Can the humanities survive budget cuts?

Mississippi’s state auditor recently released an eight-page report suggesting the state should invest more in college programs that could “improve the value they provide to both taxpayers and graduates.”

That means state allocations should focus more on engineering and business programs, said Shad White, the auditor, and less on liberal arts majors like anthropology, women’s studies and German language and literature.

Those graduates not only learn less, Mr. White said, but are also less likely to stay in Mississippi. More than 60 percent of anthropology graduates leave to find work, he said.

“If I were to advise my children, I would say first of all, you need to find a degree program that combines your passion with some kind of practical skills that the world really needs,” Mr. White said in an interview. (He has three young children, far from college.)

For years, economists and more than a few concerned parents have argued over whether a liberal arts degree is worth the price. The debate seems to be over now, and the answer is “no”.

Not only are public officials like Mr. White questioning state support for the humanities, a growing number of universities, often with the help of outside consultants, are now putting many prized departments — art history, American studies — on the back burner. They say they face obstacles, including students fleeing to majors closer to employment.

West Virginia University recently laid off 76 people, including 32 tenured faculty members, as part of its decision to cut 28 academic programs — many in fields such as languages, landscape architecture and art.

Several other public institutions have announced or proposed program cuts, mostly in the humanities, including the University of Alaska, Eastern Kentucky University, North Dakota State University, Iowa State University and the University of Kansas. according to on The Hechinger Report, an educational magazine.

Miami University, a public institution in Oxford, Ohio, with 20,000 students, is reevaluating 18 undergraduate majors, each with fewer than 35 students enrolled, including French and German, American studies, art history, classical studies and religion.

These departments are smaller than computer science, which has 600 enrolled students; finance, with 1,400; marketing, with 1,200; and nurses, with almost 700.

For the humanities faculty, “it’s an existential crisis,” University of Miami vice chancellor Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix said in an interview. “There is so much pressure around return on investment.”

She said she hopes the subject, if not the majors, could be saved, perhaps by creating more interdisciplinary programs, such as cybersecurity and philosophy.

The change has been happening for decades. In 1970, according to federal statistics, education and combined social science and history degrees were the most popular majors.

Today, the most popular degree is business, with 19 percent of all degrees, while social sciences lag far behind with only 8 percent of degrees.

Many of the courses on the endangered list are also at odds with the increasingly conservative political agenda. And many public universities are reluctant to invite further scrutiny of their already stagnant state subsidies.

At the University of Miami, degrees in critical race and ethnic studies, social justice studies, and women, gender, and sexuality.

Mr. White, the Republican state auditor, said his first question was whether the state’s spending on graduate programs matched the needs of the economy. But he said he also wanted to know, “Are we paying or using taxpayer money to fund programs that teach a professor’s ideology, not just a skill set about how to approach problems in the world?”

Liberal arts professors try to defend themselves, using arguments tailored to a rapidly changing economy — while appealing to a clearer vision of life’s possibilities.

In a recent YouTube video — bluntly titled “Is a Humanities Degree Worth It?” — Jeffrey Cohen, dean of humanities at Arizona State University, defends his field as a path to not just a job, but lifelong career reinvention.

“Our students are living in a time where the career they trained for probably won’t be the career they’ll be following 10 years down the line,” says Mr. Cohen. Studying the humanities, he claims, will teach them how to be nimble.

In a recent panel discussion in New York sponsored by the Plow, a quarterly Christian magazine, Roosevelt Montás, a senior lecturer in American studies and English at Columbia University, suggested that universities should push back against a strictly careerist view of education.

“It’s not true that all students want a job from college,” he said. They are hungry for an education that “transforms them, an education that applies to the whole self, not just to the bank account.”

But that argument seems to falter almost everywhere.

Harvard, which has an endowment of over $50 billion, formed a strategic planning commission to deal with humanistic education. One idea, a university spokesman said, would consolidate three language subjects into one super subject: languages, literatures and cultures.”

There is also collateral damage. In early October, Gettysburg College closed The Gettysburg Review. In its heyday, the magazine, founded in 1988, featured writers such as EL Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates and Rita Dove. More recently, it prides itself on publishing up-and-coming writers.

The magazine’s editors, Lauren Hohle and Mark Drew, were caught off guard when the college’s provost told them they were fired.

“She said we’re not serving the core mission of the college,” Mr. Drew recalled. “I wanted to say, ‘What is the core mission?’ I thought this was a liberal arts institution. But I tried not to be a dick.”

To Mr. Drew, The Review, with about 1,100 paying subscribers, was a symbol to the outside world of the college’s commitment to the humanities. But for the university’s president, Robert Iuliano, the review was a money pit that may have boosted the college’s reputation among the literati, but at the cost of the student body.

The magazine was making about $30,000 to $40,000 a year in subscription revenue, “and operating costs are about five times that,” he said.

“We really thought hard about what it means to prepare students for today’s world,” he said, “because you know, it’s changing at such a rate.” That means, he added, offering courses that could be paired with “hands-on experiential opportunities.”

Mr. White, State Auditor of Mississippi, graduated in political science and economics from the University of Mississippi before becoming a Rhodes Scholar and graduating from Harvard Law School—perhaps a good example of the value of the liberal arts.

But if he could do it again, he might change his major, he said, because “political science majors don’t have a high salary.” Working on a campaign or in government can be more valuable experience than a degree, he said.

Mr. White said that he personally would like to play acoustic guitar for a living. But he doubted his chances of success, given the small number of jobs.

Then he seemed to reconsider, admitting, “If you dig into the data, music majors do pretty well for whatever reason. They go to work in schools, they go to work in college or they work in churches.”

So, on reflection, he softened his message. “What I would say to students is don’t write off the liberal arts,” he said. “Don’t write off all fine art.”

Robert Gebeloff contributed to the research.

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