Who will advocate for the next generation of heritage professionals? A cautionary tale for university preservation programs

Losing a historic structure is a sad thing. Losing generations of folks to expertly protect cultural heritage is much, much worse.

This past week, Louisiana’s Board of Supervisors for higher education rubber-stamped a proposal from Northwestern State University of Louisiana to eliminate the university’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees in heritage resources just as these groundbreaking interdisciplinary programs were hitting their strides. The Master of Arts in Heritage Resources (MAHR) was on track triple its number of graduates in the next year.

In full disclosure, this is a highly personal story for me. My wife ElizaBeth (tenured, and just promoted to full professor) developed and heads up the MAHR program. She will ironically be the only faculty member eliminated along with that program. Her equally competent counterpart in the Bachelor of Arts in Heritage Resources (BAHR), Julie Ernstein, is a dear friend who will be the only person to go with that program.

I’ve watched ElizaBeth and Julie work tirelessly over the last few years to create an environment where their students can enjoy an Ivy League educational opportunity at a state university. The programs have succeeded with graduates who are contributing to cultural heritage throughout the United States in really big ways.

Disposing of two uniquely sustainable programs and the two people that made them that way makes no sense on any level. But, when budgets are tight, university administrations will stick to what they can get their heads around. The importance of cultural heritage is highly individual and not so easy to communicate as Save the Whales.

The fact is, no university heritage preservation program can truly call themselves “safe” in these times. Consider what MAHR/BAHR had going for them:

  1. These low-cost programs brought in a half-million dollars in grants during their brief existence. Their 2007 grant proposal to the Board of Regents was ranked first in the state.
  2. The MAHR program partners with local organizations to pay half the cost of graduate assistantships. No other NSU graduate program brings in this kind of money, so it’s odd that MAHR is the ONLY graduate program eliminated in this plan.
  3. Local heritage organizations have gone on record that they will fundraise to keep heritage resources at NSU alive. That Natchitoches Historic Foundation has endowed one scholarship for the MAHR program and was about to fund another.
  4. The MAHR program is NOT a low completer by La. Board of Regents standards. In fact, it’s considered a program on the rise.
  5. When MAHR was placed on the “review” list, the program was supported with dozens of letters, phone calls and personal meetings from the community. Folks care about this program.
  6. The interdisciplinary concept for these programs was developed here at NSU and is now being replicated at universities across the country. Guess those folks will now become the torchbearers for this important legacy.
  7. If not for the recovery operation mounted by the MAHR/BAHR students, faculty and alumni, the contents of local Bayou Folk Museum would have been totally lost when the Kate Chopin House was destroyed by fire in 2008.

It’s easy to write this off as a casualty of Louisiana’s perpetual dysfunction at all levels. In this case, the university took the initiative in cutting this completely unique program before the Board of Supervisors/Regents (which is asking for $20 million in cuts from higher education institutions) made any implications about what should go, though their early directives emphasized eliminating duplicate programs.

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Northwestern State University Heritage Resources students at the salvage of the Bayou Folk Museum in 2008. Many of author Kate Chopin's original works were recovered by the program's students, faculty and alumni.Losing a historic structure is a sad thing. Losing generations of folks to expertly protect cultural heritage is much, much worse.

But the fact is that if this could happen to a high-quality, nationally respected and emerging program here, it could indeed happen anywhere. As governments hint at dramatically reducing deficits over the next several years, it’s clear the necessary cuts will be trickling down to the rest of the nation–just as they did in Louisiana–with potentially disastrous consequences for heritage preservation education.

If folks in cultural heritage want to make sure there is a next generation to fill their shoes, protecting quality educational programs is going to have to be a part of everything we do. Professionals in archaeology, historic preservation, landscapes, architecture, etc., will have a present a unified voice to advocate for these programs worldwide. With the emergence of the social web, we’ve got the tools to make this a reality, so the fate of the MAHR/BAHR programs doesn’t have to happen again.

For me, this particular situation is worse because the University is my alma mater and that I was born in the Cane River region of Natchitoches Parish, La., where this is all going down. I’m proud that my home is one of the few places in the U.S. with the diversity of heritage resources and organizational partnerships that could support these kinds of programs so well. And right now, I’m very afraid for it’s future.

Even when things have not been historically good in Louisiana, we could always look to our cultural heritage as a source of pride. But our heritage is jeopardized every time our state encounters another disaster. Right now, NSU heritage resources students and alumni are on the ground in the middle of the oil crisis, safeguarding our heritage resources with the skills and training they learned here.

Such a proud and important legacy. And one sadly cut way too short.

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