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Many liberal arts institutions across the U.S. are feeling the squeeze of declining enrollments, interest in career-related education and other factors affecting their bottom lines. So some colleges are taking drastic measures in programs cuts. But how much change is too much? Put another way, after program cut upon program cut, at what point does a liberal arts institution cease to be one?

Wartburg College, currently in tumult over a recent proposal to lay off well-respected members of the faculty -- leaving vacant key areas of the curriculum -- is hardly the only institution to be facing such questions. But what’s happened at the central Iowa college in recent weeks provides an interesting angle on the future viability of liberal arts institutions without substantial endowments.

This month, at least three tenure-track faculty members at Wartburg received notices that the college was not recommending them for reappointment. The decision was the result of a process described in the Faculty Handbook, whereby the college dean and a representative faculty body, the Faculty Council, evaluate full-time, non-tenure-track faculty and tenure-track faculty contracts for continued “institutional need.” The college also is proposing not to fill open French, philosophy and theater positions -- the only ones on campus, faculty members say. In total, the college will cut 12 faculty lines by the end of the academic year, the Bremer County Independent reported. Wartburg currently has 104 full-time instructors.

Faculty members say the annual review is typically pro forma. But this year it targeted some of the most beloved faculty members on campus: Erik Grayson, an assistant professor of English; David Herwaldt, an assistant professor of art; and Jennifer McBride, an assistant professor of religion and the college Board of Regents Endowed Chair in Ethics. The professors were notified their jobs were at risk by being copied on a memo to their respective chairs. A note at the bottom indicated that mental health services were available to them.

The notification doesn’t mean the decision is final; the college, according to its own timeline, has a few more days to consult with department chairs about its recommendations. The list then goes to President Darrel D. Colson, who will finalize it by Nov. 10. But because such notifications are so rare, students, alumni and faculty members are taking them to be all but official layoffs. In response, students have started various petitions asking the college to reconsider, and to think about how the cuts will impact quality of education. Grayson, students have pointed out, is the only American literature specialist in his department. To many, it's just not a liberal arts department without anyone who specializes in American literature.

“Experiences in the arts and humanities are invaluable to a liberal arts education and by eliminating these three positions, we believe Wartburg is demonstrating a disregard for the liberal arts,” reads a petition initiated by Wartburg students. “Furthermore, the elimination of professors does not represent excellence, integrity, engagement, strengthened community, stewardship or legacy -- all of which are strategic values of Wartburg’s mission.”

Students have taken to Facebook to voice their concerns, as well, and faculty members have joined them. Grayson thanked students for their support, saying, “I can speak for both David [Herwaldt] and Jenny [McBride] when I say that the support of our students has been overwhelming. We are all incredibly touched and humbled by the kindness and support you have all expressed for us.”

The page also contains a copy of a Facebook message posted by David Brennan, an adjunct instructor of forensics at Wartburg, saying that he was witnessing “academic culling, supposedly for the good of the system.” Students and faculty are “outraged,” he said, with good cause.

“These educators are great at what they do; they truly care about the students they teach and are interested in their futures,” Brennan wrote. “Not to mention, they are completely necessary to the departments to which they belong. Departments are continually asked to do more with less, which they do, out of fear of retaliation from those in power.” (Brennan authenticated the post but explained via email that he was speaking not specifically about Wartburg, but rather about cuts to institutions across the country.)

Last Thursday, according to faculty accounts, professors held a meeting to discuss the proposed layoffs, and some expressed skepticism about the term “institutional need” being applied to the situation. They also asked for more details about just how the dean and Faculty Council had come up with their recommendations, but received none.

So far, the college has pointed to declining enrollment and a $3.7 million budget gap as a reason for the cuts. Graham Garner, a Wartburg spokesman, said the college has seen a decline in enrollment for each of the last five years, from just over 1,800 students in 2011 to about 1,537 today. That’s partly due to the national debate over college value, he said, as well as local factors: a shrinking high school feeder population in Iowa and more aggressive in-state recruiting by public universities, due to new legislative incentives for enrolling Iowans.

