Valparaiso University, a Lutheran college in Indiana, recently announced plans to sell three pieces of art that are described as the “cornerstone” of the University museum’s collection. The sale—to include paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, Childe Hassam, and Frederic Edwin Church—is planned to fund renovations to the freshman dorms, the condition of which, according to Valparaiso’s president José Padilla, presents an “impediment to student recruitment and retention.” Some may laud this plan as a shrewd business decision, but divvying up university resources and selling them piecemeal presents a far greater threat to the University than outdated dorms.
Like many private educational institutions, Valparaiso University is facing hardships. The campus census peaked in 2015 with 4,544 students. By Fall 2022 that number had fallen to 2,939, which has led to a decline in tuition revenue. There’s no question that the university—as well as many others like it—is in dire need of students and the tuition dollars that they represent. So it is understandable that the board and the president of Valparaiso University see this sale as a potential lifeline for the University. But University stakeholders should pursue every avenue to halt the planned sale because doing so would undermine what it means to be a university.
Valparaiso’s plans to sell its art should interest anyone who cares about the direction in which higher education is heading: the debate that has ensued is emblematic of core disagreements about the purpose of higher education, and what role (if any) art and other “impractical and frivolous” pursuits play in a university. Beauty should occupy a privileged place in any educational scheme, but most especially at a Christian institution like Valparaiso.
Unfortunately, Valparaiso’s leadership holds a very different position. In defense of his decision to sell the University’s works of art, President Padilla has asserted that the Brauer Museum of Art is not a part of the “core mission” of the University, which he identifies as educating students. This conclusion requires a very narrow understanding of what education is.
Universities should be repositories of culture and our shared civilizational heritage. They should be centers of intellectual inquiry and creativity. Universities provide space for scholarly reflection of professional academics. As such, they need artifacts and primary sources, which are the fruit of past generations’ intellectual inquiry and creativity. Similarly, universities need libraries, chapels, art collections, theaters, and concert halls just as much as they need classrooms, chalkboards, chemistry labs, and yes, dorms. Universities should seek to be what their name implies—universal communities of teachers and scholars that pursue knowledge for the sake of preserving it in the minds of future generations.
In the weeks following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021, Harvard University professor emerita Ruth Wisse penned an opinion essay in the Wall Street Journal regarding the decades-long absence of an ROTC program on Harvard’s campus. While Harvard’s was the first ROTC program in the nation that prepared college students for military careers, it came under fire by a few within the university community in the Vietnam War era and was effectively banned from campus. Prof. Wisse argues that the message that this has sent to students is that “a flawed America [isn’t] worth defending.” Similarly, carving up a university’s cultural artifacts for the auction block may send an analogous message—that American culture is not even worth preserving.
Art Is Intrinsically Interdisciplinary
University communities tend to segregate along disciplinary boundaries. The divisions that house the humanities—history, languages, and philosophy—usually have little to do with the divisions that house the scientific disciplines of biology, chemistry, and engineering. There are good reasons for this separation, but a community of teachers and scholars that shares universal truths needs intentional bridges between the organizational divisions. This need for cross-pollination stems from the fact that different fields of inquiry aim to reach the same ultimate places, albeit by different means and methods of inquiry. It is important for us to know why and how the Roman Empire collapsed in ways that only a historian can describe, but it is also important for us to understand how plants process materials found in their surroundings to make food in ways that can only be described by biologists and chemists. The knowledge of each of these seemingly unrelated things each has an aesthetic quality that anyone can appreciate.
Sir Roger Scruton observes that “beauty is an ultimate value—something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need be given. Beauty should therefore be compared to truth and goodness, one member of a trio of ultimate values which justify our rational inclinations.” The pursuit of beauty—even particular and unrelated types of beauty—is not the work of artists and poets alone. It is the work of economists, physicists, and mathematicians, too.
Art is a convening point for many different avenues of pursuing beauty. It is the bridge between chemistry and history and between theology and engineering. Beauty is something every specialist cares about, even in the fields that seem most technical. The quantum physicist’s immediate goal might be to understand how observation affects an electron’s motion. But why is she pursuing this knowledge? Perhaps because this information will aid in developing new technologies; but more fundamentally, there’s something beautiful and arresting about the peculiar ways the smallest units of matter behave.
The fine arts are traditionally the fields most directly devoted to the pursuit of beauty, which is why it’s so important for universities to be repositories of art. Indeed, traditional art captures exactly why the yearning for beauty is so fundamentally human. Many works are an artist’s quest to understand more fully an aspect of creation by recreating an image of it. To complete the poignant Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens spent years studying the details of faces of his subjects, making cast after cast after cast until their likenesses were accurately represented. He also had to understand metallurgy and the limits of casting technology in order to design a fitting tribute that was feasible to bring to fruition.
