The Charlotte-based Duke Endowment made the announcement that it would give Davidson College $45 million, the largest single donation ever given to the school.
While we congratulate Davidson on this generous gift, we find the Duke Endowment’s rationale for the gift puzzling. A Duke Endowment staff member, Susan McConnell, explained that the money would be used to make “liberal arts relevant in the 21st century.” How so? Davidson plans to construct and renovate six academic buildings to create “spaces that foster interdisciplinary learning,” according to Davidson’s website. Faculty will be housed in the new buildings depending on the resources they need, not traditional departmental divisions.
This plan sounds more like a standard facelift to us than “a 10-year plan to remake the model of liberal arts education,” again a claim made on Davidson’s own website. “We are being motivated by questions,” said Davidson president Carol Quillen. “What does it mean to offer a liberal arts education now? Why is Davidson worth the tuition, given online options?” While liberal arts universities may feel like they are under siege, fancy news buildings are not the answer. There are a few problems with Davidson’s grand but ill-fated plan, from which Duke—another university with much staked on interdisciplinarity—should learn a few lessons.
First, while campus infrastructure is important, it alone cannot advance the cause of interdisciplinarity. Flexible architectural spaces can foster all kinds of connective, fluid thinking—but true interdisciplinarity willl require more important curricular, financial and cultural changes. It remains to be seen how rigorously the Duke Forward campaign and Duke generally commit itself to this task.
Second, Davidson’s new gift should not have been branded as an interdisciplinary initiative in the first place. Like Duke, Davidson seems eager to brand. Interdisciplinarity is a big buzzword in higher education this year. We caution Davidson, Duke and other universities to not overuse the term. Haphazardly labeling all sorts of University initiatives—imagine “interdisciplinary new West Union” and “interdisciplinary LDOC”—can breed confusion, sloppiness and disingenuousness. If Davidson’s gift is mostly about physical improvements of Davidson’s campus—as we suspect—publicize it as such. Some things at universities are not going to lend themselves easily to interdisciplinarity, and that is fine. But if Davidson actually wants to approach interdisciplinarity, it should do so in a serious way.
Third, if online education truly poses a threat to the liberal arts model, it will take deep thinking on the part of universities to address the issue. A new allegedly interdisciplinary building project is not going to revolutionize much. Often, online education is seen as a bogeyman to scare liberal arts universities into changing their entrenched ways. Maybe change is needed—we hope universities fully embrace and harness the power of online platforms—but so is thoughtful deliberation. Carelessly labeled interdisciplinary projects will not suffice.
Davidson’s plan to allegedly revitalize the liberal arts education is not a fluke. It is only one manifestation of quickly growing anxieties among universities about their own relevance. We commend universities for grappling with the issue—the democratization of knowledge coinciding with the rising costs of an elite education—but caution them to do so without the hyperbole of revolution-talk.