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The Berry Farming Program and the Closure of St. Catharine College

By Leah Bayens

Since June, I have held a heavy heart. I have also been angry, indignant, disoriented, and harried. This stands in sharp contrast to my springtime rhapsodizing, in an essay so long it had to be published in two parts, about the Berry Farming Program’s beautiful and fitting place at St. Catharine College. I wrote about the last four years my colleagues at The Berry Center and I spent establishing an experiential, transdisciplinary sustainable agriculture and agrarian studies program modeled on the lifework of farmer and writer Wendell Berry. I sung the praises of students who accepted the idea of a “major in homecoming,” that is, a course of study that would help them “return home, or go some other place, and dig in,” as our friend and supporter Wes Jackson put it.1 I waxed poetic about the radical Dominican Sisters of Peace, who founded the college and provided a touchstone model for how to institutionalize ecological and cultural stewardship.

Less than three months after penning that tribute, I sat with fellow faculty and staff in a small auditorium and listened to the president of our board of trustees tell us that the college would close by the end of summer. July 31 marked the end of almost two centuries of the Dominican Sisters’ community-based education in Washington County, Kentucky. The announcement came just weeks after six remarkable Berry Farming Program (BFP) students graduated with degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism. The rest of our students were left homeless for the fall semester, and nearly 120 faculty and staff scrambled to file unemployment while searching for last-minute hires. The closure created a social and physical vacuum for the community as the classrooms, library, dorms, and offices sit empty in the midst of cattle and sheep pastures while a national bank’s receiver tallies the assets (including, I might bitterly add, the BFP’s brand new walk-behind tractor and implements).

The last few months have seen our agriculture students settling in at colleges around Kentucky, and although they are keeping contact with one another, their separation is a blow to a group of strangers that became a family. Students took care of each other when they were sick. They comforted one another in personal and, more often, existential crises. They argued. They listened. They laughed. They made a study of hard things: land, food, the ecosphere, the divine, ethics, economics, and love. They planted and harvested together but also delegated the tasks of forging a community food system from the ground up. Through the structure of formal education, they found and fed their convictions about doing the work that must be done to make healthy, fulfilling, agrarian lives possible. I have no doubt that they will carry into their new classrooms the BFP’s foundational tenets—that they will continue to cultivate affections for their places and neighbors and take up the hard work of transforming communities and farms into viable and vibrant cooperative enterprises.

The Dominoes Fall

Still, as you can imagine, we are crushed, heartbroken, angry, and helpless. Many people are shocked. But really, the pronouncement should not have come as a surprise. Enrollment had dropped from nearly seven hundred full-time students in 2011 to less than five hundred in 2015, a perilous decrease for a tuition-driven institution. To boot, the school was embroiled in a legal dispute with the United States Department of Education (DOE) over financial aid funds the DOE wrongfully withheld from St. Catharine. In spite of admitting the mistake, the department’s withholding financially crippled the institution, as did economic sanctions and a litany of arbitrarily shifting rules and regulations. In an attempt to increase enrollment and the overall revenue pool, the school offered deep tuition discounts and, in the process, exacerbated fiscal shortfalls by spending more money per student than it brought in. Over the last ten or so years, the college accrued some $26 million in debt for building projects, property purchases, and other expenses.

A tenacious new president, Dr. Cindy Gnadinger, was at the helm of efforts to right the ship. She did not create the mess, but she dedicated every moment of the past two years—waking and sleeping, I imagine—to not only keeping the college open but also to setting it up as an institution that truly merges liberal and practical arts. Nevertheless, the economics of the so-called Sweet Briar Effect proved overwhelming. Like Sweet Briar and an average of five colleges per year over the last decade (growing to fifteen annually by 2017), St. Catharine experienced a shuttering born of declining enrollments and financial exigency.2

As St. Catharine did, many small liberal arts colleges try to dig out by providing an average of fifty-percent tuition and fees discounts and attempting to offset this cost by enrolling more students, a short-sighted approach in light of the shrinking number of students seeking liberal arts educations. On this note, Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., author of Liberal Arts at the Brink, adds that this not only raises “colleges’ operating costs and decrease[s] their operating revenues,” but it also engenders fierce competition between liberal arts schools while doing “nothing to address the core problem that gave rise to the competition, the fact that fewer and fewer high school seniors want a liberal arts education.3 This dearth generates a trend toward a bodies-in-chairs recruitment method rather than an honest assessment of prospective students’ academic dispositions and financial capacities, a blunder that in turn produces incomplete degrees and loan defaults.

College Country Clubs

Taken together, these factors are pushing schools like St. Catharine to the edge. A 2015 Moody’s Investors Service report  predicted college and university closures will triple and college mergers double by 2017. A sage and sane reaction to prognostications like this would be to bolster academics and tighten the proverbial belt on conveniences and nonessentials. Not so in the American system of higher education. Public and private colleges and universities alike sink millions of dollars into facilities that provide amenities-based college experiences. Rather than doubling down on frugality and academics, many colleges invest in luxurious housing, climbing walls, and expensive athletic facilities. Most notorious, perhaps, is Louisiana State University’s $85 million lazy river, constructed in the face of a $55.5 million cut in state funding.4 St. Catharine was anything but a darling institution with lavish facilities, but its leaders felt and succumbed to market pressure; the college tried to provide a semblance of the finer standard of living by financing facilities beyond the college’s means to pay for them.

