Part IV: A Lost Liberal Arts Dream—Anthony DiRenzo, Ithaca College professor in the department of writing, teaches in the tradition of classical humanism and integrates history and philosophy in his technical writing courses. He recalled a time in 2008 when the faculty was galvanized behind behind newly appointed president Tom Rochon and his plan to integrate Ithaca College’s humanities departments with professional training programs. The schools of Roy H. Park, Health Science and Human Performance, Business and Music would all depend upon the School of Humanities and Sciences to supplement their curriculums with liberal arts arts learning.
DiRenzo said Rochon achieved such a high level of appeal by reaching out to the community by holding “listening sessions”, inviting all faculty members to brunch with his family and other spontaneous acts of kindness which rivaled the benevolence of his renown predecessor Peggy Ryan Williams.
“If you try to remind [faculty members] who Tom used to be and what Tom used to be like, they’ll say that’s not true,” DiRenzo said. “I’m telling you, it was true.”
It was only a matter of years before Rochon’s administration became characterized as aloof and disconnected from the campus community.
For the college, the Integrative Core Curriculum (ICC), later growing into the colossus IC 20/20, seemed to be the colleges’ solution to all the problems it faced at the time—financial, educational and bureaucratic. The reaccreditation process by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education required the college to include some way of measuring student success in their curriculum, hence, IC 20/20’s requirement of an e-portfolio of every student to graduate.
In terms of academic curriculum, the goal of ICC was the create a dynamic learning experience, one that would supplement professional training courses with the well-rounded education supplied by the humanities. Similarly, if you were a student of the humanities, you would have the chance to branch out and take courses in business or filmmaking, said Chris Biehn, vice president of institutional advancement.
“It’s like liberal arts plus,” Biehn said, reflecting on his days as a philosophy major. “When I was an undergraduate…I would have wanted to make films. At IC, I can do that.”
Despite the optimistic rhetoric surrounding the ICC by the administration, it has gained a reputation of preventing students from graduating on time and constraining the syllabi of professors.
As a result of the college’s new efforts to cut costs, retired professors in these departments, such as writing, art history and anthropology, were much more likely to be replaced by lecturers, instructors and other faculty members of contingent status, if they are replaced at all. These faculty members make small wages per credit hour and have low job stability due to their short-term contracts.
DiRenzo expressed concern that Ithaca College would go the way of many SUNY schools which condense multiple humanities departments into single departments. For example, the departments of English, Foreign Languages and Linguistics become the department of modern languages.
In order to understand this perceived shortchanging of the humanities at Ithaca College, it’s important to recall the financial model for a healthy institution of higher learning as explained by Chris Biehn, vice president of institutional advancement, in Part II. By investing in a student centered education, the college planned to not only bring in tuition dollars but the dollars of successful alumni. This way, the college allows itself more financial freedom rather than being dependent on tuition for 91 percent of its operations.
“The more we enhance the student experience, the more you have a successful alumni body, the more successful you’ll be as a college but you also do well in the world and that’s what we want,” said Chris Biehn, vice president of institutional advancement.
Some academic fields lend themselves to profitable lines of work at Ithaca College, like business administration and integrative marketing and communications garner consistent student enrollment and wealthier network of donating alumni. On the other hand, degrees in art history and anthropology have lower rates of employment after graduation and are less attractive to prospective students.
In an economy with student debt climbs to unprecedented rates and tuition perpetually increases, students must increasingly think of themselves as shareholders in the debt-based economy of their own careers. They must invest in the college to provide for them a profitable career that will help them pay off long-term debt.
The four majors with the highest number of students from the class of 2016 who obtained jobs within 6 months of graduating from Ithaca College were business administration, integrative marketing and communications and television and radio production, according to survey results from the Office of Institutional Research. Nearly all of these jobs were in the student’s graduating field.
Furthermore, according to another survey from the Office of Institutional Research, students graduating from the Roy H. Park School of Communications have the highest rate of employment within six months of graduation followed closely by the School of Business. The school with the lowest rate of employment is the School of Humanities and Sciences, initiating a poor precedent for establishing a robust alumni network.
The payoff of supporting these fields is cyclical throughout the generations of a college’s student bodies. The Roy H. Park foundation is among the college’s top donors, with money supporting not one but two buildings named for the wealthy donor. The funds support the most renown programs, directed at attaining jobs for students through the hands-on experience of internships and alumni networking.
David Turkon, professor in the department of anthropology, also disapproved of the administration’s devaluing of classroom learning in favor of internships and other forms of experiential learning, exemplified by the “Blue Sky Reimagining” panel during the Fall 2015 semester. One of the panelists, Chris Burch a wealthy entrepreneur and alumnus of the college, criticized the native population where he built his hotel because they sold women in exchange for livestock.
“That struck me as evidence of why Burch needed book learning,” Turkon said. “That’s something you could overcome in an anthropology class. It’s not the buying and selling of women. It’s the forging of community relations.”
Turkon also said on the days when the college hosts prospective students, administrators have urged him to highlight Ithaca College as a whole rather than his department of anthropology.
“The idea is you’re selling a college experience rather than anthropology,” Turkon said. “I think it devalues it.”
DiRenzo pointed to the working conditions of each school as an indication of their built up wealth over the generations. Charitable donations from the Roy H. Park have gone to support two academic buildings in the donors’ name, the Park School of Communications and the Park Center for Business and Sustainable enterprise, the latter of which offers its faculty broad windows with scenic views of the campus greens and the City of Ithaca. The writing department offices, on the other hand, have cracking walls and less temperature regulation.
Click here to read Part V: The Unionization of Contingent Faculty