Dylan Paul Hays
The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Revolution is a light at the end of the tunnel for times that have been so very cruel to the liberal arts college community. Its seriousness and genuine heart provide an enjoyable read that will also engage you in a sense that the present is only the beginning for liberal arts colleges.
Benedix, B., Volk, S. (2020) The post-pandemic liberal arts college: A manifesto for revolution. Belt Publishing.
Graduating in 2020 and 2021 will long be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and its lasting implications not just on the experience of recent college grads but on the entire world. Being a college senior in the spring of 2020 was my entire identity, and the four years I spent at my small liberal arts campus will be the foundation for whom I become. In March of 2020, as the pandemic’s force unfolded—my campus community, my support system, and my identity were changed. Four years of college seemingly wrapped up in one email asking us to collect our items and never come back.
Many other liberal arts college students across the country shared these experiences. Those who were not graduating lost the chance to say goodbye to close friends and other once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Coming back to campus in a compromised system was likely just as agonizing and frustrating and filled with loss as what the recent graduates experienced.
Additionally, we are facing the potential loss not only of experiences, events, or time away from in-person campus experiences. We are losing liberal arts institutions themselves. Zemsky (2020) estimated that within the next five years, nearly 20% of all small liberal arts colleges will have to close their doors for good. This context is essential for fully engaging with the work Bendix and Volk have done with this book.
The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Revolution is a testament to the lived experiences of modern liberal arts students. The striking truths laid out through the book echo what students have been saying for years: This simply is not working (Benedix & Volk, 2020)
The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College: A Manifesto for Revolution by Benedix and Volk (2020) is a compelling and timely read. The text centers the experience of liberal arts institutions in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of simply grieving loss and change, the book positions the pandemic as a catalyst for change in liberal arts institutions, and across higher education. Divided into three sections, the book details the collapsing structure and foundation of liberal arts colleges. Each section itself is divided into detailed subsections and narrative insights. Within the early sections of the book, the authors detail the lived on-campus experience as the pandemic forced closures and demanded faculty to restructure entire curriculums overnight. One student testimony in particular struck me, as I could not have thought of better words to describe how I, as a 2020 liberal arts graduate, felt at the time:
I’ve been ripped away from my home of the last four years. That was, obviously, the right call; however, I did almost everything for four years inside one square mile plot of land. I lived, worked, slept, ate, felt every range of emotion, calibrated every facet of my academic life within that one square mile. All of my routine, all of my community which I rely on to stabilize me and help me be successful at DePauw (University) is unavoidably gone. (p. 26)
The second section, “This Really Isn’t Working” explores how years of economic turmoil, civil unrest, and rising inequality have resulted in a system of higher education that is inherently toxic. This section details why small liberal arts colleges are dying off at such an alarming rate. The stories and narratives of the students detailed in the first two sections can be heartbreaking at times, as well as refreshing to hear as a recent liberal arts grad myself.
The third section, “A Manifesto”, is a detailed overview of how to rebuild these institutions after this pandemic. The “post-pandemic” institutions the authors advocate for are colleges and universities that properly serve their institutions’ true missions and values as well as create a type of liberal arts education that works for the students who need it the most. Students with marginalized identities could thrive in liberal arts colleges, but only if those colleges are ready, willing, and able to do the work necessary to be an institution that works in the twenty-first century. This section lays out a constructive framework detailing the cracks in the system and how to fill them, as well as nearly two dozen small changes that could completely change the way small liberal arts colleges serve their students.
The book is most compelling when it connects personal stories with suggested changes. The authors have an incredible ability to think critically about their own experiences but also convey the experiences of their students and their colleagues in ways that are clear and meaningful. The formatting of the book, within its three sections, allows the reader to gradually understand the issues as well as their importance, not just the educational process, but the actual lived experiences of the students receiving this education.
The text focuses heavily on diversity, equity, and inclusion practices across higher education, and acknowledges the new civil rights movement we are in. The social inequalities that have torn us apart in recent years will only grow wider—things will get worse before they get better. The book acknowledges the important role colleges and universities will have in social justice movements in the coming years but does not focus heavily on the past. These sections of the text are the most difficult to digest, as it requires the reader to contextualize and reconsider entire systems of doing things. The manifesto portion of this book excels at forcing the reader to reconsider entire systems, not just individual actions or programs.
The book could be strengthened with more focus on just how crucial the role of higher education will be in addressing inequality and inequity. Additionally, the role of higher education in the past as it relates to social change would enhance the text. There are thousands of examples of social justice movements on college campuses. Improving our future must come with an understanding and acknowledgment of our past—and although the manifesto focuses on that bright future, the book could have spent more time helping the reader understand how the complex political and economic histories of colleges and universities directly impact the challenges our students are facing today.
Connection to Student Affairs
The manifesto itself covers how universities run from a business perspective but explains it in a way that student affairs or academic affairs staff can easily understand. The manifesto portion provides an overview of both qualitative and quantitative data, oral histories, and a meaningful core curriculum that has the potential to change the work we all do at colleges and universities. Even when thinking about my own journey through a liberal arts institution, I knew that the faculty and staff around me were listening, but it’s empowering to read those same stories and concerns the way they’re written in the text.
This text, if properly introduced into liberal arts curriculum, could make a serious and meaningful impact on those institutions and their students. Institutions that pride themselves on diversity and inclusion, professional development, or listening to their students in general should consider making this a required reading for all faculty, staff, and student affairs professionals.
For professionals at all types of institutions, the book provides a critical analysis of higher education as a hole and speculates on its future. As we transition into the post-pandemic world, the financial and political stressors facing colleges and universities will only get worse. Inequalities, especially systemic ones deeply rooted within higher education will only grow. One section, focused on public policy’s role in higher education expresses the following:
A disregard for higher education at any time is shortsighted. But at a time where our very lives depend on the knowledge produced in these institutions – consider not just the current COVID-19 pandemic, but the climate crisis already upon us – such negligence must be recognized as nothing less than suicidal. (p. 139)
Professionals and faculty will find new examples and policy analysis of many of the more complex financial barriers that university administration attempts to shield their employees from. Benedix and Volk (2020) make comprehensive arguments for every financial, logistical, and social-justice based policy they address, and use a multitude of examples from institutions across the country.
As we begin to unpack the trauma this pandemic has brought, as well as work to find solutions to the many problems this virus has created, critical thinking of our students and our nation’s higher education institutions will be a key part of that future. This book is a testament to a bright future for all types of students and all types of institutions but serves as a brutal reminder for what our future could be if we fail to act now. I leave you with the author’s own words, as they describe it best:
It is our firm belief and ardent hope that we will learn ourselves out of these crisis and that small liberal arts colleges, as they have before, will play a critical part in this. Now is the time to seize back the power we have given away. (p. 145)
Zemsky, Robert, et al. The College Stress Test. Johns Hopkins, 2020.
Dylan Hays is a graduate student in the Clemson University Counselor Education – Student Affairs program. Hays’ assistantship is currently working with Student Leader Development in the Center for Student Leadership & Engagement at Clemson University. Hays received his bachelor’s degree from a small liberal arts college, Ohio Wesleyan University.