In yet another short-sighted move by a higher-education institution, the University of Providence announced that it will be shuttering 19 programs, primarily in arts and humanities disciplines. Providence is not alone, as institutions across the country are considering or have already made such cost-cutting moves.
Colleges and universities are under tremendous pressure to operate more efficiently, as the cost of attendance already saddles students with crippling debt. The most obvious way to reduce costs and stabilize tuition is to cut programs. Politicians have certainly latched onto that idea, including Matt Bevin, Governor of Kentucky, who has called for the state to prepare more electrical engineers and fewer French literature majors. an announcement that likely inspired both Western Kentucky University and Eastern Kentucky University to prune their humanities offerings recently.
(Yes, that Matt Bevin, the one Al Roker called a nitwit today for saying that America was “going soft” for canceling school with temperatures approaching -20 degrees. And, yes, the headline of that article should say “fewer French literature scholars” rather than “less”. But let’s get back to the point of this post.)
As Chair of a fast-growing STEM department, I’ve presided over a period of increased local and national emphasis on science and technology that has been extremely favorable to our enrollment numbers. The push for resources for STEM education has been going full-steam for most of this century. In 2000, then-Presidential candidate George W. Bush called for forgiving almost $350 million in student loans for students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The acronym STEM was first used in political circles around 2005, and it became part of national headlines in 2008. STEM programs have been sprouting up in seemingly every school district, which has helped fuel a rapid increase in the number of students studying STEM fields in the nation’s colleges and universities.
Unfortunately, the tremendous gains in STEM enrollment have come at a time of decreased enrollment overall, meaning that there has to be a loser in this trend. Indeed, there is: the number of graduates in traditional liberal arts subjects such as English and History fell 15% between 2008 and 2016.
Recent performance statistics should not be considered an indicator of likely future trends. It would be inappropriate and highly damaging for higher education institutions to view them as such. In fact, only if they eschew the hallmark benefits of a liberal arts degree – the joining together of critical thinking and creativity to solve problems of nuance and subtlety – will institutions of higher learning choose to interpret the recent growth of STEM and corresponding shrinkage of non-STEM as a fait accompli.
Unfortunately, many educational institutions seem to be doing just that. And their faculty and administrators, sensing this wave, aren’t doing much to help dam it.
I have presented a number of new programs lately related to Computer Science that my department faculty have designed. These are programs with great potential to grow and to distinguish our university as a STEM hub. We have designed these programs because we are passionate about our field and just as enthusiastic about sharing that passion with as many students as possible. At no time did we ever consider the possibility that our innovations would rob others at the University of much-needed and much-deserved resources.
And yet, I’ve started to grow wary of what may indeed be a zero-sum game. The argument goes like this: if your program is approved to go forward, what other program will be cut to make room for it? Put in those terms, it’s hard to remain enthusiastic about pursuing educational initiatives.
I don’t feel that way out of a sense of guilt or a desire for equity. Believe me, the way some faculty I’ve encountered in higher education circles define “equity” is anything but. What bothers me about this condition – this perceived state of affairs that may, in fact, describe the reality of the current dynamics of higher education – is that it offends the very nature of knowledge itself. It fundamentally ignores its interconnectedness, erecting skill silos in place of inquiry, recipes to follow in place of ideas to pursue.
Asking which academic program will be sacrificed to make room for a new, shinier one seems akin to asking whether we need to remove literature from the human experience because more people today want to watch movies instead. No academic pursuit exists as an island, just as no body of knowledge does. Done properly, even the most vocational of baccalaureate programs must challenge its students to consider the human context in which they will apply their skills. Otherwise, why not just have robots do the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? The technology might not be ready for that yet, but we can surely get there. Should that be our goal?
I challenge academic institutions, from their Boards of Trustees to their Administration to their faculty, to celebrate the richness inherent in the traditional university model. The mission of a university should be to curate and contribute to knowledge in all its forms so that its graduates may faithfully serve humans and their institutions. A transactional model for higher education, a zero-sum game in which programs come and go based on market demand rather than persist because of their discipline’s enduring and intrinsic value, fundamentally compromises that mission. There must be History majors. We must graduate English majors. Thespians and musicians, theologians and philosophers, political scientists and sociologists, psychologists and economists: the future needs all of these experts. The future, like the past, will necessarily be a human experience.
Higher education must embrace that.