OurTownEtown

Water cascades from a fountain in Lake Placida at Elizabethtown College.

THE ISSUE

Elizabethtown College, a private institution with about 1,600 undergraduates, recently announced it will cut staff and eliminate several academic programs because of a shortfall in its budget. The personnel cuts will involve “furloughing Cseven faculty and instructional staff members on July 1, 2020, and eliminating seven staff positions by the end of the month,” LNP’s Alex Geli reported June 18. In addition, 14 vacancies at Elizabethtown College will remain unfilled.

First and foremost, we regret the loss of jobs at Elizabethtown. Those who are having their positions eliminated — who must now worry about their bills and their families while seeking employment elsewhere — are the ones who are most affected by what’s happening at the college.

Regarding Elizabethtown’s “realignment for the future,” as President Carl Strikwerda terms it, we have a mixture of thoughts and reactions.

Certainly, we lament the loss of the theater and philosophy majors and the college’s minors in theater, film studies, and — especially — peace and conflict studies.

In a letter to LNP, Nicole St. Pierre, a 2012 Elizabethtown graduate, called the college’s cut of its theater program a “thoughtless, tone-deaf, and strikingly and singularly devastating decision.” She wrote of how her involvement in more than a dozen theatrical programs as an undergrad shaped her life.

But while we understand St. Pierre’s anger, and her passion for the theater program, we should also accept that a private educational institution needs to make natural corrections — and difficult decisions — to protect its financial future. Strikwerda, in an email obtained by LNP, told the college community that the cuts are “in the best interest of our students and their families to better allocate resources, both human and financial, so the College can continue to operate efficiently and provide an exceptional educational experience to our students.”

What Elizabethtown faces is indicative of the struggles of many American institutions of higher learning today. Nationally, post-secondary enrollment fell 1.7% this spring as nearly 300,000 fewer students enrolled, U.S. News & World Report’s Lauren Camera reported last month. It was the eighth straight year of enrollment declines. At Elizabethtown, deposits for incoming first-year and transfer students this year were significantly below projections, LNP’s Geli reported.

Within this reality, colleges cannot simply continue doing what they have always done. Elizabethtown, Geli noted, is now touting its new physician assistant master’s program, as well as new majors in marketing, finance, financial economics, data science and criminal justice. Those are all promising and needed educational offerings.

Promoting peace

That said, we do want to note our regret that Elizabethtown is ending its peace and conflict studies minor. It strikes at the center of what makes the institution unique. As the college notes on its website: “Founded by the Church of the Brethren in 1899, Elizabethtown College is imbued with the spirit of peacemaking. ... Our commitment to peace and justice concerns is manifested in our Peace and Conflict Studies minor.”

And now that minor will disappear. In a letter to LNP, alumna Nancy Neiman-Hoffman wrote that “to end the peace and conflict studies minor is to rob this institution of its heart.”

She adds, eloquently: “From the moment of the college’s inception, the founders’ vision included an allegiance to peace, nonviolence and social justice. And for many years this vision was a guiding beacon for the college. For this undergraduate, the pervasive, unmistakable peace identity of Elizabethtown College changed my life. The lens given to me in those years defined a way of seeing the world that is with me still. But, of course, everything changes. The irony is that perhaps never before in our country’s history has the peace witness been more relevant, more deeply needed, than it is in this time of our darkness and discontent.”

We agree. In this fraught time of divisive and dangerous rhetoric, programs that encourage peaceful debate and the resolution of differences are vital. We hope Elizabethtown College — even without an official minor — can find ways to continue promoting this tenet of its 19th-century founding.

As colleges everywhere continue to make adjustments to their budgets and the degrees they offer, we’d also like to sound a strong note of support for the importance of a liberal arts education.

In our rapidly changing world, we don’t know what the needs and jobs of the coming decades will be. While we continue to champion technical education of the quality offered by Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, we believe this is also true: A strong liberal arts education can prepare a graduate for myriad important roles in business and society. One of the best things colleges can do is turn out young adults who are well-rounded and equipped with critical-thinking skills.

David Blight, a professor at Yale, recently lamented the steep decline in the number of undergraduates studying history. He told The New Yorker magazine: “We have a responsibility to train for the world of employment, but are we educating for life, and without historical knowledge you are not ready for life.”

That’s a great lens through which college administrators should view their mission. Times, budgets and enrollment sizes may change. The majors and minors offered by institutions may change. But, ultimately, a primary goal of higher education should always be to “educate for life.”