Wartburg laid off 11 nonfaculty staff members last year, and this year nontenured faculty lines were on the chopping block. Garner declined to say exactly which positions, or even how many, were recommended for elimination, saying he hadn’t seen the list. But he said the recommendations were made in conjunction with the Faculty Council, according to policy.

Asked if Wartburg could continue as a liberal arts institution without a professor of philosophy or French or an American literature expert, Garner said the cuts targeted faculty positions, not programs. There are other ways of “delivering” programs than via a full-time faculty member, he said. Garner also acknowledged criticism lodged by some students that the college initiated a women’s lacrosse program in recent years, and that it's looking to add a music therapy professor even as it sheds those in other disciplines. Both lacrosse and music therapy are potential areas of growth and distinction, he said.

“The main thing to recognize is that this is not being done carelessly or in an unfeeling manner,” Garner added. “We’re in a difficult situation and have to make changes, and do that in a thoughtful way that ensures our survival in the long term. We’re learning that those institutions that adapt thoughtfully do so with their missions and spirit intact.”

But Grayson, the Americanist, said via email that he understood faculty and student concerns about the future of Wartburg as they know it.

"Obviously, institutions change to meet the needs of their students and adapt to the academic climate in which they exist, but a college’s identity as a liberal arts institution will be damaged if current and prospective students perceive that it cannot provide them with full-time faculty members trained in the areas they wish to study," he said. "Because the three currently staffed positions recommended for elimination are in ethics, graphic design and American literature and because it appears we may end up with zero professors of French, philosophy and theater after this year, I can understand why some students and faculty are so concerned with Wartburg losing its identity as a liberal arts college."

Another professor in the humanities who did not want to be identified by name or specific discipline, citing an uncertain environment at Wartburg, said, "When value and institutional need are measured solely in monetary terms, the institution has ceased to be a liberal arts college."

Wartburg’s just the most recent college to announce major faculty or de facto program cuts. Drury University, in Missouri, last month said it was eliminating the jobs of 12 nontenured faculty members, citing a decline in enrollment. The faculty members who lost jobs were in theater, philosophy, music, education and languages. Drury said it plans to grow in fields with more student demand, and as a result is adding programs in film and TV production, digital design, animation, and professional writing -- inspiring some on campus to create a Facebook page called "Save Drury as a Liberal Arts School."

MacMurray College, in Illinois, is ending English, history and philosophy majors and music as a minor. “We realized in order to be sustainable, you have to be novel,” MacMurray President Colleen Hester told Crain’s. Also in Illinois, Benedictine University is shifting toward adult education at its Springfield campus after seeing a major drop in enrollment.

Ashland University, whose College of Arts and Sciences is rooted in the liberal arts, laid off 23 instructors -- some of them tenured -- in August, saying it was “restructuring” after years of financial difficultly (even though enrollment appeared to be steadying). And of course Sweet Briar College stunned students, faculty and alumni last spring when it announced it was closing due to concerns about its long-term viability. Soon after the Sweet Briar announcement, Moody's Investor Service predicted that college closure rates will triple by 2017.

The American Association of University Professors is concerned about faculty rights at struggling liberal arts institutions, and there was some talk of “the next Sweet Briar” at the association’s annual meeting in June. Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance at AAUP, couldn’t comment directly on the Wartburg case, since he taught there for 19 years. But he said the association is aware of what’s happening in Iowa and on other, similar campuses.

Liberal arts institutions are in tough spot, given declining enrollment, financial concerns stemming from the 2008 recession, and other problems, Scholtz said, and there’s no silver bullet. AAUP’s key concern, however, is that tenured professors at these institutions retain their due process rights, and that faculty members generally remain the primary overseers of any related curricular changes.

“Obviously when you close programs in key humanities and fine arts areas,” Scholtz said, “you have to question whether students can still be offered what is characterized as a liberal arts education. But what we’re concerned about, of course, is whether the institution unilaterally starts firing tenured faculty just to save costs, without any faculty involvement.”

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