Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The day before the ax fell on liberal arts at Marymount University, a contingent of some 15 students and alumni staged a peaceful protest near the trustees’ planning meeting at the school’s Ballston offices.

“Save Our Majors,” read their homemade placards on Feb. 23.

Many students “were afraid of retaliation,” said Grace Kapacs, but she “doesn’t care.” English major Margaret Hoffinger worried about future preparedness, saying, “People come to Marymount to increase their ability to communicate, learn a language, to be more compassionate toward people with a different perspective.” The Catholic mission, she added, is traditionally grounded in liberal arts.

Theology major Jonas Gleiner said the plan to eliminate nine majors championed by President Irma Becerra “threatened professors by saying, ‘You should leave.’”

Alum Matthew Shuman said the plan—which focuses more on “high demand” majors such as nursing, fashion and physical therapy “means that Marymount—right outside the most educated city in the U.S.—will fall further.”

Within 24 hours, after the president overruled an angry faculty council vote for blocking it, the Marymount board voted 20-0 to approve the plan to eliminate degrees in history, English and most liberal arts. These majors are “rarely selected by Marymount students and have only graduated a handful of students in the past decade,” said the board. “This decision reflects not only our students’ needs, but our responsibility to prepare them for the fulfilling, in-demand careers of the future.”

Spokesman Nicholas Munson told me the university “will continue to provide a strong liberal arts core and offer classes in the subjects. Marymount will continue to have a B.A. in liberal studies” as the institution focuses on “long-term growth” and “competitive advantage.” The changes are not financially driven.

The drama drew notice in national publications and among numerous interest groups. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, which counsels trustees, told me Marymount’s “leaders are not alone in their attempts to grapple with evolving challenges impacting the long-term vitality of colleges and universities… Administrative leaders and board members must make complex decisions that consider the cost of programs – in both dollars and reputation – compared to potential attractiveness to future students. It also means …  rethinking how liberal arts and ‘soft skills’ are taught in new ways.” 

The Catholic Diocese of Arlington, though exerting no authority over Marymount’s governance, said Bishop Michael Burbidge understands there will still be required theology classes and will continue to work with Marymount leaders.

Arlington Historical Society president Cathy Hix said, “It is essential for universities to continue to offer the study of history and humanities to help us understand the human story to better navigate the future.”

Especially upset is the 11,000-member American Historical Association, whose leaders wrote to Marymount’s president Feb. 16 urging that she reconsider. It said past experience had shown such moves do not save money but harm students, and warned against a “wrongheaded shift at a time when civic leaders from all corners of the political landscape have lamented the lack of historical knowledge of American citizens.”

Executive director James Grossman told me he found it “bizarre for a Catholic University to say history is not central to someone’s education.” Offering a few courses “is not good enough,” he added. Grossman also rejected the common notion that history majors struggle in the job market. “Most employers want graduates who know how to learn, and that’s what a history major does.”


Arlington nostalgists on Facebook continue debating the change of Lee Highway to John M. Langston Blvd., now 20 months in the rearview mirror.

But I’ve noticed green VDOT signs on I-66 near Lyon Village still show Lee’s name (as does a NOVA Parks sign on the W&OD trail).

“There are two sign structures that need to be replaced to accommodate the new panels for the Langston Blvd signs,” VDOT spokeswoman Ellen Kamilakis told me. “The contract will go out to bid in April,” so following fabrication and installation of the steel structure and panels, the change should be done by year’s end.