PHOTO BY RAUL RIVERA
On Friday, Oct. 16, President Abernathy issued a statement regarding the phasing out of certain academic programs and disciplines at Alma College due to budget cuts.
The programs affected by this change are as follows: both the French and German majors and minors will be phased out, but courses in the languages will be offered to fulfill language requirements; the Religious Studies major will be phased out, but the minor and Pre-Ministry program will be retained; the Bachelor of Music in Music Performance and the Alma Symphony Orchestra will be phased out, but the B.A. in Music and B.M. in Music Education will remain intact; the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art will be phased out, but the B.A. in Art will remain; and the Anthropology program will be phased out completely.
This decision was made by the Task Force on Reducing College Costs, which was composed of six faculty and six staff members. Half of the task force were elected, and the others were appointed to establish diverse representation within the group.
“The aim was to ensure that Alma College thrives long into the future while honoring the college’s mission, vision and values and supporting the overall student experience,” said President of Alma College, Jeff Abernathy.
However, not all students and alumni feel the same way.
“I no longer feel the initial pride I felt when I said I was an Alma Scot because of how the administration has taken the mission statement and thrown it out,” said Gabrielle Alter (‘19).
The task force was formed in April and began its collaborative work in May, but Abernathy says that the Coronavirus pandemic was not the sole reason for these cuts.
“The pandemic was a catalyst for this phase of the process; however, this was the final phase of an extensive budget review the college has undergone over the last three years to help to ensure our long-term financial vitality, reduce yearly tuition increases and expand student financial assistance,” said Abernathy.
An academic sub-committee of Alma College met and considered quantitative and qualitative factors when making recommendations regarding programs, positions and initiatives to help the college financially.
“Qualitative factors included items like impact on institutional identity and priorities; quantitative data included such considerations as departmental costs, average class size and overall program enrollment,” said Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Kathleen Dougherty.
Dougherty said that the sub-committee worked to find reductions that would have the least impact on students and faculty, as well as the ongoing ability to deliver academic programs Alma College is known for.
“Achieving the necessary cost reductions required some difficult decisions regarding the phase out of academic programs that have seen reduced enrollments and in which the institution cannot continue the necessary investment to promote academic excellence,” said Dougherty.
Many students who choose to attend Alma do so because the idea of a liberal arts education appeals to them. According to Oxford Languages, liberal arts generally covers three areas: sciences, arts and humanities. With this academic program update, many people in the campus
community question whether Alma College can still consider itself a liberal arts school, as the academic programs that are being phased out are in both the arts and the humanities.
“I chose a small liberal arts college because I wanted to be able to learn about things that didn’t fall into my major,” said Najelle Gilmore (‘19).
“Alma provided me with the opportunity to get an expansive education, discover new passions and pursue multiple interests. I am really disheartened to hear that they had to come to this decision. These classes are at the heart of who we are and I don’t know what Alma College will be without them.”
Another alumni, Ellie Woertz (‘20), had similar beliefs.
“Alma is supposed to be a liberal arts college, but the programs that are being cut seem to be the programs that show our liberal arts,” said Woertz.
Professor of Religious Studies, Kate Blanchard, believes that Alma can still call itself a liberal arts college despite the budget cuts to the arts and humanities programs while maintaining funding for STEM and pre-professional programs.
“But it will also be incumbent upon the college to keep making the case that the label of ‘liberal arts’ still fits, especially the farther away it moves from traditional orthodoxy,” said Blanchard.
“If we don’t offer humanities majors, what role do the humanities play in the curriculum overall? What makes an Alma business major or pre-med graduate different from business major or pre-med graduate [at a different school]? We’ll have to keep thinking about how we answer that with integrity.”
Joe Tighe (‘21), a student with an interest in German–one of the language programs that are being phased out–described the effect he believes these changes will have on campus.
“I feel like [Alma is] going to see smaller classes coming in [and] retention rates drastically changing for the worst,” said Tighe.
As previously mentioned, many students choose to attend Alma for specific programs, and many of those include programs in the arts or humanities.
“Alma needs to realize that some of the new changes they are implementing are not what is best for its students. Alma College is acting more like a business making business decisions than a place that teaches and inspires students to be great,” said Tighe.
“I loved my time at Alma, but I will only be able to speak about Alma in the past tense,” said Gilmore.
“A change of this magnitude that directly contradicts a part of what it means to be Scot proves to me that I don’t know Alma. I couldn’t in good conscience encourage someone to attend Alma because I would be speaking to an experience that no longer exists.”
Blanchard has been the only faculty member of the Religious Studies department for over two years, and she has been trying to make the case for another person to be hired since her colleague Brian Stratton left. She argued that she cannot offer a Religious Studies major on her own, despite help from occasional adjunct instructors.
“I was notified over the summer that they weren’t prepared to fill Dr. Stratton’s position, which meant the Religious Studies major had to go,” said Blanchard.
“I chose the Religious Studies program as one of my majors because of how it allowed me to choose my own path and how all ideas were accepted,” said Alter.
“As someone who was able to engage in a fair amount of religious exploration through this major, others are being denied the same opportunity.”
Luckily for Blanchard and those interested in Religious Studies, courses will still be offered, and a minor can still be obtained in the program. The same thing cannot be said for the Anthropology department, which is being phased out completely.
“I am saddened by the elimination of the Anthropology department here at Alma College,” said Anthropology major, Eryn Corinth (‘21).
“Anthropology allows for expansion of world views and a global perspective through looking at the past to better understand the present and future. Losing the Anthropology department at Alma means losing a key integral aspect of the humanities and social sciences of which cannot be obtained through any other discipline.”
Alma College is not the first campus community to be hit by a decision like this. Adrian College–a fellow MIAA private liberal arts college–recently announced that they intended to eliminate the history, theatre, religion, philosophy and leadership departments due to budget cuts. This decision was set to be implemented before the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year. However, Adrian College received a large public outcry demanding the programs remain, and the president of the institution, Jeffrey Docking, reversed the decision.
Many are wondering if Alma College will follow suit.
“I believe this is a decision Alma College administration should look into more deeply, because to fully participate in the liberal arts arena, students need a background from an array of disciplines that will challenge normative expectations and expand horizons,” said Corinth.
Alma College Administration stresses that the decisions that were made were not easy to come to.
“We acknowledge that these changes are disappointing for members of our campus community, but by making them, we are ensuring our ability to promote vibrant and engaging academic programming, and securing our long-term financial viability, so that students can attend Alma College for generations to come,” said Abernathy.