As I look around the higher education landscape these days, I see two distinct trends: The first sees small, private liberal arts colleges retrenching and defending the liberal arts tradition, where students are encouraged to question assumptions; value clear, thoughtful thinking and communicating; deepen their understanding of the world and how it works; and take an interdisciplinary approach to their studies. The second sees large, public institutions shearing off arts, languages, history, philosophy, and anything not considered pragmatic or leading to a job in order to meet immediate market needs. In other words, they’re going for vocational at the expense of holistic education.
This contrast is vividly demonstrated in the recent science center developments of Amherst College and the University of Wisconsin. The former has begun a $625M capital campaign to maintain the institution’s high quality education, support students “regardless of means,” and, significantly,
The Promise campaign includes support for a new interdisciplinary science center, the largest project in Amherst’s history, that is likely to be unsurpassed at a liberal arts college. With this center and additional faculty positions, the College will set a new standard in the mathematical, physical and biological sciences and enhance its historic excellence in the humanities, arts and social sciences.
The College’s press release goes on to note that two anonymous alumni (unfortunately, neither one is yours truly) have already given a combined $150M to support the campaign, which Amherst president Biddy Martin says “will ensure that we can continue to develop independent, versatile, and creative thinkers.” The key word is “interdisciplinary.” Although the science center will have advanced facilities for the sciences, it will also accommodate genuinely wide-ranging studies linking many different fields within and outside of the sciences.
Through purely private support, Amherst is creating a new center not just of science but of thought, a hub for encouraging the disciplines to work together and build on the successes of the past while looking to the future. Its creation not only brings Amherst’s scientific capabilities firmly into the 21st century, but also reaffirms its commitment to the form and spirit of the liberal arts. (I encourage you to take a look at the center’s page here to see its innovations and the commitment made to educational, environmental, and practical considerations.)
The University of Wisconsin, in contrast, along with its branches shedding humanities courses left and right, has recently made a $100M deal with Foxconn Technology Group, the Taiwanese company that recently agreed to build a plant in Wisconsin after receiving nearly $4B in tax breaks to lure it there. The University, once a bastion of liberal arts and independent thinking, has now hitched itself to a major tech manufacturing company that, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, is funding an “interdisciplinary research facility for students and faculty to collaborate closely with the company’s Wisconn Valley Science and Technology Park near Racine.”
The $100M deal also comes with a major caveat: Foxconn has no obligation to follow through unless the University raises a matching amount for the facility. Essentially, the University of Wisconsin has made itself a subsidiary of Foxconn, which CEO Terry Gou says “will provide funding on practical topics and capabilities in core areas that will become increasingly invaluable to the advanced technology hub, along with the artificial intelligence, 8K resolution and 5G wireless technology ecosystem that we are building in Wisconsin.” While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these things, and while there will likely be many students now and in the future interested in them, we should be concerned when a respected state university intends to make itself “a pipeline of research and engineering talent to the company, which could employ up to 13,000 people.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to contrast two such different institutions at opposite ends of the higher education spectrum. Amherst has a long history and many supportive alumni (wealthy and otherwise), an envied position in the college world, and a comfortable endowment, while the University of Wisconsin has had to deal with an increasingly hostile state government that, like many other state governments, has been starving its higher education system of financial resources, forcing it to find money where it can. So it’s hard to blame the University for doing what it thinks needs to be done. And the Madison campus, at least, hasn’t gone down the road taken by some of its other campuses; it still offers an excellent undergraduate education.
Nevertheless, the differences between these two institutions’ approach to their new science/research centers clearly delineate widely disparate views of higher education’s purpose. Is it to create individuals with the capacity for wide-ranging, independent thought or to train worker bees for industry?Should one industry or corporation command such a large swath of a public institution? And will private institutions’ commitment to liberal arts become an increasingly rarified commodity in the 21st century?
(Two interesting notes: The State Journal reports that the university has declined to provide them with a copy of the University’s agreement with Foxconn; they have had to request it through the state’s open records law. And Amherst’s current president, Biddy Martin, was Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus from 2008-11. During that time she proposed “The Madison Initiative for Undergraduates [which] promoted student advising, innovations in undergraduate programs and faculty diversity. Martin also spearheaded an effort to gain greater operating flexibility and increased autonomy for Wisconsin’s flagship campus.” This effort created a great deal of controversy and Martin left for Amherst not long after.)