And although studies such as the New York Federal Reserve’s report show that tuition increases are more closely associated with state budget cuts than expenses incurred from luxury amenities, the overarching attendance costs for students are still higher. For example, at University of California, Los Angeles, room and board costs ($15,069) are higher than in-state tuition and fees ($12,918). And LSU’s student government voted to increase recreation fees to $200 per semester with a private gym membership charge of $36 per month.5 These are state schools, at which students are ostensibly offered more affordable educations than at their non-profit, private counterparts. Whether at public or private institutions, college amenities expenditures present a symbolic disconnect as schools model comfort and consumption rather than thrift and prudence at a time when students accrue crippling debt: $1.2 trillion nationally.6

Ultimately, the college-turned-country-club standard also perpetuates a student-as-consumer model of education. In turn, this bolsters the neoliberal agenda being used to attack key civic values in higher education and, in the process, vocationalizing it. Nate Kreuter puts it this way:

“A postsecondary education is not a guarantee of success. It is not the straight-forward purchase of a better future. It never has been. But when the entire educational system conceives of students as customers, a burden of responsibility shifts. It shifts from the student, whose responsibility might once have been to go out and put the education to use, to the university, which is increasingly seen as a half-way house to employment.”7

To be sure, St. Catharine and colleges like it closed and will continue to close because of cultural indifference toward and contempt for the liberal arts. Jeff Gross’s August 2015 essay “Into the Caldron: Neoliberalism, Ideology, Education, and Life Itself” shrewdly delineates how “neoliberalism and conservatism have aligned to attack liberal arts programs” and furthered an approach to education that “attempts to make stakeholders compliant and to organize them as homo oeconomicus and prepare them to be units of capital in a system based solely on capital.”

In this vein, Ferrall points out: “Even if liberal arts colleges were not engaged in self-destructing competition, the deck would still be stacked against them. Powerful national voices aggressively champion vocational education and barely mention, or deride, the liberal arts, voices such as Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, directed by Anthony Carnevale (‘if higher education fails to focus on occupational training, it will damage the nation’s economic future … something we cannot afford’).”8

Unfinished by Brian Connors Manke
“Unfinished” by Brian Connors Manke

A False Cultural Hierarchy

Let me be clear. I am not denigrating vocational education, nor am I minimizing the importance of finding meaningful work that allows people to provide for their families and communities. My partner is a cabinetmaker. My brother-in-law is a contractor. My sister-in-law is a baker. My grandpa was a farmer, a fire chief, and a General Electric model shop worker. My friends are farmers, electricians, lab technicians, nurses, and mechanics. I proudly come from a long line of people who have done all manner of things with their hands and brains. They possess skills and knowledge gleaned in and out of schools. Because of what they have taught me—and what they have done that I would be hard pressed ever to learn—I am doubly defensive about chalking up education to job training and ceaselessly and uncritically separating the practical from the liberal arts. It creates a false cultural hierarchy that is socially destructive and, in the end, an erred version of how authentic education works. For these reasons, a cornerstone of the Berry Farming Program at St. Catharine consisted of merging the arts and sciences and liberal and practical arts.

Through this approach, we understood college as a place where the community of students, faculty, staff, and neighbors learned how to be ecologically literate people. People who know how to read, abide by, and tend the land’s economy, “the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods.”9 People who know what they need to take home. Wendell Berry calls on us to view education thus:

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or ‘accessing’ what we now call ‘information’—which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.10

An education for “first things” is the opposite of higher education’s “Upward Mobility major,” as Berry dubs it, that is an instigator of “social instability, ecological oblivion, and economic insecurity.”11 The upward mobility major, he writes, “has put our schools far too much at the service of what we have been calling overconfidently our ‘economy.’” It has been preparing graduates for “expert servitude to the corporations” rather than for reciprocal community membership.12

Our major in homecoming is the alternative. Now it has been set adrift from the community we held dear. But we will find a new place, a new home. Generous funding from The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas, and Third Coast Activist Resource Center of Austin, Texas, have helped underwrite my one-year visiting position at The Berry Center. During this time, I will be working with the center’s staff to undertake a home search, as it were, as well as to revise and refine the program’s curriculum, and to develop the means for sharing that curriculum with partner institutions. The number of colleges and organizations that have expressed interest in partnering with or housing the Berry Farming Program heartens us. We have many questions to ask about how the economics of ecology, land, and culture inform their views of education. In the meantime, my friends at The Berry Center and I will heed Berry’s words and keep imagining our best new place:

To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.13

Editor: Beth Connors-Manke

Featured Image: “A Different Horizon” by Brian Connors Manke