; I should think President Phillip would find it difficult to not respond to your convincing arguments for maintaining the humanities departments. Once something that important is lost, it is very costly to rebuild it. I hope your wisdom prevails. Eleanor Spicer Professor of Biochemistry Medical University of South Carolina

 

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