A truth-telling op-ed piece on higher education financing appeared in The New York Times this week. In "Academic Bankruptcy," Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Religion Department at Columbia, tells a story of two academic institutions, his own and NYU, whose spending is prodigal even as sources for such spending seem to be drying up.
But the Columbia/NYU arms race is probably more a symptom of a systemic malaise in North American higher education than anything else.
In the face of this malaise, higher education the Wittenberg way is in a unique position to be able to do something radically counter-intuitive and, in fact, countercultural. A higher education the Wittenberg way doesn't require vast resources and can actually thrive with a leaner, meaner curriculum.
I was just doing a little number-crunching. A well-staffed, adequately-resourced Great-Books and radically-liberal-arts oriented curriculum can be put on the ground comfortably and cover annual costs necessary to run it (by which I mean underwriting instructional costs) at $10,000/year per student. If such an institution had a 15:1 student:faculty ratio, each faculty member would "bring in" $150,000 per year. Subtract $100,000 for a complete faculty package (salary + health insurance + retirement), and you're left with $50,000 for support functions per faculty member. In short, an institution with the physical plant paid off and a modest endowment adequate to maintain, manage, and run the physical plant, can deliver a bracing, intellectually-challenging, traditional, and rigorous education on the back of a bare-bones curriculum that focuses on what's necessary, not "what would be nice," at a quite modest cost.
This is the case that needs to be made to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America. While programs that have the appearance of enhancing our appeal proliferate, the core has evaporated. And yet the core is precisely whence Lutheran higher education takes its energy and that for which it exists. Are there Lutherans of goodwill out there willing to support such an endeavor? Can a wealthy Lutheran businessperson, for example, look beyond narrow business interests and projecting himself or herself upon Lutheran higher education and come to the conviction that Lutheran higher education doesn't need the bandaids of new programming, but surgery to restore core health? I think so. I think this makes, well, business sense--and sense for the Church.