On Preserving Liberal Spaces

A PIANO and a chest-high drum stand to the left. The dance studio floor runs to a windowed wall. The ceiling rises at the end like the mouth of an enormous cave, opening onto the Connecticut hillside. Outside, trees crystallize in an ice storm.

I visited the modern dance studio at Connecticut College on behalf of a friend who wanted to go there four decades ago when it was a center of the creative dance world, but her father said no. Energy lingers over that denial. Today Connecticut College, in New London, is one of the premier smaller residential liberal arts schools in America, refusing to wash down the hillside into the Thames River sound in our otherwise illiberal, pragmatic times.

Take the top 50 or so such schools (Swarthmore, Amherst, Oberlin are other familiar names): Their combined student enrollments of 100,000 could be downed by the state university megacampuses without a burp.

These are $100,000-plus four-year educations, already discounted somewhat at the front end by endowments, and discounted again by financial aid so that students may graduate with $15,000 or so in loans. Getting in can well be tougher than paying the bill.

Connecticut College is sharply managed by president Claire Gaudiani and her team. Since Ms. Gaudiani, a 1966 graduate of the school and French scholar, took over in 1988, the now co-ed college has boosted its ranking in selectivity, gone through a strategic planning remake, increased the number of science and technology students, and opened the gates to study and teaching abroad for faculty and students. And all this with a relatively small endowment.

Gaudiani & Co. have set a new five-year strategic plan against a 10-year horizon of 2004. One theme is a global war on poverty such as has been waged against pollution. For return on intellectual and financial capital, Connecticut College has to be considered a good investment.

But sharp pencils and a president's flair may not be enough to preserve these liberal arts spaces intact. A decade hence a shakeout could occur in which only the top half survive, administrators warn.

''None of these institutions -- not even Harvard -- can be justified economically,'' Gaudiani says, even as she leverages every dollar and advances ''real world'' student skills with computer training and funded internships.

It is a moral commitment to meeting society's needs that makes these liberal arts schools run. ''I'm preparing myself as well as my institution culturally'' for the global war on poverty, says Gaudiani, alluding to her role with the United Nations summit for social development in Copenhagen this month.

In these times when venerable banks fail, when health-care and financial institutions absorb one another for efficiency's sake, institutions ignorant of a moral purpose are doubly at risk.

Idealism sounds quixotic when the national debate is dominated by an insistence that the poor pay their own way.

And liberal arts colleges may well produce some of the world's best money counters, as the schools' defenders point out.

I would rather argue that a world of money counting without dance and the other ''uneconomic'' arts would be uninhabitable, if not impossible. The impulses behind movement, sound, sight, and the word and science arts insist on expression. The liberal arts are needed to make something civilized of the electronic superhighway, which otherwise might as well be on the moon.

Such schools typically emphasize the civic experience of campus life as well as the content matter of courses. In Connecticut's case, this centers on an ''honor code'' that entrusts the running of things to students.

''Someone has to keep the flame shining,'' Gaudiani says, to preserve ''a humane and compassionate as well as productive society.'' Campuses like hers might as well do it.

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