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The death of Birmingham-Southern College will cost us


The death of Birmingham-Southern College will cost us

Apr 23, 2024 | 7:55 am ET
By Conner Hayes
The death of Birmingham-Southern College will cost us
A photo of Birmingham-Southern College's campus. (Birmingham-Southern College Communications Department)

Birmingham-Southern College, a Wall Street Journal “2024 Top Liberal Arts Colleges” institution; a college that battled for its existence for nearly two years; an institution jerked around by a fickle and unsympathetic state Legislature, has finally and formally been declared dead.

Who delivered this deadly diagnosis? We did.

Who is responsible for this sordid murder of Alabama’s most significant educational institution? We are.

For too long, we as a society have allowed the classical liberal arts educational model to be cast to the wayside in favor of the pre-professional, specialistic university model.

The reason listed for Birmingham-Southern’s demise: financial insolvency.

A couple bad presidents; several foolish, failed spending projects and a depleted endowment.

But hard times fall on all businesses, even prestigious, historic educational institutions. Why didn’t the college receive help from the state of Alabama? Why didn’t we find a way to salvage this mess and pull through?

The principal argument against the state “bailing out” Birmingham-Southern is rooted in the traditional conservative creed of a “survival of the fittest” free market, in which failed businesses flounder should they fail to survive on their own merits.

No handouts, no bailouts. Just good ole’ fashioned American meritocracy.

But Birmingham-Southern is not a typical “business.” Applying an economic perspective to evaluate an educational institution — an entity whose primary values and impact lies beyond the purely fiscal realm — is foolhardy, dishonest and dangerous.

We cannot and should not allow this important historically rich educational institution to be discarded because of a bad balance sheet. Invaluable intellectual and personally edifying experiences cannot be judged by mere monetary analysis.

Don’t bail out “Bill’s Auto Shop” if it can’t cover its overhead costs and capsizes. Let the competitive free market run its course and weed out the weak.

But to view Birmingham-Southern as any other private business is a gross intellectual disservice and moral failing of the gravest kind.

Moving hearts, shaping minds, and forging a hallowed haven for free-ranging, soul-enriching exploration and scholarship is not a task reducible to math. One cannot conduct a proper evaluation of Birmingham-Southern simply by utilizing calculators.

Let our businesses die if they fail. That is not the argument here.

Do not let our historic, prestigious, impactful educational institutions crumble while we callously look on, unsympathetic to their plight while we cite rote financial statistics, rationalize its coarse treatment in light of its “private business” tax status, and disregard our very humanity in our decision-making.

If any cause deserves to be “bailed out,” this is, without question, that which is deserving of a helping hand by a state that cannot afford to be devoid of the vast value Birmingham-Southern brings.

This travesty is a price we — and future generations – will pay for dearly.

Each state possesses at least one prestigious, historic liberal arts institution. In the South, Tennessee has Sewanee and Rhodes. Kentucky has Centre. Georgia has Oglethorpe. Mississippi has Milsaps.

These institutions provide a crucial alternative to the university model, which prioritizes pre-professionalist specialization at the expense of wide-ranging exposure to various fields of knowledge.

These small, private liberal arts institutions allow the curious-minded student to intimately explore a diverse, dynamic curricula, providing students the opportunity to find themselves and their path naturally rather than find themselves conscripted on any rigid avenue “fast track” to grad school or preselected employment.

Birmingham-Southern, and so many other wonderful liberal arts institutions like it, encourages students to look at “the big picture.”

During my time at Birmingham-Southern, I majored in literature, minored in sociology and played collegiate basketball. Encouraged to explore my creative passions by an English professor who identified my talents, I discovered my true calling as a writer and storyteller. I wrote my first novel in the summer between my sophomore and junior year (an autobiographical dramatization of my time at BSC as a student).

The college’s cruel murder is felt most deeply by us who have witnessed the magic this little college provides firsthand and who remain forever marked by its powerful touch to this day.

The reverberations of Birmingham-Southern’s death will be felt in the Birmingham community locally, in the South generally, and in our nation as a whole as we chop away at classical liberal arts educational values and watch as, one by one, these small private colleges disappear.

By allowing its most prestigious private liberal arts institution to flounder, Alabama has now cemented itself (seemingly gladly doing so, wearing their damning decision as a perverse badge of pride) to be, in fact, dead last.

I cannot help but find the cruel irony in my alma mater’s mantra: “Forward, Ever.” I can only hope that this calamity sparks a critical cultural conversation so such sinister stupidity is never allowed to triumph again.

While Birmingham-Southern continued its march into a future of progress and hope — ever hopeful, ever seeking to continue blazing its brilliant torch of knowledge and light — the society around it insisted on stifling its beautiful flame.

Shame on the Alabama Legislature.

Shame on the imprudent institutional stewards who drove this wonderful college’s finances into the ground.

Shame on our society for not recognizing a golden gem and refusing to save it.

Shame on us all.