As Lila Graham ’22 argued last week in opinions, St. Olaf’s “finely curated” aesthetic creates a stifling environment for students. However, the College’s intentional manicuring of its spaces is only the outward-facing form of a more entrenched system; to compete as an institution of higher education, St. Olaf must not only look like a corporation — it must act like one too.
St. Olaf’s corporate image is in direct response to its relentless need to vie for students. In the U.S., the number of higher education institutions in the country hasn’t fallen below 4,000 since the year 2000. Compare this to the number of similar institutions across Europe, which currently sits at 2,725. The U.S.’s free-market higher education system inundates the country with private institutions which need to maximize value as they compete for a share of eligible students.
Colleges and universities achieve value-maximization through a number of different avenues — targeting specific types of consumers (prospective students), differentiating their product through tags like “school of music” or “technical institute,” or highlighting their geographical distinctiveness. St. Olaf uses these approaches, branding itself as “intensely residential” and playing into the distinctiveness of “the Hill” — not to mention its fascination with music, displayed most notably through the annual, highly marketed Christmas Festival.
Common to all value-maximization, however, is a push to bureaucratize. This is seen across the board through the extension of existing administrative offices or the creation of new auxiliary bodies that streamline types of non-essential college functionings. “Critics complain these offices often duplicate work already being done on the campuses they oversee and employ scores of bureaucrats who have no direct role in teaching or research,” Jon Marcus, higher education editor at The Hechinger Report, wrote in The Atlantic in 2016. Marcus further notes how the number of staff in higher education institutions has seen a continued rise despite “steep budget cuts, flat enrollment, and heightened scrutiny of administrative bloat.”
Examples of this type of bureaucratization abound at St. Olaf. The creation of distinct “centers” — the Lutheran Center for Faith and Values, the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion, the Institute for Freedom and Community — evidence the bureaucratic push. Plus the College added to the President’s leadership team in 2020. All of these extensions fit the St. Olaf brand — the same two or three colors, minimalist logos and two-word taglines.
One of the major questions that arises when considering the growth of bureaucracy is its general effectiveness. Is the work of the Lutheran Center, the Taylor Center or the Institute best left in the hands of student organizations, or is bringing these functions in-house a better approach? In the end there is no correct answer. While students may feel put-off by St. Olaf’s corporatization, they must accept it as the consequence of the College’s position as an entrepreneurial enterprise fighting to stay afloat in a sea of competitors.
But while creating new centers, hiring new staff and rebranding toward a polished type of corporate minimalism may be effective in terms of marketing, it is not effective in meeting the purpose of a liberal arts education. At its core the liberal arts ethos is dynamic and challenging — not in the sense of necessary academic or professional rigor, but in the sense of pure freedom. A liberal arts education promises the freedom to bend this way and that, to explore and to critique openly, to create but also to deconstruct. St. Olaf stunts these ideals when immovable and implacable bureaucratic structures bracket students and make them pursue a specific way to engage with subjects like political dialogue, religion or social diversity.
St. Olaf needs a push away from bureaucratization. It needs a shift from aesthetics to an earnest encouragement of student voices, no matter how chaotic they might be. It needs to close its eyes and open its ears — only then can the institution truly feel free.
Jacob Maranda ’22 is from
Rock Island, IL.
His majors are
economics and philosophy.