Articles by Ronald Liebowitz

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I am often sent interesting posts from blogs having to do with higher education.  The following link was sent to me by a parent who heard my commentary on the ever increasing over-specialization in undergraduate education, and in particular, my opposition to students selecting double majors at Middlebury.

The post, written by a current Williams College student, is from EphBlog, a blog having to do with “All Things Eph,” according to the blog, and it is worth reading, along with some of the thoughtful comments.

I oppose double (and yes, triple) majors on three grounds:

  1. A liberal arts major is supposed to educate broadly.  With the average major at Middlebury requiring about 11 courses now (some require 10, many require more than 11, and many also have “cognate” requirements), students who choose to double major will concentrate more than 2/3 of their studies and course selections in two areas.  We have more than 40 majors and 31 academic departments, so students who double major have 10 or fewer courses with which to explore 40 other majors or 29 other academic departments.  From an educational perspective, students would seem to be defeating the purpose of coming to a liberal arts college if they chose to concentrate their studies like this.  In addition, there are scores of excellent faculty who, quite routinely, change students’ lives by introducing them to subject matter many would otherwise never have encountered if they hadn’t, without previous reason, taken those classes. 
  2. The false notion of “credentialing.”  Students tend to think it “looks better” on one’s resume to have two, or even three majors.  Not the case.  For years now, CEOs of businesses and non-profits have stated clearly on campus and in discussions with students that it really doesn’t matter if one has two versus one major.  The issue really is how well a student has learned to think critically, assess accurately, synthesize information well, and write and speak clearly.  One learns these things best by being exposed to as broad a range of material and modes of analysis as one can. Transcript building runs counter to a liberal arts education and also prevents a student from experiencing the richness of Middlebury’s curriculum, and it is not something that will help students after the graduate.
  3. The resource issue.  Double-majoring has a significant impact on College resources, both teaching resources and financial resources.  If a student body with 2400 students had 20% double majors, the faculty would have to offer a curriculum to meet the needs of more than 2800 students.  That is, with double majors come extra teaching requirements for the faculty, which has a negative impact on the curriculum and our students insofar as the opportunity costs they incur.

For instance, take a department that has 150 majors right now, with 60 in the senior class (students do not declare their majors until sophomore year).  That particular major requires two senior seminars (which many do), which means the department must allocate teaching resources so they offer at least 120 slots to meet the senior seminar requirement for the 60 senior majors.  With 15 students the typical upper limit to a seminar at Middlebury, the department would need to offer 8 seminars to accommodate the seniors.  Now suppose 20% of those 150 majors were “double majors.”  That would mean 30 of the 150 majors, or 12 of the 60 in the senior class, had other majors, and were taking two other seminars to fulfill the requirements in their other major.  Those students would be taking four senior seminars, and the first department would have to offer spots for 24 students (the 12 seniors taking 2 seminars in their senior year), or two seminars, that they otherwise would not have to offer if there were no double majors.  Those two senior seminars could be replaced by other lower level courses for the general student population, a first-year seminar, or perhaps reduce the teaching by faculty in that department if its classes were filled and it was overloaded with majors, which some departments are.

With limited resources, should we encourage/permit double majors when it requires departments to offer additional sections of courses when students are already getting their senior seminar experiences in other majors? Since we are not a university with graduate students who might cover a single course we need taught, and since we have no other colleges and universities nearby, we often need to hire a number of full-time faculty to teach the one or two additional courses generated by the large number of double majors when faculty who teach those courses are on sabbatical, which is a costly proposition.

I am interested to hear your thoughts on this issue.  Are there other reasons for why you (the students) choose to double major, especially when you hear about the costs of doing so?  Send along your thoughts!

UPDATE: for those who inquired via e-mail, I did a combined major (economics and geography) as an undergraduate.

After announcing the third round of budget cuts a few weeks ago, I received more than 50 e-mails protesting my decision to accept the Budget Oversight Committee’s (BOC) recommendation, slightly amended, that the College reduce support for The New England Review.  Although the BOC proposed that the College cease all financial support of The Review, I elected to give The Review until December 31, 2011 to eliminate its deficit.
I am writing this post to acknowledge the many people who have written to me, and to respond to the concerns they raised in their individual letters.

The message common to virtually every e-mail is not surprising: all who have written point to the great value of The New England Review; the loss of intellectual life that would be felt by its going away; the frailty of literary magazines in general and how none can exist without external support; and how places like Middlebury have some kind of obligation, moral and otherwise, to continue their support of such publications in the name of supporting the arts and intellectual discourse.
I agree fully with the first three items above, but not necessarily the last.  That is why I decided to give The Review an additional two-plus years to consider how it might garner greater financial support beyond the subsidy it now receives from Middlebury College.  Given current financial circumstances, which none of the e-mailers seemed willing to confront, I find asking families who are paying $50,000/year in comprehensive fees to, in effect, subsidize a literary magazine that serves a very small slice of the general population and is known only to a handful of Middlebury students, a very hard sell.  That some e-mails mention how several universities, with far deeper pockets than Middlebury, have closed down literary magazines in better economic times should mean something to those who insist that Middlebury continue to subsidize The New England Review.

