Colby’s Presidential Inauguration: In Praise of Faculty and Liberal Arts

The weekend before last I attended the inauguration of Colby’s new President, David Greene. I represented Phi Beta Kappa and was delighted to participate along with the presidents of several other Maine colleges (Bates, Bowdoin, Thomas, and the University of Southern Maine) plus alumni and alumnae of other colleges and universities, including the University of Maine.

Under clear skies that enhanced the beauty of Colby’s lovely campus, it was refreshing to hear President Greene and Board of Trustees Chair Robert Diamond (former CEO of Barclay’s Bank) sing the praises of Colby’s faculty and staff as crucial to the institution’s long-term success. Both embraced the liberal arts as invaluable in themselves, not as the would-be collegiate equivalent of trade schools. The prevailing notion throughout the University of Maine System today that most faculty and staff are there primarily to serve students and to help them get good jobs  was not articulated here.

Colby’s students and alumni were hardly neglected in the festivities, but there was a wonderful balance of understanding what really constitutes a successful institution of higher education. The current UMaine System plan to cut as many full-time faculty as possible–through retirement incentives, program and major eliminations, hiring of poorly paid and overworked adjuncts–was NOT on the agenda at Colby.

Certainly there is a cosmic difference between a well-endowed private college like Colby and the (ALLEGEDLY) impoverished public higher education operation in Maine. But at all seven of the U.Maine campuses dedicated students can still get as fine an undegraduate education in many fields as their counterparts at Colby–provided that they have sufficient full-time faculty for the majors of their choice.  Tnhis, alas, is an ever unlikely prospect as ever more departments shrink in size and so course offerings.

At two meals before and after the inauguration I happened to sit next to some current and former Colby trustees. All graduated from the school, as one would expect at such institutions. What, however, impressed me far more was their obvious familiarity with crucial issues confronting Colby but also the need for careful discussion of any reforms. The decision three years ago of the U.Maine System Trustees to freeze tuition for three years without any discussion beforehand regarding the financial and other consequences struck them all as bizarre. So too, by contrast, did the System’s insistence that all recommended honorary degree recipients have their names submitted to the Trustees at least FOURTEEN MONTHS before the commencement ceremonies at which they might be honored by one of the seven campuses.

What, however, impressed me the most about the weekend was a Friday afternoon  panel of six tenured Colby faculty members. All connected their areas of expertise and their undergraduate courses to issues going beyond the classroom, but not necessarily the marketplace. Most tried to have some undergraduates work with them on research projects–as of course also happens routinely at the seven U.Maine System campuses.

A notable exception was an Associate Professor of Philosophy who said that her own research often did not lend itself to such collaborative projects with even her best students. Only advanced Philosophy graduate students, of which there are none at Colby, might be of assistance. She made no apology for her comments.

I kept wondering if the new president or the trustees might gently rebuke her for pursuing knowledge for its own sake. But no one did; nor did anyone else  in the large audience seemed perturbed by the professor’s non-utilitarian academic pursuits.

I returned home reassured that the liberal arts in a traditional sense remain alive and well in Waterville, Maine.