It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. I would like to tell here the tale of two colleges or universities—really, the tale of two types of college right now, but we are going to go somewhat abstract here, painting in broad brushstrokes to consider the fate of each one in these tumultuous times, and where it might go from here. And yes, there are two cities involved too.
For all you modernists reading this, the notion of a tale of two cities readily brings back to mind Dickens. If this was your thought, I regret to inform you that you were off by nearly three thousand years. We are, rather, going back to Homer.
In Book 18 of the Iliad, the great epic of the greatest war in Greek mythological imagination—the ten-year war of the Greeks against the Trojans—we get a highly detailed visual description of two cities on the new shield of the hero Achilles. (I would also like this example to go on record that sometimes I do think and write about something other than the Roman Empire)
The first city is a city in peacetime. A dispute is in the process of mediation in community while a wedding procession is afoot elsewhere. Life, in other words, is not perfect, but such is life in times of peace. The city, we see, is thriving: new marriages remind us that this city will have a future, while the conflict mediation that is happening shows that this is a city that has laws. It is orderly. Finally, the mediation by community elders reminds us that the success of a city at peace requires all of the community to act as engaged and just stakeholders in upholding such peace.
Such is not the life in the second city—the city at war. There, a siege is unfolding. Within the city walls, despair reigns. Everyone knows that their doom is coming—destruction, death, and for those who survive the capture, sale into slavery and a life of ignominious captivity. There is no freedom in this city, no government by citizens. It is ruled solely by fear of the coming doom. In that fear, many have lost their will to do anything at all—perhaps even fight.
Most colleges and universities in the U.S. right now can probably fit the description of one of these “cities.” There is no doubt that many public state universities right now are Homeric cities at war, under siege by their own administrators, boards of regents or trustees, and in some cases, state government and public opinion that claims that some of their work isn’t economically useful. These besiegers do not suffer from this war, however. Those who suffer the most are always the ones on the inside of the besieged city: students, faculty, and staff. In particular, it is those involved in the humanities and the liberal arts disciplines who feel the most beleaguered—although STEM is no longer safe, as the latest cuts in public universities show.
Faculty and staff in these “cities” are afraid for their livelihood, while the students, who often count on these local colleges to offer them affordable education, find themselves unable to complete degrees that they had come to pursue. The end result in these cities at war will affect not just the colleges themselves but also the towns where they are located. The gutting of a college in a smaller town will have a disproportionately larger effect on the local community, leaving the city around reeling as well.
On the other hand, then, there are the cities at peace—those colleges, most of them private, who are quietly doing beautiful work, encouraging their students, faculty, and staff to grow together and love the community they are in. Even for these, however, peace feels fragile. Many of these institutions have been through faculty layoffs in the recent past, and the scars that such wounds leave are loath to heal. Others see slight enrollment declines coming year after year and realize that even if cuts are not yet necessary now, they may be required in the near future. But then, this too is part of peaceful living and thoughtful orderly government—having systems in place to deal with such difficult times for a community. A city at peace must work to keep the peace, not take it for granted as its eternal state.
It is these cities who could even now serve as models for the gutted, shell-shocked, decimated “cities” like WVU. And yet, how do you move forward after such a betrayal by those who should have protected the city? How can students at WVU or SUNY-Potsdam and any other similar institutions feel like their universities want to serve them? And how can other faculty at such institutions keep going to work, day after day, knowing what happened to colleagues with whom they may have worked, in some cases, for decades?
There may come a time for faculty at places like this to consider: at which point does going to work at a particular institution involve a call to suffer more than flourish—and to suffer in vain? That point came for me and many of my former colleagues last spring, when the dean announced that the next round of cuts would likely involve entire programs in the humanities.
Not everyone has the option of leaving a city at war, abandoning the beloved city under siege to search for your own flourishing elsewhere. But if you can, you should. Indeed, as Vergil’s Aeneid, the Roman sequel to the Homeric myths, shows, the hero Aeneas did this too. I guess I did work the Roman Empire into this essay after all.