I am a fan of The Review, and have been for many years.  But as president of this liberal arts college, I also have a responsibility to the students, faculty, staff, and the generous supporters of the College.  In contrast to the small number of people who have published in the NER or read it regularly, I must consider how our institution will weather the current financial challenges and, first and foremost, preserve what is most central to our students’ education.  Perhaps it is normal to pronounce that “no literary magazine breaks even; all require subsidies,” as many e-mailers claimed.  However, it seems unreasonable, indeed illogical, to expect an undergraduate liberal arts college to provide those subsidies when there is little direct benefit to the students who are covering the costs of operation.  This is not to say The Review is not excellent, valuable, or worth preserving.  It surely is.  It simply cannot continue operating as it has, and my hope is that by increasing subscriptions and sponsorships (gifts), plus exploring whether there are alternatives to the current (and expensive) method of production, it will be able to operate without such a significant subsidy.  I should add that, to my knowledge, not a single individual who has written in protest of the College’s decision has contributed financially to help subsidize The Review.
We are committed to assisting editor and colleague Stephen Donadio find ways to increase revenues and reduce costs so The Review can continue to publish the high quality writing it has for the past thirty years.  And, of course, I am interested in any suggestions you may have for bolstering The Review’s revenues or reducing its operating costs.

I close by providing a link to an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, just as I was completing this post.  An interesting read, and certainly germane to the issue we are facing with The Review.

UPDATE: I have received e-mails letting me know that at least two individuals have made contributions on behalf of the NER since information about the financial situation became public.  We thank those who have made contributions and hope others will do the same and also become subscribers to the magazine.

I have a guest post on MiddBlog, asking students if we should change the College’s planned breakfast venues next year so that Atwater Dining could offer a continental breakfast.

Students: if you are interested in weighing in, please go to Middblog.


I have yet to attend a Liebowitz Day. Was never invited. The closest I came to either attending or being invited was last year, when, by coincidence, my wife and I were hosting a lunch for first-year Febs at 3 South Street, and two guests at the lunch were wearing red “Che” (Liebowitz) tee-shirts. Almost wished I had one.  One of the students innocently asked me, “Are you coming to the concert tonight?” “What concert?” I asked.  “You know, the Liebowitz Day concert.”

I embarrassingly told the student that I hadn’t been invited to the concert or, for that matter, to any Liebowitz Day events. Ever. All those Feb first-years, who had been on campus for only a month or so, didn’t quite know how to react. “Well, just come,” one said slowly after a few awkward moments.  Unfortunately, doing things spontaneously is not that easy with three small children at home (finding babysitting on short notice is near impossible, especially on weekends), so we couldn’t attend. Besides, I was not invited!

This year, once again, I have not received an invitation to Liebowitz Day. Not one. But even if I had, or had been planning to make a surprise appearance, I would not be able to do so. Sadly, I will be out of town at a memorial service for an extraordinary friend of the College who passed away far too early in life.

But there is next year, perhaps, for both receiving an invitation and attending an event.

I will not try to capture what Saturday night’s NCAA D-III game at Pepin between the Panthers and Bridgewater was like other than to say that it might have been one of the single greatest (yet excruciatingly painful) games I have witnessed, in any sport. This coming from a lifelong sports fan.

The outcome, a last-second (literally) 78-76 loss by Middlebury, was a disappointment in that the Panthers will not continue their season. But the game, and indeed the entire season, was quite remarkable, and one could not help but feel great pride in watching the Middlebury team play with great intensity and sportsmanship.

The comments at the end of the heartbreaking loss by team captain Ben Rudin, who had an outstanding game, season, and career, reflected an unusual maturity for a 22-year-old whose storied season had just ended, and ended in such dramatic fashion. Coach Jeff Brown’s comments reflected the kind of class that has become the standard for Middlebury coaches and the ideals and quality of our athletics program led by athletic director Erin Quinn—something we should never take for granted.

On behalf of so many, I want to thank Jeff and the Panther basketball team for the best season in the program’s history and, even more, for showing such class in both victory and defeat.

This past Saturday may have been slightly unusual for our college, but what went on is an astounding example of the richness of this liberal arts college and what it offers our students. These are some of the things I witnessed as I went about my day, moving from 3 South Street to the library to the Grille (to get some coffee) to the Peterson Athletics Complex and back home. Consider this a sampling:

  • Wilson Café in the library was packed, not only with students, but also faculty and staff as I walked by to return some borrowed videos. The library itself was packed with students working solo and in groups, tackling everything from reading assignments to multimedia projects in the library’s numerous smart classrooms and labs.
  • Dr. Paul Farmer, the remarkable medical anthropologist/physician, who co-founded Partners in Health, spoke at 3 p.m. to an overflow crowd … or rather crowds (more than 400 were in McCullough social space and another 300 were in venues that had live video feeds.
  • The annual Posse retreat, which brings together more than 100 students, faculty, and staff who support the mission of the 40-plus Posse scholars enrolled at the College from New York City, was taking place at Lake Fairlee, Vermont. I was unable to attend the retreat, but received an e-mail reporting that the retreat was extremely spirited and engaging.
  • The practice rooms in the Mahaney Center for the Arts were filled with students playing a range of instruments.
  • The men’s and women’s hockey teams hosted home games in their respective NESCAC conference tournaments. (Both won). As usual, the stands were filled with not only students, but staff, faculty, and townspeople, who convert Kenyon Arena into a “town hall” of sorts, where the greater Middlebury community comes together most easily and frequently between our annual town meetings.
  • The ski team was competing at the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Championships at Sugar Loaf in Maine (and placed third behind Dartmouth and UVM).
  • And 1,250 fans (a full house) were on hand in Pepin Gymnasium to watch the Panthers defeat Bowdoin to make it to the NESCAC tournament finals against Amherst (which Middlebury won the next day).

Much more was happening on campus, of course, and these snippets represent just a slice of life at Middlebury on a Saturday afternoon in late February.

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