November 4, 2023
In recent years, liberal arts departments have been the subject of intense debate regarding their relevance and future. Now, these departments are not only grappling with existential questions but also facing the grim prospect of budget cuts. Disciplines such as French, German, American studies, and women’s studies are under threat, and universities across the country are reevaluating their commitment to these programs.
The state auditor of Mississippi, Shad White, recently released a report advocating for increased investment in college degree programs that provide tangible value to both taxpayers and graduates. White argues that state funding should prioritize disciplines such as engineering and business, diverting resources away from liberal arts majors like anthropology, women’s studies, and German language and literature. He points out that graduates from these fields not only tend to earn lower salaries but are also less likely to remain in Mississippi, with more than 60% of anthropology graduates seeking opportunities elsewhere.
This shift in focus away from the humanities is not limited to policymakers in Mississippi. Universities nationwide, often with the guidance of external consultants, are making the tough decision to cut several cherished departments, including art history and American studies. They are responding to challenges, such as declining enrollment in these programs, as students increasingly opt for majors aligned with immediate employment opportunities.
West Virginia University, for example, recently sent layoff notices to 76 individuals, including 32 tenured faculty members, as part of its decision to discontinue 28 academic programs, notably in languages, landscape architecture, and the arts. Several other public institutions, including the University of Alaska, North Dakota State University, Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Kansas, and Iowa State University, have also announced or proposed program cuts, primarily affecting humanities.
At Miami University in Ohio, 18 undergraduate majors, including French, German, American studies, art history, classical studies, and religion, are under review due to low enrollment. These departments pale in comparison to the computer science program, which boasts 600 enrolled students, and other disciplines with higher enrollment figures. University officials are under pressure to justify the return on investment for these programs, making it an existential crisis for humanities faculty.
The transformation away from the liberal arts is a trend that has been evolving for decades. In 1970, education and combined social sciences and history degrees were the most popular majors. Today, business degrees have taken the lead, accounting for 19% of all bachelor’s degrees, while social sciences lag behind with just 8%. Many endangered courses also do not align with a growing conservative political agenda, putting additional pressure on public universities to justify their state subsidies.
Liberal arts advocates are making arguments in line with today’s rapidly changing economy and a more flexible approach to careers. They argue that a humanities degree equips students with adaptability, critical thinking, and a foundation for lifelong learning, which are essential skills in an evolving job market.
However, it appears that this argument is losing ground in the face of shifting priorities and the focus on job-oriented education. Even institutions like Harvard, with their substantial endowments, are considering consolidating language majors to align more closely with employment trends.
Budget cuts in higher education can also result in collateral damage, such as the closure of programs like The Gettysburg Review. Despite being a symbol of the college’s commitment to the humanities, the review was discontinued due to financial considerations. The changing landscape of higher education demands a reevaluation of how students are prepared for the evolving job market.
In conclusion, the survival of humanities in academia faces significant challenges as universities, influenced by both economic and ideological factors, shift their priorities toward more job-oriented disciplines. As the debate surrounding the value of liberal arts continues, the fate of these programs hangs in the balance.