Two Fridays ago, Emory University in Atlanta announced that its College of Arts and Sciences was shuttering their Education Division, their Visual Arts Department, their Journalism Department, and suspending graduate programs in Economics and Spanish, while eliminating language programs in Russian, Persian, and Hindi. Emory will phase out programs over several years, in order to allow current undergraduates majoring in these areas to finish their degrees (although I suspect many of them will not be too keen to do so, knowing the programs reputation will die along with the Department). The letter from the Dean, Robin Forman, explaining the decision is here. In it, he explains,
During my time as Dean of the College I have heard repeatedly from both faculty and staff that the limitations on our resources have placed in doubt our ability to sustain our accomplishments. We have too many departments and programs where resources are stretched to the limit, leaving us in danger of falling short of our goal of providing a world-class education for our students.
Further, he explains that the solution is to scale back Emory’s scope as a liberal arts institution. “If we are to remain committed to our vision of a superlative liberal arts education, we must now be prepared to reexamine our scope to set clear priorities.” These decisions are “for Emory to maintain its place as one of the top liberal arts universities in the nation.” Now, I have no substantive connection to Emory; I did not attend Emory, nor did anybody in my immediate family. I have, however, long considered Emory to be a leading research university in the south, with a simultaneously strong liberal arts focus. As someone who knows quite a few people with interests in the Asia and Eurasia region, and “area studies” in general, it strikes me as rather short-sighted to basically neuter the ability of some of America’s most talented undergrads to receive the substantive language experience needed to engage with countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, the former Soviet Central Asian republics, etc. We can make similar observations about the apparent end to Visual Arts as part of what Emory defines as a “twenty-first century liberal arts education.”
We must note the justification and the financial strategy that lies behind this decision. While Emory was running a deficit for much of the last several years, thanks to measures unrelated to this one, by the 2011-2012 fiscal year they were back in the black, so the argument here is not about the financial fundamentals of the College. The usual line trotted out of “But Chaucer costs too much money!” simply does not apply here. “These steps are not in response to the deficit, and will play no role in reducing our expenses…While our financial challenges add urgency to these decisions, these are fundamentally academic decisions about the size and scope of our mission,” according to Dean Forman’s letter. Emory’s strategy appears to be to encourage more specialization in areas that Emory deems ones of competitive advantage—specifically, “the study of health, quantitative methods, and questions of how communities struggle with difference,” whatever that last one means. There is also discussion of forming committees to explore ways in which Emory can become a center of excellence for contemporary China studies, digital media, and neuroscience.
To me, this is an interesting—if also discouraging—example of how even relatively well-endowed universities like Emory are pushing for strategic depth, rather than sustained excellence across a plethora of fields. Emory’s decision underscores the argument that we are moving towards a world of four to five truly élite centers that attempt and achieve academic excellence in a broad range of disciplines, and then about 20-25 excellent institutions that are specializing highly in specific areas within the liberal arts. Still, the piecemeal character of some of this is troubling. Having a China Studies center at Emory is clearly valuable, but one’s understanding of both China, as well as Asia, is pauperized if one cannot put it into the context of a bigger picture with India, Vietnam, Russia, and Central Asia, for example. Emory and other universities following its lead, appear to have missed the idea of what a liberal arts education is, namely, the ability to draw meaningful interdisciplinary connections between variegated academic disciplines for a more nuanced and accurate view of the world.