Push toward natural sciences infringes on VC liberal arts

This past weekend was the notorious a cappella auditions weekend throughout Vassar’s campus. Being a member of an a cappella group, I was preoccupied with preview concerts, singing, auditions and hearing the amazing voices of all the people who decided to come out and share their talent with us. However, one aspect of this weekend seemed a bit different compared to my previous a cappella hell week experiences. Consulting with members of other groups, we all agreed that there were significantly less people from the incoming class of 2018 auditioning for a cappella compared to previous freshman classes.

I began to analyze why this was true. I had always perceived Vassar as a mainly arts-oriented institution. Then I remembered a jarring statistic surrounding the number of natural science majors at Vassar College.

Last year, I was a student fellow on Jewett house team. I attended the usual events, one of them being “I Am Vassar.” And at that hot sticky convention in the Chapel, Dean of Freshman Susan Zlotnick revealed to the audience that according to statistics submitted by the class of 2017, more than forty percent of them indicated that they would be interested in majoring in something within the natural sciences discipline. This statistic was extremely alarming to me. Being at a college that prides itself on the concept of a liberal arts education, having such a lopsided number of people majoring in the natural sciences can be very detrimental to the other departments at Vassar.

I agree that more people wanting to major in the natural sciences is a product of the economic and scientific trajectory of the United States in the past half of a century. Logically speaking, science is where the jobs are. There are always new areas of research opening up. Simultaneously, we all see the trending articles on the Internet claiming that liberal arts oriented majors are surely going to doom you to a life of living paycheck to paycheck. However, I think that there is enough evidence just through basic observation to prove this claim false. With social media and digital communication becoming the main source of information for citizens of the world, there are more opportunities than ever for someone to get involved in social work, media and arts, or writing, occupations that used to be open to only a selective few.

So there really is no reason that Vassar College should be pushing people and striving to accept students who want to major in the natural sciences, which are already over-registered. Yet, at least on the surface, it seems like that is what is happening.

Just observing the heavy construction happening near the academic quad on this campus, it is easy to see that this is the case. Vassar College has shelled out millions of dollars to build a massive structure, which will eventually transform into the new science building for Vassar College. All the while, the construction blocks one of the only paths to Skinner Hall, the music hall for Vassar and arguably one of the prettiest buildings on this campus. There has been pushback by many members of Vassar College and the greater Poughkeepsie area surrounding the construction of this building. However, Vassar College insisted on pushing through, and the building is set to open up in just under two years.

Naturally, this push by Vassar to become well-known as a science institution is going to entice more science-oriented students to apply for admission into Vassar College. But what does this do for the arts at Vassar?

It is just true that students who are more associated with the natural sciences are going to be less associated with the arts. This means less people majoring in already underfunded departments, such as all of the multidisciplinary programs. If there is a dramatic shift in the number of people taking courses in or majoring in these types of departments, this will lead to a delegitimatizing of these departments for a lot of people, including upper-level administration. Inevitably, this means leads to less resources for these programs, and more funding for the science majors. This creates a cycle of de-funding for these majors, further alienating people who wish to study these topics, and tricking people in this capitalist society into believing that science is the only type of major that will result in a job after college. Though complex, the push by Vassar College to become a more scientifically-oriented institution could have severe effects on the layout of Vassar academics.

This push also has an effect on the artistic extracurricular activities that exist at Vassar College. As I referenced earlier, there was a significantly lower number of students who auditioned for a cappella groups this year. This foreshadows a possible problem in the future when play and musical auditions roll around. Each play has a specific number of cast members that it needs in order to be complete, and it is commonplace that one student can only be in one student-run play or musical during each semester. If less people were to audition for plays and musicals at Vassar, specifically student-run theater, this may force student artists to have to restrict their choices of which plays to put on at Vassar. Smaller-cast plays would become the norm, which could lead to less diversity within student theater, a problem that is already present today at Vassar.

Is it a bit of a jump to make all of these assumptions about the future of Vassar College? Possibly. Yet Cappy has made it very clear that she is in strong support of the institution moving towards the natural sciences. It could do very good for Vassar if there was in-depth funded research that emerged due to the creation of the new science building. However, I simply fear that the allure and sheer size of the building will block the view, figuratively and literally, of students at Vassar towards other departments and artistic outlets that the institution has to offer.

It is not certain that these predictions will happen if Vassar does choose to further push this scientific agenda. However, it is important not to forget about the meaning of a liberal arts education at Vassar College. We are encouraged to take classes in all disciplines in order to get a varied education that prepares us for the real world. We can’t do that if we are all restricted to picking classes out of the Chemistry, Physics and Biology Departments.
—Christopher Brown ’16 is a political science and mathematics double major.

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