Concerns about student involvement and the future of liberal arts at McDaniel College — following the decisions to sunset several majors and minors — were topics during an open town hall Wednesday night.
The meeting was held on campus and sponsored by the Student Government Association and the Progressive Student Union. It was open to all, and included about 30 students, alumni, faculty and administration members.
“We wanted to provide a public forum to discuss the restructuring that was not exclusive to students/faculty/alumni as other parts of this process have been,” a PSU spokesperson said in a statement. “I think that many people are still concerned about the changes, and we would like to collectively try to understand what they mean for the future of our institution.”
Senior Monica McInerney and sophomore Khalil Edwards, members of the PSU, introduced some of their concerns at the start of the town hall, which senior Atticus Rice moderated.
“We realize that decisions have been made,” said senior Sylvan Greyson, a PSU member. She hoped the discussion could address ways that students could be included in discussions better and what the alternatives could have been for making change.
As the process progressed, she said she felt that students were told there was either no appropriate place for them to give comment, or that they didn’t have enough information to speak on the issues. But she felt there was not enough information released publicly for students to inform their opinions.
Edwards said courses that will be lost represent a large percentage of those that encompass African and African-American studies, and the sunsetting affects professors that come from marginalized groups.
The college’s Board of Trustees voted in February to no longer offer art history, religious studies, French, German and music as majors for future students. A news release said that savings from the restructuring will be reinvested to strengthen academic programs “to better meet the needs of the 21st century, and to create new programs that will expand the curricular offerings of the College.”
One request students made was for more transparency about who the student representatives would be at future Board of Trustees meetings. The SGA president traditionally attends the meeting, but SGA’s election schedule recently changed and the SGA president had just been elected prior to winter break. The prior president attended, but not in capacity as a representative for SGA.
Pam Zappardino, an alumna of the college and an instructor, said that she understood student input had been collected through the survey but felt that it was problematic if students weren’t given context to what was happening.
Stephanie D. Madsen, the associate dean for sophomore students who sent out the survey, said the response rate was about 30 percent of students, whereas normally emailed surveys get a response rate of about 20 percent.
Later in the meeting, students asked whether it would be possible going forward for the administration to ask for input in other ways, other than an email survey, that might convey the gravity of the decisions being made.
Erin McIntosh, a senior religious studies student, said the overall restructuring process felt disingenuous to the individual connections she had been taught to value at the college.
“We were promised we wouldn’t be looked as numbers,” she said.
Junior Ray Hopkins said that even though a particular discipline might not be offered as a major, that didn’t mean it would be totally absent from campus. He cited his interest in herpetology, which is a rare major to find at a university. But through a relationship with a professor with a similar interest, he has been able to travel abroad to study frogs and his research on the topic will be published in an academic journal.
“That’s the main thing that hurts me,” he said, that professors with extensive education and long histories at the college might be out of a job.
He later added that he understood why some confidential information couldn’t be shared with students, but as a resident assistant, he also knew there were ways that a discussion could be had without breaking privacy.
Edwards said he was worried that the programs the college was investing in now would not still be the most popular in 15 years.
Greyson said she was worried about market saturation if liberal arts colleges began to reflect the course offerings at other institutions.
“We’ll be like the cupcake shops that all opened up and all closed down,” she said. “We don’t want to be a cupcake shop.”
She later added, “It’s not the same to have ensembles as it is to teach music as a discipline,” she said. If the music program is reduced to ensembles and private lessons, she said, that means that only students who have previous musical experience or who can pay for private lessons will be able to participate.
Margie Boudreaux, a faculty member in the music department since 1989 who has previously served as its chair, elaborated. She said that even faculty in the music department had not known until recently that only selected ensembles and private lessons would be maintained, even as they anticipated that the major and minor might be sunsetted.
She said that everyone in the music department had known over the past year that a process was underway to address the direction that curriculum was going. “None of us expected to be in this position at this time, one year later.”
As a lifelong music educator, she said, “my concern is … it’s really a historical meme that goes back centuries. That art is for the rich. And I don’t want that to be the case at McDaniel College. I’ve never wanted it to be that. The arts are for everyone, and everyone is enriched through exposure to the arts.”
The town hall was planned quickly, and President Roger Casey was already scheduled for another obligation during that time period, according to an administration spokesperson. The PSU and Casey both said they hope to meet with each other at a future date.
At the conclusion of the meeting, attendees were encouraged to add their comments to three poster pages, categorized as “Incorporating Greater Transparency,” “Alternatives” and “Other Questions/Concerns.”