By Travis Gulbrandson
One of the biggest challenges to higher education today is the national attitude toward it, and toward liberal arts in particular.
Along with student retention, enrollment and graduation rates, this attitude was one of the main topics of University of South Dakota president James W. Abbott’s annual State of the University address, which was held Thursday at Aalfs Auditorium.
Abbott said he has a hard time understanding “of what I think is the current movement, really, to eviscerate the liberal arts. I don’t know if it’s intended, but I think that it’s a part of what’s happening, and it bothers me a great deal.”
This “evisceration” was seen first-hand during meetings with the state Board of Regents, Abbott said.
“Person after person in these conversations got up and said, ‘You know, tell the kids … don’t major in psychology,’” he said.
The emphasis away from liberal arts is an elitist one, Abbott said.
“The people I hear saying it are people who sent their kids to institutions like the University of South Dakota to get a great liberal arts education, to learn to express themselves orally and in writing, to take sufficient classes to analyze things and solve problems,” he said.
Abbott said he was not in any way denigrating general skills.
“Skills are necessary, but in a world that is rapidly changing, how is it that a set of skills that you learn gives you the ability to change the world?” he said. “We are so much in South Dakota a victim of what we have rather than what we could be.
“You don’t get to be what you can be as a state, as a county, as a city, as anything, without determining what you want and figuring out how to get there,” he said. “By and large, you get there by tracking avenues that make a difference, that solve problems. It’s not by skills.”
Abbott added that while he is glad skills-related employers are in South Dakota, the state will not change because of their presence.
“I hope we keep them all, but I hope we attract other businesses that are much more knowledge-based, and you get those kinds of things by emphasizing the ability to solve the very problems that they’re trying to solve,” he said.
While Abbott said that he loves South Dakota, “our state has a tremendous aversion to taxes. … We don’t want to pay for them. We want excellence. We don’t care to pay for it.”
The state is not unusual in that regard, he said, but added that its low tolerance for failure also creates problems.
“I don’t believe in throwing money at a problem, but I think it’s pretty clear we do not support education, either K-12 or public higher ed., to the extent that we should.”
In essence, the current system pits K-12 and higher ed against each other, Abbott said.
“We should be lockstep, hand in hand,” he said. “We should not be pitted against one another for the … gleanings.”
As a result, Abbott said it is hard to conclude, looking forward, that universities will be appropriated significantly more dollars on an annual basis.
“The demographics are not on our side,” he said. “My generation is rapidly growing older, and simply, the demands for services by older folks are (increasing). … That’s just the way it is. And, there is a common belief that public higher education is too expensive. Period.
“Fair or unfair, true or untrue, the fact is, perception becomes reality if that’s what you think,” he said.
Abbott said he does not think this is the case.
“I regret that at this current time, students pay for about 60 percent of their education, compared to the 40 that I paid. But I still think comparatively speaking, across the country, that we are a very good value,” he said. “But the public doesn’t know that because what they hear is, ‘Education is too expensive.’”
As a result, Abbott said he does not envision more than modest appropriations.
“Our state provides less than 30 percent of our funding, so every time the state raises our salaries by 3 percent, we have a whole bunch of people that we have to cover that we would not get state dollars for. So that requires an increase in tuition,” he said.
Abbott said he was told Wednesday that actuaries had underestimated health care increases for the second year, which will lead to even more adjustments.
“It’s pretty clear that we’re going to have to pony up as a state for health plans,” he said. “Nobody wants not to do that — we want to do that — but that doesn’t make it any more palatable.”