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Xavier as a business, part II

By Chris Dobbs
On November 17, 2011

The liberal arts, if you're doing them right, won't ever

earn you a dime. They, unlike nice cars, attractive

stock options or big pensions, are devoted to discovering the "good life." The liberal arts are meant to provide a normative structure to our life – to tell us how we ought to live and what we ought to pursue as ends. It's obvious that every university needs a business component to stay afloat – taxes have to be paid, loans have to be made – but the adaptation of the business model across the entire school is something done at the cost of losing the liberal arts.

Business, by its very nature, commodifies everything. The

liberal arts are packaged and sold, just like nice dorms and

new cafeterias. They're added into the overall "curb appeal" of the school, something that adds some dollar amount of value. At Xavier, this commodification of the liberal arts has affected the form of the liberal arts themselves. They've become, like the statistics in admissions handouts that proclaim the student diversity at Xavier, shallow. The liberal arts, in this packaging and selling process, have been separated into a series of individual skills (like "critical thinking" and "openness to new ideas") and compared to other skill-based majors. Because the liberal arts are valued for nothing more than these artificially derived "critical thinking" skills, in comparison to practical, technical majors, they appear as lacking. Why waste my

time on "x" skill when "y" skill will go on a résumé and increase my attractiveness to employers? In order for the liberal arts to escape the commodifying effect of business, they have to be primary. The liberal arts should be the form of the school, and the career-oriented majors should

be accidental properties. Majors should be a defining part of

the school, but they should be defining only under the umbrella definition provided by the liberal arts. Every skill taught on campus should be done from a liberal arts basis. Threats to weaken the University core curriculum are the exact opposite of this. There are such things as liberal

arts undergraduate colleges that have strong business schools, Boston College for example, but their business schools, along with every other career-oriented program at the universities, are entirely secondary to the liberal arts form. If a liberal arts core class interferes with your major,

your major makes exceptions, not the core. At these schools, you're oriented in a way that shows how you ought to live and gives you specific, technical skills that allow you to be a productive member of society. You become a technician – a cardiologist, a bank manager, a journalist – that knows how to best live life. You leave those schools technologically skilled and directed towards the "good life."

Xavier has greatly weakened its ability to orient its students towards the "good life," which can only come from a school based in the liberal arts. Now, we're way beyond the business model as a way to pay taxes. The "university

as a business" model is now standard operating procedure

at every level of Xavier administrative, academic and student life. We've brought in students that are regularly

dismissive, even antagonistic, towards the core curriculum

(who bemoan it as a "waste of time" and a distraction from

their supremely practical lone concentration), a provost who is seeking to further assimilate the academic faculty at Xavier into business-oriented frame of mind and new buildings that frame the University as a 4-year resort

rather than a 4-year education in how to be. If Xavier's faculty and student body are OK with that — if they're content with playing within the rules of business where expansion, not quality, is king — then they should ignore

these articles. By all financial measures, it seems we've been enormously successful under this business model. However, there's room in this world for real liberal arts

universities (look at, for example, St. John's College

in Annapolis, Md. or Earlham College in Richmond,

Ind.). They may not have real-time stock tickers, and they may not have that many students, but they're truly formed in the image of the liberal arts. They're guided by the liberal arts, by professors acting as temporary administrators and students that recognize the importance of a core curriculum. These are schools where the students care about the good life, and the administration cares that they care.


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