‘New Liberal Arts,’ Without Some of the Old

Hiram College, hoping to stay financially and academically competitive, launches overhaul and floats idea -- on hold for now -- of ending some tenure protections.

December 12, 2017

A predicted decline in local high school graduates. Being located in a region where competition between public and private universities is “among the stiffest in the country.” Shifting demographics. The increasing cost of attending college.

These are problems faced by institutions across America and throughout Northeast Ohio, but they are felt especially strongly at Hiram College, which hopes to address them with its strategic plan for a rebranding set to take place between now and 2020.

But as the private, liberal arts institution sets out to embrace “new liberal arts,” what will that mean academically? And at what cost will it come to faculty?

These are questions the college is still trying to answer.

As of now, exact details are fuzzy. The strategic plan calls for an examination of all academic programs, though the college has included a number of faculty and other stakeholders in the process, which has been underway since 2016, and has promised transparency. Indeed, President Lori Varlotta pointed out that the process so far has included multiple white papers and multiple committees -- which have included faculty members and alumni -- over the past 16 months.

Varlotta said she's tried to keep any potential academic or faculty shake-ups to a minimum, and put it off until now, after other cost-savings plans have been adopted. But with about $1 million in expenses that still need to be cut, the college has reached the point where faculty reductions are going to have to happen. An idea for the faculty to vote on suspending some of the faculty labor and tenure rules so that the college could act with expediency and flexibility was floated last week, although Varlotta said it "doesn’t seem like that’s going to be a viable option."

Generally, traditions of tenure hold that tenure can't be revoked unless a college declares financial exigency, which suggests it is fighting for its life. Hiram has not made that declaration, though it did have 13 layoffs and a smattering of early retirements taken last year, suggesting the college has seen healthier days, financially speaking. Varlotta said it was too soon to estimate how many faculty positions might be lost, and any decisions to cut programs “would be part of a very participatory process.”

“All academic programs need to be examined within the emerging New Liberal Arts framework,” the plan reads. “Thus far, there appears to be significant campus support for retaining many, if not most, of the ‘traditional’ majors (English, History, Philosophy, Theatre, Biology, etc.); however, open consideration of merging, modifying, or discontinuing some programs must be undertaken.”

The plan to make Hiram a “new liberal arts” college is inspired by the college’s founding, the administration says, and includes the addition of new programs at the college. If establishing a traditional liberal arts program was progressive and noble 167 years ago, the thinking goes, new programs are necessary to keep that mission and “pioneering history” relevant.

The strategic plan reads, in part:

At this point, faculty have also come to see that they must repackage or reframe some of these traditional programs in ways that both appeal to 21st-century students and align with workforce needs. As one example, Hiram’s current Communication major may be reconfigured to include tracks in journalism, multimedia production and/or sports information.

In addition to repackaging existing majors, faculty and administrators must identify new mission-driven and market-wise programs that Hiram should consider creating. Several such programs have been recently added to the College catalogue: Integrative Exercise Science (major), Public Health (major), and Natural History (minor). At present, faculty are considering the addition of an aging studies track in Sociology.

The strategic plan hasn't all been about cuts, however. A lot of it has also had to do with infrastructure improvements -- such as residence hall and Wi-Fi and technology upgrades -- needed to keep the campus not only relevant and competitive, but ideally ahead of the curve.

"New Liberal Arts is a combination of highly contemporary programs with the classical liberal arts programs that Hiram has been known for for 167 years," Varlotta said. A "mindful technology" program is focused on integrating technology into a traditional liberal arts curriculum and learning style. As part of an initiative that started in the fall 2017 semester, students are given iPads.

The faculty chair, Nick Hirsch, an associate professor of biology, said that while there was opposition to the tenure move (he also noted that the American Association of University Professors guidelines can be cumbersome), the mood of the faculty was cautiously optimistic.

"There's concern, not just for individual faculty but concern for our colleagues. But at the same time, we realize we need to be relevant," Hirsch said. "We're trying our best to kind of thread that needle."

While faculty cuts are likely, he said, faculty are appreciating the other efforts that are going into the strategic plan, especially given the tough market for small, private liberal arts colleges.

"Some of the stuff we've put in place the last two or three years is really starting to bear fruit now," Hirsch said, noting an uptick in this year's enrollment. "There's something to be concerned about, yes … But we’ve been here for 167 years. We’re not going anywhere."


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