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Cuts to arts programs at St. Mary’s created huge void in Winona

The list of closing programs at St. Mary’s rang like a death knell through the city of Winona and the halls of Winona State University.

St. Mary’s University of Minnesota
St. Mary’s University of Minnesota
St. Mary’s University of Minnesota

Winona, Minnesota is a college town. The educational landscape of our city has long been defined by the existence of three very different institutions: a public, regional university (Winona State University), a two-year technical and community college (Minnesota State College Southeast) and a small, private, liberal-arts college on the hill (St. Mary’s University of Minnesota). These three institutions helped to shape Winona into a culturally vibrant hub for the arts. Without such a robust higher education presence, it is unlikely that Winona would be able to sustain its music, theatre and arts festivals including the Frozen River Film Festival, the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the Beethoven Festival, and the Midwest Music Fest.

However, on May 11, St. Mary’s announced the closure of 11 academic programs and the layoff of more than a dozen faculty members. The list of closing programs at St. Mary’s rang like a death knell through the city of Winona and the halls of Winona State University. St. Mary’s is cutting nearly every department that contributes to Winona’s vibrant art scene (including Art, Music, Music Industry, and Theatre). They are also no longer supporting fields in the humanities (such as English, History, Spanish, and Theology) that play a central role in a liberal arts education. St. Mary’s press release justifies cutting these programs by referring to declining enrollments and their decision to support a new program portfolio that “is concentrated in business, technology, and the sciences.” But it is difficult to square these stated priorities with their recent cuts to programs like Human Services, International Business, Scientific Computing and Actuarial Science.

Especially odd, given the particular programs being cut, was the explanation given by St. Mary’s president, Father James Burns.

“We are aligning the programs we offer with our mission as we answer the question: how can we best prepare our students for work, for a life of ethical service, to pursue the greater good and the truth in all things while answering their questions about meaning and purpose?,” said Burns. “The goal is for our graduates to excel in their early careers, become future leaders in their fields, and use their special gifts to impact humanity.”

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The rhetoric seemed out of step with a decision to eliminate the arts and humanities from the curriculum, transforming a liberal arts college into, what looks to an outsider, like a very expensive technical school.

As members of the faculty at a public institution, we have long been subject to the political whims of state legislatures who aren’t always friendly to the arts and humanities. We too have heard administrators rely on the tired (and false) trope that employers only want science and technology skills. But it is especially disturbing to see this same rhetoric being used at a private institution like St. Mary’s. With their independence from government, their financial endowments, beautiful campus spaces, and histories of support for arts and humanities programs, private schools like St. Mary’s always seemed immune to the idea that the sole purpose of the university is “workforce development.” They appeared to be (and presented themselves as) a beacon for the real mission of liberal arts colleges: to educate the whole person and create citizens who are ethical, responsible, hard-working, and knowledgeable with a diverse, flexible set of skills. But if the onslaught against the liberal arts in higher education can happen here, it can happen anywhere.

We invited the administration of St. Mary’s to a public forum so that they could answer questions from the community about the changes in their direction. They declined to participate, but more than 50 community members and alumni attended. We have learned since then that St. Mary’s is also planning on phasing out their minors in Entrepreneurship, Global Studies, Leadership, Physics, Political Science, Sociology and Statistics.

Given the impact of St. Mary’s cuts, it is no surprise that alumni and community members have expressed outrage over social media and raised a number of very important questions. Is St. Mary’s considering any administrative cuts? Can the St. Mary’s administration provide evidence of the kind of financial exigency that would warrant the revocation of tenure or the closure of programs? Where was shared governance in this decision-making? How was the campus community involved in finding solutions for tough budgetary challenges? How exactly does eliminating training in art, music, poetry and prose, dance and theatre produce graduates who can “use their special gifts to impact humanity?” What does the administration of St. Mary’s think it means to impact humanity?

We hope that the administration of St. Mary’s University of Minnesota will reflect on these questions and provide answers as they come available. But while they do so up on the hill, we in the valley will continue to grieve. We grieve for our colleagues at St. Mary’s who have lost careers. And we grieve for their institution, which seems to have lost its soul.

Jenna Chernega, PhD, is the faculty association president at Winona State University and a professor of Sociology.

Patrick Clipsham, PhD, is the faculty association vice president and president-elect at Winona State University and a professor of Philosophy.