Few rallies include performances by a brass ensemble.
But for Scott Ferguson, choral director at Illinois Wesleyan University, the selection made perfect sense for a rally to drum up support for the liberal arts.
“As one of the initial liberal arts, I think music is the universal language,” he said.
Ferguson will be starting his 25th year as an IWU faculty member when classes resume this fall. But for him and at least 24 of his colleagues, it could also be his last. The faculty members organized Wednesday night’s “Standing Up for the Liberal Arts” rally on the IWU quad after receiving letters from the university president and provost last month saying their positions may be cut.
They argue the programs under consideration for elimination — Anthropology, Philosophy, Religion, Sociology, Music, French and Italian — were not included in the faculty recommendations for closure endorsed by IWU’s board of trustees in May.
Critics of the move also say the programs are key components of what makes IWU and its students successful.
During the rally, current IWU students read aloud comments submitted to the group by university alumni. “Learning a language makes for a well-rounded student and member of society, one with better-developed critical thinking skills, compassion, and curiosity about the world,” wrote one alum, class of 2012.
“Patients at our hospital have diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, and studying comparative religion at IWU has helped me understand and continue to learn about traditions different from my own,” wrote another, class of 2011.
IWU senior Maeve Plunkett said learning about former IWU President Minor Myers Jr., “a man who wrote books, essays, and even a musical on topics ranging from anarchy to jazz,” made her proud to be a student at a university that supported the liberal arts. “President Nugent, Board of Trustees: what are you doing to make us proud?” Plunkett asked, as her comment met with cheers from the crowd.
Ferguson said it’s difficult to talk about the prospect of losing his job.
“I’m approaching retirement age, but I certainly didn’t expect that last few years of my career to potentially end up this way.” He said while no decision has been made yet, “One tends to feel rather frozen all of a sudden.”
But it’s not just his job that may be at stake. Ferguson said cutting the humanities from the roster will make the university less competitive.
“If we are a high-price trade school, we are not going to attract the kind of well-rounded students that we always have,” he said.
The caliber of its students, in turn, affects the faculty the university hires, he said. “We need the best faculty possible, and we’re not going to retain the best faculty possible if we lose our majors and our minors. It’s that cross fertilization that I have found so exciting as a faculty member here.”
After leading a crowd of students, faculty and alumni in a march across the quad, the rally closed at Aspiration Fountain, where on their first day on campus students chalk their aspirations on the fountain’s concrete edge. Organizers asked the crowd to write down the difference the liberal arts experience at IWU made in their lives.
One wrote simply, “I can’t imagine who I would be without liberal arts.” Another took the opportunity to quote the famed Danish author Hans Christian Anderson: “Where words fail, music speaks.”