Endowed chairs offer hope for liberal arts

The core of liberal education increasingly faces threats from within the academy and without. Students continue to demand more specialized and professional training in college, and college administrators have worked to meet that demand. All too often, adding high-demand programs means ditching less popular ones. Departments with little to offer by way of marketable knowledge meet resistance at budget time and hostility during registration. Politicians, when they talk about education, speak in terms of training for a job rather than preparing for thoughtful citizenship. Thucydides and Adam Smith have a hard time competing with industrial relations for student attention and state support.
But non-professional departments need not despair. On the one hand, the liberal arts are just as important to the well-being of society as ever. But mainly, these programs can take hold of their own futures. The University’s Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies offers an example of how to position an old program to survive academic professionalization. The department, which barely survived 1990 budget cuts, is now one of the most secure in the College of Liberal Arts. Just this week the department received its second endowed professorship in two years.
The first, a $2 million gift from University alumnus Lyle Berman, funded a chair in Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. Monday, alumnus Leland Sundet pledged $1.5 for a professorship in New Testament and Christian studies. The University as a whole has 244 such endowed chairs; CLA has 22. Aside from housing one of every 11 CLA chairs, the department now has an endowment of more than $3.5 million, compared to about $50 million for the college. This from a department many thought dead on arrival in 1990 and which is still one of the smallest on campus.
William Malandra, the department’s chairman, has done many things correctly. Endowing chairs is the most direct way to ensure the continued viability of a program. There is very little administrators or legislators can do to remove a pre-paid professorship. More programs ought to turn to this tool to protect themselves from the budget knife. Even more, though, endowments offer administrators an attractive base for future building. Strong programs, even in the social sciences or the liberal arts, attract motivated students. Administrators like to fund popular departments. And, to complete the loop, strong and popular programs tend to attract the alumni money that allows further endowments.
Yet even more important is the way Malandra has built ties among his faculty and around the community. The department worked together to achieve the turnaround the endowments represent. Local synagogues have played a part in finding both the money and the professor for the Jewish studies chair. Christian churches and their leaders have helped put together the deal for the New Testament professorship. Both religious communities are now stakeholders in the department’s future. A program once on the chopping block now has clout inside the University and friends outside — proof that the liberal arts can do more than survive. They can flourish.