It’s time for private universities

If governments won’t support the liberal arts, someone else is going to have to do it.

Canadians have  for many years been justly proud of their system of public universities. And as with publicly-insured health care, our system of government-funded universities serves as a means to distinguish us from the U.S. Sure, we say, Harvard and Yale may be great schools, but their costs make them almost exclusively for the elite few, while working-class Americans have to settle for modest state schools or community colleges that no one takes seriously. Here in Canada, by contrast, anyone can go to any of our high quality public universities.

So far, so good, but the times are changing, and changing fast. It is increasingly an accepted article of faith among university administrators and government officials alike that universities are economic levers. As such, programs that seem to have a clear economic benefit — business, engineering, computer science — are increasingly understood as the disciplines that matter, while the traditional areas of studies — the liberal arts in particular — are viewed as old-fashioned, irrelevant, and economically unsustainable.

Like many professors of the humanities, I have railed against this view, with no success. No matter how many times people like me argue that education ought not to be mainly about training workers who can create value for corporations, the march of the Philistines goes on. No matter how many times people like me point out that research shows how liberal arts grads actually end up doing better economically than graduates from applied programs, English Literature still appears to be the discipline you can’t do anything with, while Entrepreneurship seems street smart and savvy.

So be it. Governments have the right to fund what they see as important and if the electorate doesn’t make an issue of it, I suppose we shouldn’t expect our politicians to do so either. The barbarians aren’t at the gate: they’re in the cockpit.

But if governments refuse to properly fund and support and promote the liberal arts, they should allow — indeed, by all rights they must allow — the creation of private universities for those same liberal arts. It’s one thing to deny funds to such programs. It’s entirely another to deny the whole populace the right to pursue the kinds of education they want. Notice, by the way, that I am not talking about for-profit institutions, only institutions that do not rely on regular government funding.

Can such institutions be viable? I think they can be, though the gestation period will be long and difficult. For one thing, they would require a certain amount of start-up capital, and that would mean private donors. But building a foundation of private donations is not impossible, and many existing universities got their start just that way. Such donations would go mainly towards building and furnishing a building (or renovating an existing structure), providing books for the library, and creating an endowment from which an annual investment revenue could be drawn to continue to cover the maintenance costs.

Once a base of donations has been gathered and the start-up costs have been covered, the running of a small liberal arts college is actually extremely cost efficient. Without expensive labs and scientific equipment, and with an endowment to help cover day-to-day costs, the largest expense for such an institution would be faculty salaries, and these could be covered through tuition. I could imagine a small, credible liberal arts university with, let’s say, five departments: Literature, History, Philosophy, Anthropology/Sociology, and Languages. We could tweak the exact organization and complement, but let’s start there for argument’s sake. Now, let’s imagine five members in each department, and let’s say every faculty member teaches 3 courses per year with 30 students in each class. That’s enough room for 450 students taking a full course load. Now, let’s say each of those students pays something near the top end of the existing Canadian tuition scale (and why not for an elite liberal arts school?) or $7000 per year.  That’s about $3.2 million in revenue. Our 25 faculty members, making, let’s say $75 000 per year, cost about $1.9 million for their salaries, leaving us a surplus of over a million dollars to spend on other things such as administrative costs.

Readers might argue with the particular details and the exact arithmetic, but the basic point holds: a small, private liberal arts university would not be particularly expensive to run. And with a small faculty and student body, the army of administrative staff that bogs down the budgets of other universities could be largely, though not entirely, avoided. There would be no need for Deans or Chairs or their secretaries. Similarly, by focusing only on academics, needless expenses like football teams can be forgone, too. Many aspects of campus life — residences, food services, the bookstore — could support themselves with the revenue they generate.

But why would anyone go there? For one thing, there is still a large number of students (and parents) who understand that the joys of communing with the great minds of our past and present are too great to pass up. Moreover, such a university would attract the very best scholars and teachers in the relevant fields, because Canadian liberal arts professors generally feel undervalued and would jump at the chance to teach in a small university dedicated only to their disciplines.

Moreover, employers would scramble to hire graduates from my little university because they would recognize  that their well-developed curiosity, imagination, and critical faculties make them much more valuable in the long run than graduates from public universities trained in technologies that will be obsolete in five years. And so students will be all the more eager to attend, knowing that a degree from Pettigrew University really means something.

But wait, don’t such colleges already exist as public universities? They do, but given current trends, they won’t in the long run, and those who want to save the liberal arts traditions from the unexamined dustbin of history have to start preparing now. If we don’t, the last university liberal arts program will be cut by the end of the century, long after there are enough people left who remember why it mattered.

But to start now we need to do two things. First, start keeping your eye out for rich people who want to leave a legacy akin to, say, the Stanford family and when you find them, encourage them to establish a foundation for a private liberal arts university. And get them to tell their friends, too. Second, give up the notion that Canadian universities all have to remain public and get your provincial government to give it up, too.

Once you’ve done those things, contact me, and I will take it from there.