The following is excerpted from the Founders Day Speech at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia.
I want to talk about the special virtue of the small liberal arts college, why I believe so strongly that there should be schools like Lindsey Wilson.
The first is that state government support for public campuses has faltered and failed, here and elsewhere. In the just-concluded General Assembly session, lawmakers cut — once again — taxpayer support for our state-assisted colleges and universities. The presidents of those institutions signed a letter that pulled the rug out from under the House of Representatives, which correctly insisted that it was possible to make an effective start on solving the state’s pension problems and, at the same time, to avoid savage cuts at our state institutions. There was enough money to do both. Gov. Steve Beshear left the state in relatively good shape, financially.
But when the Council on Post-secondary Education leadership and the campus presidents knuckled under to the governor’s bullying, the game was over. The University of Kentucky is left facing a new fiscal year in which it will receive nearly $70 million less on a recurring basis, annually, from the commonwealth than it did just 10 years ago. It’s the same sad story at our other public campuses.
Now we board members at those institutions will be asked to endorse this travesty by raising tuition, for the ninth time in nine years. The claim will be that we just hurt the schools if we don’t load another tuition hike onto students and their families.
I think the greater harm would come in endorsing the fiction that public higher education budgets can be endlessly cut without doing damage, the fantasy that public campuses are squandering great sums of money, and the fallacy that endless tuition hits are endurable. Trustee ratification of what was done in Frankfort, with the help of our public campus presidents, would just kick the can down the road. It would delay the day when state government must raise new revenue to adequately fund the services Kentuckians need and deserve, including the development of excellence at the institutions charged with producing the intellectual capital that is essential to success in a modern economy.
It would mean that we keep studying tax reform but doing nothing about it, that we keep ignoring the raids on Kentucky assets by casino interests in surrounding states, and that we keep pretending to do right by Kentucky’s future. We have had 12 tax studies since 1982 — the most recent producing 54 reform proposals — and each time have ignored the most promising ideas. Schools like Lindsey Wilson are not immune from financial pressures, but they are not directly in the path of the no-new-tax juggernaut and politicians’ timidity. Their financial fate is in their own hands.
Schools like Lindsey also are important because they can still embrace a deep and broad education. While public institutions are bullied toward the narrow credentialing of job-seekers, instead of preparing students for lifelong learning, effective citizenship and a dynamic career, schools like Lindsey can still be havens for the best that higher education can do. Instead of being pushed to favor science, math and technology at the expense of arts and humanities, private campuses can be a refuge for embracing our cultural canon, for producing students who know where we came from, the better to understand where we’re going, for graduating young people who can think critically and adjust nimbly. The governor can’t force Lindsey to abandon the study of French language, literature and culture, or anything else. The lieutenant governor’s resentment at having her tax money spent on educating the next generation has no impact here at Lindsey Wilson. At the small liberal arts college, the rhythms of history and culture can be more important than the algorithms of modernity.
And finally, schools like Lindsey can give students, at a crucial time in their development, a bit of shelter from the more destructive winds that blow through society. An education here can prepare them for the whirlwinds of consumerism, materialism, rashness, self-indulgence, impermanence, celebrity and cynicism. Lindsey can be something of a safe place — not in the sense that some student protesters mean these days, but in the best sense. The “safe place” is one where bad ideas and bad history can be challenged with good ideas and better historical insight.
David Hawpe is a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council, the University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, the University Press of Kentucky editorial board and the national advisory council of the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative.