Part IV: A lost liberal arts dream

By Justin Henry, Editor in chief

“While it is important to be concerned about whether the ‘pure’ liberal arts college represents a disappearing segment of the educational market, a more important question may be this: How do we best organize and articulate the relationship between liberal education and professional education?” – James Appleton, the president of the University of Redlands


Anthony DiRenzo, Ithaca College professor in the department of writing, teaches in the tradition of classical humanism and integrates history and philosophy in his technical writing courses. He recalled a time in 2008 when the faculty was galvanized behind behind newly appointed president Tom Rochon and his plan to integrate Ithaca College’s humanities departments with professional training programs. The schools of Roy H. Park, Health Science and Human Performance, Business and Music would all depend on the School of Humanities and Sciences to supplement their curriculums with liberal arts learning.

DiRenzo said Rochon achieved such a high level of appeal by reaching out to the community by holding “listening sessions”, inviting all faculty members to brunch with his family and other spontaneous acts of kindness which rivaled the benevolence of his renown predecessor Peggy Ryan Williams.

“If you try to remind some people who Tom used to be and what Tom used to be like, they’ll say that’s not true,” DiRenzo said. “I’m telling you, it was true.”

It was only a matter of years before Rochon’s administration became characterized as aloof and disconnected from the campus community.

The Integrative Core Curriculum (ICC), “IC squared” as it was originally called in 2009, was the first initiative in an attempted reimagination of the college experience. It grew into the colossus known as IC 20/20, pun intended. At the time, it seemed a creative solution to each of the college’s woes in the late 2000’s—financial, educational and bureaucratic.

“We expect that with the accomplishment of this vision, Ithaca College will augment its reputation, increase its organizational alignment, sustain operational excellence, and be widely known as the home of a distinctive and valuable model of higher education,” declared the preamble to “IC 20/20: Focusing Our Vision on Student Learning,” a document from the Board of Trustees.

In terms of bureaucracy, the reaccreditation process by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education dictate the college was missing a method of measuring student success. Hence, the ICC’s unpopular requirement of an e-portfolio from all students before graduation.

In terms of an educational curriculum, the ICC seemed like the self-actualization of any liberal arts college. Students would receive a dynamic curriculum of courses from the School of Humanities and Sciences to supplement their professional training in one of the other four schools. Or, if you were a student in the humanities or sciences, you had the chance to take classes in business or filmmaking, said Chris Biehn, vice president of institutional advancement.

“It’s like liberal arts plus,” Biehn said, reflecting on his days as a philosophy major at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. “When I was an undergraduate, I would have wanted to take film classes. At IC, I can do that.”

Despite the optimistic rhetoric surrounding the ICC by the administration, it has since gained a reputation of preventing students from graduating on time and constraining the syllabi of professors.

Most significantly, it seemed to devalue the liberal arts by hiring contingent faculty to teach the introductory level courses in the school of humanities and sciences. Since those classes enrolled students whose tuition money supported their majors in business, journalism, music or physical therapy, the college hired inexpensive part-time professors to teach their classes.

The short-term contracts of contingent faculty are designed this way in order to allow the college flexibility when responding to the ebbs and flows of income from students. At colleges like Ithaca College that are upwards of 90 percent dependent on student income, part time professors become an integral part of responding to an unexpected drop in enrollment.

DiRenzo expressed concern that Ithaca College would go the way of state universities of New York (SUNY), which condense multiple departments of the humanities into a single department. For example, English, foreign languages and linguistics become the department of modern languages and linguistics.

As a result of the college’s new efforts to cut costs, retired professors in departments with waning student enrollment and income, such as writing, art history and anthropology, were much more likely to be replaced by lecturers, instructors and other faculty members of contingent status, if they are replaced at all. Without job stability, benefits or salaries higher than the national poverty line in some cases, part-time faculty live unstable and herculean lives.

In order to understand this perceived shortchanging of the humanities at Ithaca College, it’s important to recall the financial model for a healthy institution of higher learning as explained by Chris Biehn, vice president of institutional advancement, in Part II. By investing in a student centered education, the college planned to not only bring in tuition dollars but the dollars of successful alumni. This way, the college allows itself more financial freedom rather than being dependent on tuition for 91 percent of its operations.

“The more we enhance the student experience, the more you have a successful alumni body, the more successful you’ll be as a college but you also do well in the world and that’s what we want,” Biehn said.

At Ithaca College, some academic fields lend themselves to profitable lines of work, like business administration and integrative marketing and communications. Both garner consistent student enrollment and wealthier network of donating alumni. On the other hand, degrees in art history and anthropology have lower rates of employment after graduation and are less attractive to prospective students—and their tuition dollars.

This is why business majors and integrative marketing and communications majors are never chided by overbearing family members about how they intend to use their degree as are majors of anthropology and history. Unless the latter two attend graduate school or have work experience, their bachelor’s degree amounts to much less in the job market compared to the former two.

In an economy where student debt climbs to unprecedented rates and tuition perpetually increases, students must increasingly think of themselves as shareholders in the debt-based economy of their own careers. They must invest in the college to provide for them a profitable career that will help them pay off long-term debt


At Ithaca College, professional studies offer the highest chances of employment for students compared to fields in the humanities. The four majors with the highest number of students from the 2016 graduating class who obtained work within 6 months of graduating were business administration, integrative marketing and communications and television and radio production and journalism, according to survey results from the Office of Institutional Advancement. Nearly all these jobs were in the students’ graduating fields.

Students graduating in the Roy H. Park School of Communications have the highest rate of employment followed closely by the School of Business. The school with the lowest rate of employment is the School of Humanities and Sciences. Not only does this discourage students from studying the humanities but it also initiates a poor precedent for alumni willing to support the school.

This distinguishes Ithaca College and other financially insecure colleges from wealthy institutions, said Yale Economist Harvey Rosen. Ivy-league colleges have accumulated such wealth because they have robust alumni networks dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Ithaca College was founded in 1892 as a music conservatory, and the School of Humanities and Sciences was only established in the 1950s.

As a result, the loudest voices in protest of the school’s cost cutting have come from the School of Humanities and Sciences. During the Fall 2015 semester, 18 of the 25 undersigned faculty of an open letter detailing their grievances against former President Tom Rochon, which described “corporatism” in his style of leadership in addition to staff cuts, worked in the School of Humanities and Sciences. 

David Turkon, professor in the department of anthropology, disapproved of the administration’s devaluing of classroom learning in favor of internships and other forms of experiential learning, demonstrated by the alumni panel called the “Blue Sky Reimagining” during the Fall 2015 semester. One of the panelists, Chris Burch, a wealthy alumnus whom the college was courting for donations at the time, criticized the native population where he built his hotel because they sold women in exchange for livestock.

“That struck me as evidence of why Burch needed book learning,” Turkon said. “That’s something you could overcome in an anthropology class. It’s not the buying and selling of women. It’s the forging of community relations.”

Turkon also said on the days when the college hosts prospective students, administrators have urged him to highlight the college as a whole rather than his department of anthropology in order to “sell” the college experience.

“They wanted me to say ‘Ithaca College is so great’ instead of ‘anthropology is so great’,” Turkon said. “I think it devalues it.”

DiRenzo pointed to the working conditions of each school as an indication of their built up wealth over the generations. Charitable donations from the Roy H. Park have gone to support two academic buildings in the donors’ name, the Park School of Communications and the Park Center for Business and Sustainable enterprise, the latter of which offers its faculty broad windows with scenic views of the campus greens and the City of Ithaca. The writing department offices, on the other hand, have cracking walls and less temperature regulation.

Click here to read Part V: “A fight for the soul of the university”: the unionization of contingent faculty

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