The big asterisk to my generally positive attitude about my institution's commitment to the humanities has to do with our foreign language department and requirements. Briefly, they're a joke. Like many institutions, mine is falling all over itself to proclaim its dedication to "global study," and to declare that it prepares its students for a "global workplace"--while doing nothing to increase the actual study of foreign languages or build its foreign language department. Spanish is the only remotely healthy program we seem to have, and I suspect that's a reflection not of any actual strategy on the part of the institution, but simply of the number of students who took the language in high school and who, of their own initiative, have decided to go further. Student demand has occasionally brought in an Arabic or Japanese instructor for a few semesters, which is nice, but there's no possibility of studying those languages past the beginner level. (Other than Spanish, the only language with tenure-line faculty, and hence some literature offerings, is French. But the most popular language courses on campus seem to be those for American Sign Language.)
I suspect there may be internal, departmental reasons that the foreign languages haven't been getting hires, but I also think it's the downside of student demand: for reasons that we in English and History aren't totally in control of, students want to major in our subjects, and that sets off a virtuous cycle in which more and better faculty get hired, which in turn attracts more and better majors. Students don't want to major in the foreign languages (and not enough make studying a foreign language a priority), so tenure-line faculty don't get hired, the programs languish, and the institution actually cuts the required number of semesters of foreign language study...thus decreasing the likelihood that students will get far enough to want to do more.
The lack of commitment to the foreign languages is an active concern in my department and in the history department, but as yet we haven't done much except complain among ourselves and urge individual students to take another year or two of a foreign language. But long term, I think we have to try to use our relative weight to put some pressure on the administration; we're neither going to attract the best students nor make our students into the best scholars they can be without a somewhat better foreign language department--and what's the point of being a robust department, anyway, if we can't help out other allied departments?
My smaller asterisk to my previous post involves my concern about what "raising our standards" does to the institution's mission. Our entering students are genuinely getting better every year, and the college is gradually transforming itself into a more traditional, more residential, liberal-arts-focused institution. The townhouses, the branding, the community ethos, etc., are all part of that effort. As a faculty member, it's hard not to be excited by a lot of this, especially since it hasn't been a case of "excellence without money": fundraising and alumni giving are way up, and faculty are pretty well-paid, with opportunities for merit raises in addition to cost-of-living raises every year. Who wouldn't want more smart students in the classroom? And who doesn't dare to hope that we might someday see course releases--or even a slight reduction in our teaching load--for faculty who are active scholars?
Well, no one doesn't want those things. And God knows, we'd all love to have our college recognized, statewide, for the strength of its humanities programs rather than having that be a pleasant surprise for the students (and faculty) who wind up here. But I worry a bit about the kind of smug self-satisfaction that I mentioned in my previous post in conjunction with the religious college up the road. One thing I love about RU students is how nice they are, how basically eager and hardworking and unpretentious; they're all here to get an education, and though the nature of that desire differs--some students just want a degree while others are intellectually ravenous--in no case is it about the cachet of the institution, or their own specialness for being here. (Our students seem happy to be affiliated with RU, and there's pleasure when one alumnus meets another alumnus, but it's not a self-congratulatory thing.)
And I wonder, sometimes, what the tipping point is: as we keep branding, and recruiting out-of-state students, and talking up our academics, will we lose some of what makes this institution so appealing? Will we lose the academically marginal students who are nevertheless full of eagerness and potential--only to wind up with a whole bunch of grade-grubbing, good-but-not-great students?
Maybe that's a foolish worry. But I think of all the spoiled, uncurious kids at middling colleges and universities, and it seems possible that for many institutions an increase in prestige--even specifically academic prestige--is accompanied by a decrease in intellectual vigor, especially in the undergraduate classroom.