Human minds have, in Hume’s words, “a great propensity to spread [themselves] on external objects.” The art that is created in different times and places helps us to understand the minds of those who believed that the earth was flat, who feared the beasts of the bestiary, who had yet to be convinced that germs cause disease, and those wrestling with the horrors of war and natural disaster. It is an instructive thing to have many different types and examples of external objects—paintings, particle accelerators, and reference books—at the disposal of universal communities of teachers and scholars. Studying what past cultures and eras considered beautiful isn’t just a historical curiosity—because beauty is a universal and ultimate value, it also can inform and guide our own understanding of beauty. Again, this points to the importance of universities’ being home to fine art: art instructs us in the traditions we inherit, and tutors our own aesthetic sensibility—an indispensable aspect of learning.
The Heightened Responsibilities of a Christian Institution
“Nobody who is alert to beauty,” writes Scruton, “is without the concept of redemption—of a final transcendence of mortal disorder into a ‘kingdom of ends.’ In an age of declining faith, art bears enduring witness to the spiritual hunger and immortal longings of our species. Hence aesthetic education matters more today than at any previous period in history.” Christian universities such as Valparaiso are by definition committed to a worldview that is grounded in a story (the story, they would say) of redemption; that is, a story framing who human beings are, how we are meant to flourish, and how today we can move toward that flourishing—and away from the current toxic cultural undertows of hedonism and nihilism that threaten our very being. These institutions not only have a responsibility to the creative arts, but also to recognizing the creativity and innovation inherent in the good things produced in all disciplines. Aesthetic education in the sciences and the humanities, as well as in the arts, is an urgent need that Christian universities are uniquely situated to meet.
In addition to being universal and interdisciplinary, art is also transcendent—or at least represents the transcendent. As God’s image-bearers, human beings share in God’s creative capacity; and this is not limited to our interactions with the material world. Human beings are moral agents capable of knowing and doing good and evil, and who are responsible for acting according to this knowledge. The best art is a human endeavor to represent the transcendent values of truth, goodness, and beauty in media accessible to the senses of others. It bears witness to the creator of the art and the Creator of the artist.
In short, to trade the artifacts of transcendent gifts for the immanence of capital improvement is to sell our human birthright for a mess of pottage. Or, to use the language of the boardroom and the annual report, to divest a Christian university community of its artifacts of human creativity is to betray the heart of that community’s mission.
Pragmatic Considerations of Leadership
Not all universities own art, but the ones that do are placed in a position of special trust. The purchase of a university’s holdings was made possible by those whose generosity saw the importance of keeping the art in the context of a Christian university. Benefactors of the past thought that a collection of art was an important aspect of the identity of a university and could have given their wealth to any number of institutions or endeavors—but they selected a particular endeavor at a particular institution. Valparaiso’s art wasn’t just a potential vehicle for long-term investment; it is an investment in the mission of a university. Carving out an essential part of the university’s educational resources in service of more prosaic, pragmatic ends not only offends the sacrifice of previous donors, it undermines the university’s credibility in the eyes of prospective ones.
Further, one can only assume that the present collection of the Brauer Museum of Art was built by experts around these earlier acquisitions. Moreover, faculty and staff in the areas most directly affected by the collection have made career decisions based on proximity to the collection. Carving up the collection for the auction house disrespects the careful curation done by previous and current faculty and staff. The decision to auction off these works undermines the authority and expertise of those given responsibility to steward this particular area of the University’s resources and programs.
And finally, the works of art that Valparaiso’s board and president intend to sell are irreplaceable. If recruitment and retention stabilize once the freshman dorms are updated and revenue climbs to a level that enables the university to invest further in the Brauer Museum, these works will not be on the market. They are never again likely to be the property of Valparaiso University. In fact, the sale of these works will very probably be a turning point in the history of the University and will represent a turn toward greater and greater decline and instability. Many institutions that ultimately close make these kinds of shortsighted decisions. This kind of move sends signals to donors and prospective students that ultimately seal an institution’s future. This decision could easily become one such future-altering decisions.
In a time when demographic realities foretell stark economic decline for higher education, responsible boards and administrators must make difficult decisions. These decisions cannot be informed by a nostalgia that will handicap the forward progress of the institution. But neither can they focus shortsightedly on the aspects of university mission and business that are most easily quantifiable. These decisions must be reasoned, principled, and made in service to the mission of the institution and with deference to the good will of past, present, and future stakeholders. These challenging times require creative needle-threading that seeks to reshape the revenue structures, recruiting methods, and other aspects of university operations without altering or betraying the core identity of the school. It is hard to see how raiding the Brauer Museum will do more than provide a temporary patch on a much larger problem. The cost will be inestimable: loss of unique resources, a loss of missional commitment, and a loss of reputation.
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