Marymount University has long followed the motto of Tua Luce Dirige, or “Direct Us by Thy Light” as a Catholic university. However, studying the meaning of that light will now have to be done on your own time if you want a degree on some subjects. Marymount is moving to cut theology and religious studies as well as a host of other traditional subjects like philosophy, mathematics, art, history, sociology, English, economics, and secondary education as degree subjects. All of these subjects, according to the university and its President Irma Becerra, “lack of potential for growth.”
It is entirely unclear what Becerra views as “growth potential” after gutting these core degree but Marymount may sever its connections to traditional liberal arts education. It is important to note that these changes involve the elimination of the degrees rather than the elimination any courses on these subjects.
Becerra stated “Over the long term, it would be irresponsible to sustain majors [and] programs with consistently low enrollment, low graduation rates, and lack of potential for growth. Recommendations and decisions on programs marked for elimination are based on clear evidence of student choices and behavior over time.”
There is a host of problems with that statement. First, student choices are not the guide for universities on core academic standards. Universities are places where students come to be educated, not dictate the meaning of education. While we try to work with students to make available courses that reflect contemporary interests, we generally do not carve up the core curriculum to meet consumer demand. Second, low graduation rates are a problem in the school’s admission and educational programs. Solving low graduation rates by eliminating whole core subjects is like solving a low attendance rates at church by eliminating Sunday services.
Third, and most worrisome, the rejection of the core curriculum for lack of potential growth is the rejection of the model of a liberal education. I was fortunate to attend the University of Chicago, which was a pioneer in the “core curriculum.” It was based on the main building blocks of education around subjects like history, math, and English. Marymount is instead following the market and risks becoming just another overpriced trade school.
Rather than make the difficult choices to be more competitive as a liberal arts university, Marymount appears to be jettisoning core degrees to play the market. It is a form of academic self-mutilation that cuts away the very degrees that define a liberal arts university. In fairness to the university, it must survive to offer any educational program. That will often require trimming programs and staff. However, it would seem possible to make efficient choices on course offerings and faculty without eliminating so many core subjects for degrees.
The problem is not the obvious irony of eliminating theology degrees at a university that once prayed for God to “Direct Us by Thy Light.” The problem is the university is reinventing itself in a new image, but is offering no vision of what that image entails beyond what the market will bear. It is likely to find more heat than light in its new path toward marketable educational standards.