- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

American universities are the envy of the world. Our institutions of higher learning attract the youthful intelligentsia of global society, who travel to the United States to receive an education unrivaled in quality.
Unfortunately, a disturbing trend within public universities is slowly stripping them of the reputation they now enjoy. The ivory towers are crumbling under the influence of financial incentives, as universities push aside once-revered liberal arts programs in favor of cash- and prestige-generating graduate schools.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the University of Virginia, whose nation-leading College of Arts and Sciences lacks the funds necessary to repair the dilapidated building that houses its own economics department. Articles appearing this year in The Cavalier Daily, the school's student newspaper, have reported that the building badly needs new piping, structural repairs and improved heating systems.
One professor, fed up with the building's poor condition, took matters into his own hands and began repairs himself. The department is having trouble attracting new faculty, who shy away from large classes, state budget problems and rundown facilities.
And the college's financial woes aren't limited to the economics department. Politics, another popular major at UVA, also has problems meeting student demand. Undergraduates often complain about how difficult it is to enroll in the classes they need in order to graduate. Some faculty predict the day will come when students must stay more than four years to earn their degrees, a phenomenon already all too familiar at other schools.
Former Arts and Sciences Dean Melvin Leffler, who had crusaded for increased funding of the liberal arts college, knows why economics and many other departments aren't getting the money they need: "What is undisputed is that the college provides many millions of dollars to support the university, beyond that which it gets from the university." Quoted in a report in the most recent issue of The Public Interest, Mr. Leffler estimates the discrepancy was around $17 million for the 1997-98 school year.
With numbers like this, UVA has nowhere to go but down. The million-dollar question that must be asked of the school's administration is "why does a school with a $1.7 billion endowment starve its liberal arts college?"
The article in The Public Interest reported that at many other universities, graduate schools pay an "internal tax" to subsidize the less self-sufficient undergraduate college. At the University of Michigan, the tax rate for the business school is around 20 percent. The rate at Emory University is double that, while the Darden business school at UVA forks over a measely 10 percent. And it doesn't help at all that only 20 percent of the university's overall budget is underwritten by Virginia state taxes, and that Virginia's budget woes are having a chilling impact on its universities.
With the self-sufficient law and business schools at UVA bringing in so much revenue, a much higher internal tax rate is in order. Without additional funds, the university's liberal arts program is likely to fail. That will be unfortunate. Mr. Jefferson's University, as the students, faculty and alumni prefer to call it, will churn out ranks of business-minded professionals at the expense of Jefferson's vision of an Academical Village. This should concern those of us who understand the value of a well-rounded liberal arts education.
In a paper written for the American Academy for Liberal Education, National Humanities Center President W. Robert Connor explains that the skills taught in a liberal arts education originally prepared one to live in free society: "Since freedom or slavery was so often at stake in citizen decisionmakings, these were, as well, the skills needed to preserve freedom."
Indeed, an institution at which students are challenged to master the finer points of argument, at which they are challenged to master a specific discipline, and at which they are challenged to develop into tomorrow's leaders, certainly is an institution well worth nourishing and preserving.
David Kirp and Patrick Roberts, authors of the report in the Public Interest, accurately describe UVA's almost financially independent business school as the "canary in the mine," a warning shot before the deluge. What is happening at UVA reflects a modern trend in higher education the prioritizing of national prestige and fund raising over academic research and discussion. Public universities, beginning with the University of Virginia, must re-establish a strong commitment to their liberal arts programs. They must do so soon, or face their own demise.

Sam Bresnahan is an intern for the editorial page of The Washington Times and a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Virginia.


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