MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois will be closing down after 174 years. The news came today (as I write this on March 28, 2020). It had been anticipated. The board of the college cited declining enrollment, lack of rising competitive costs, and lack of sufficient endowment as the causes for there being “no viable financial path forward.” This semester, ending in May, will be the last. The 400+ students and 100+ faculty and staff will have to find other places to study and work.
MacMurray was founded by the Methodist Church as a college for women. It accepted men in 1955, and became fully co-ed in 1969. Its prominent programs were education, music, and a wide range of liberal arts and sciences. At one point Mac was thriving, with 1700 students. Its American Colonial architecture was excellently rendered. The center of the campus was its administration building for a hundred years, and then the Annie Merner Chapel with its grand Aeolian Skinner pipe organ became the college’s icon and gathering place for important services and concerts.
It is tempting to become nostalgic. MacMurray has an important place in our family’s history as my mother’s and cousin’s alma-mater, as the place I typed my doctoral thesis in Jacksonville’s first computer lab, and the place our 1958 high school graduating class had its Junior and Senior prom, and baccalaureate service. I was on stage in the music hall at the age of 5 and doing a piano recital or two ten years later.
Yes, well, everyone in town has memories of Mac.
Jacksonville was known as the Athens of the West for a few decades because it was (among other credits) the place where there were 2 colleges, 2 academies, the state’s first public high school, a school for the blind, a school for the deaf, and at least 2 commercial colleges. No town in Illinois, I contend, matched Jacksonville’s educational record until the big cities and state universities began to evolve. MacMurray was a major contributor to the town’s high regard.
Now MacMurray joins the growing list of degree-granting institutions of higher education going out of business in the USA at the rate of more than 100 a year. In addition to the reasons for closing that the Mac board mentioned in its public announcement is the fact that the type of education small liberal arts colleges provide is going out of fashion. That, rather than costs, is what I’d like to discuss now.
Liberal arts education was developed over 150 years to educate community leaders. Bachelor’s degrees were thought to be foundational, preparing graduates for professional education to follow. Only a few courses, mostly added in the middle half of the twentieth century, were to prepare graduates for jobs. But college life was also very much about leadership training. With a college education followed by a professional education, a physician or lawyer, for example, was also a valuable community leader ready to augment those who rose due to their family influence or in public esteem to offices such as sheriff, mayor, fire chief, or president of the bank.
Leadership nurture is a tedious, labor-intensive undertaking. It’s easier when the trainee has leadership talent and intuition to begin with. But even for those so endowed the process of discovering one’s most effective style of leadership can be difficult. That is why college life for a small liberal-arts college can be both challenging and rewarding. Being small, college functions can involve about everybody as a leader somewhere along the way. There’s no better leadership education than experience. In colleges, students are on their own to run student organizations such as campus newspapers, intra-mural teams, sororities and fraternities, and sometimes even choirs and dramas.
Leadership skills are acquired both inside and outside of classrooms. They include arts of persuasion, political organization, project management, social infrastructure, and personality discernment. Big institutions give a few students chances at leadership, but small campuses pull just about every willing volunteer into a quick learning curve. What’s more, big institutions expect high results which involve narrow focus. If you’re a football player in a big university even academic work takes second place. On a small campus, in one year, a student can be on a sport’s team, foreign language club, religious organization, and also have a campus job.
I lament the passing of each and every small college. I’m sorry for the community traditions that will be displaced, for the level of esteem that a college brings to a town, and for the students who tend to bring a town to life. Most of all I am sorry for the shifts in educational focus away from character development.
We can see the debilitating effect of having people promoted into positions of power who do not have character to match.
So, on this unhappy occasion, let’s give thanks to the United Methodist Church for giving us MacMurray College for 174 years, with 170 graduating classes of women and men who can ride horses as well as sing and preside at council meetings, who know how to calculate equations and enunciate quotes of Euripides, who have read widely and critically, and who have made the world a better place.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.