Budget Cuts Continue to Threaten College Humanities Programs

Last month, SUNY Albany announced a plan to eliminate several humanities programs in response to millions of dollars of cuts in state funding. Programs facing the chopping block include classics, theater and multiple foreign language departments. Coming on the heels of similar cuts at universities across the country, the news prompted a series of debates on the tangible and intangible benefits of humanities education.

Liberal Arts

Humanities Face Cuts Across the Country

Earlier this summer, the University of Minnesota announced plans to turn away many Ph.D. applicants who would receive financial assistance such as university fellowships or teaching positions. The humanities were hit the hardest, with over a 100 fewer students admitted in literature, language and the arts. Spots were not reduced for students who could pay their own way, or applicants for high-demand research areas such as the biomedical sciences.

Over at the University of Iowa, a provost-appointed task force has been reevaluating graduate programs in light of the university's need to save money. In a report published earlier this year, the task force highlighted 14 troubled programs that should be reduced or even eliminated. Half of those programs are in the humanities, including German, American studies, comparative literature and film studies.

And now another institution is making big cuts. In October, the State University of New York (SUNY) Albany announced plans to phase out five departments in the next two years: Classics, theater, Russian, French and Italian.

SUNY Albany has stated that it was forced to make tough decisions in response to a major drain in state funding. The school lost more than $33 million over the past three years, and it expects another $12 million reduction this year.

In a statement released at a town hall meeting of students, faculty and staff, University President George Philip declared that, 'Given the University at Albany's reduced revenue base, it is critically important for the University to rethink, balance and reallocate resources to support its core academic and research mission. Non-strategic and opportunistic short-term measures are simply not compatible with operating an organization on a sustainable basis.'

And just as we've seen with the University of Minnesota and the University of Iowa, when resources get reallocated, the humanities get cut.

Financial Benefits

Do the Humanities Pay for Themselves?

The wave of departmental cuts has sparked fierce debate on the tangible and intangible benefits of the humanities. It's easy to point to the fiscal benefits of scientific and technical research fields, such as federal grant monies and potential patent revenue. But defining the value of the humanities is a much more challenging process.

In July, Eva von Dassow, a professor of classical and Near Eastern studies at the University of Minnesota, became an Internet sensation when someone released a video of her impassioned defense of the humanities to YouTube. In three short minutes in front of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, von Dassow criticized the university's choice to cut programs and faculty positions before reducing the high salaries of sports coaches and university vice presidents. She claimed that the quality of the programs had nothing to do with them being cut - they were simply standing in the way of the university's goal of 'starving certain parts of the university in order to feed others.'

Ultimately, von Dassow argued that financial returns are a dangerous way to evaluate academic programs, and that 'pruning the tree of knowledge' will certainly set back the institution's stated goal of becoming one of the top three public universities in the world.

Von Dassow isn't the only academic coming out in support of humanities education. Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, recently released an op-ed in The New York Times to accompany her book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

The article focuses on the importance of the humanities for a democratic society. 'To keep democracy vital,' Nussbaum argues, 'we urgently need the abilities that the humanities foster.' These abilities include critical thinking skills, respectful debate, the ability to evaluate good and bad arguments and the ability to 'examine tradition and prejudice in a Socratic spirit.'

But Nussbaum also highlights the essential role that the humanities play in fostering economic prosperity. She argues that many nations have found that 'the cultivation of the imagination . . . is essential to fostering creativity and innovation.' And these intangible skills, along with the analytical and critical thinking skills mentioned above, are all key to promoting a healthy business culture.

Nussbaum's argument is supported by a 2009 study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), which found that employers were generally dissatisfied by the quality of career preparation in American postsecondary institutions. What's did the association say was missing? The skills acquired in a broad-based liberal arts education.

It's clear that the humanities offer invaluable benefits to both society and the economy. But fostering knowledge, creativity, innovation and critical thinking is difficult to measure against the monetary value of patents and grants. And as long as the debate is centered around a short-term need for more dollar signs, the humanities may continue to face deep cuts in American academia.

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