Cuts to Higher Ed Humanities Departments Will Only Hurt Students, Experts Say

September 20, 2012

Two institutions of higher education—Emory University and Queensborough Community College—are making cuts to their humanities programs and departments. These schools are two examples of how higher education is placing less value on the humanities and the liberal arts in an effort to become more competitive and desirable in America’s science, technology, and practicality-obsessed job market. But experts say that reducing or eliminating humanities courses, programs, or even entire departments is spells trouble for students and their future careers, because it narrows their perspective and deprives them of essential skills that only humanities courses can provide.

The Emory Wheel reported on Tuesday that Emory College (a school within Emory University) has decided to eliminate its journalism program, Department of Visual Arts, and Division of Educational Studies. In addition to these cuts, Emory College will change the structure of its Institute of Liberal Arts and suspend or eliminate several of its foreign language programs. Robin Forman, the Dean of Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences, stated in a written announcement last Friday that the school's resources are stretched and that these changes will allocate resources “in the most effective manner to further [Emory’s] academic mission”. Forman also wrote that the funds previously reserved for these programs and departments would be directed towards “core disciplines of distinction” and fields of contemporary significance, including digital media studies, modern China, and neuroscience. His statements indicate a shift in Emory University’s academic direction away from softer subjects such as the arts, and more towards so-called practical subjects such as science, technology, and foreign relations.

An even more controversial educational incident regarding a cut to an institution’s humanities programs is the decision of Queensborough Community College—a division of the City University of New York—to reduce its basic writing classes from four hours per week to three, reports The New York Times. This decision is a part of CUNY’s Pathways program, which aims to cut university costs and increase efficiency and cohesion within the university system. The faculty of Queensborough’s English department voted against this measure. Department lecturer Elise Denbo stated, “We support our students. […] Sometimes they need extra time.”

In response to this opposition, Queensborough’s interim vice president Karen B. Steele wrote to the English faculty, declaring that the college’s writing program would be cut altogether, adjunct English faculty members’ contracts would be canceled, and the administration would review full-time faculty members’ employment. While Steele wrote a subsequent letter apologizing for her statements and stating their hypothetical nature, the college’s reaction to its English departments’ protestations and support of their students’ academic needs marks the CUNY system’s view that even a subject as essential as writing can be dispensable when prioritizing school budgets and more lucrative fields of study. Interim Queensborough president Diane B. Call stated in an interview on Monday that the college would reduce English composition class sizes and hire more faculty members in order to ensure that students still receive the writing instruction they need. Nevertheless, as Queensborough’s English department pointed out, these reductions would not apply to students at four-year colleges, and thus the changes will inevitably impact students’ learning in a negative way.

Emory and Queensborough’s move to reduce the resources available to their humanities departments is evidence of a concerning trend in higher education—that is, an increasing disregard for humanities subjects, from more niche fields such as journalism to central subjects like English composition. This disregard can have serious consequences, as Washington and Lee University president Kenneth P. Ruscio points out in his article in The Christian Science Monitor. Ruscio argues that the needs of American students today are largely the opposite of what American higher education is giving them. He argues that by neglecting the humanities, colleges and universities are teaching students how to amass and to some extent utilize great quantities of information, but neglect to show them how to synthesize information, make connections between concepts, and communicate their understanding effectively. “When I left teaching a few years ago,” he quips, “I was writing comments like these: ‘Congratulations on the mass of data you have discovered. Unfortunately, you have no thesis or central argument. I have no idea what you are trying to prove.’” The purpose of higher education, Ruscio asserts, is to teach students how to think for themselves and make sound decisions based off of the knowledge they gain. And by hindering or eliminating the humanities, colleges and universities are only damaging their ability to teach their students these essential skills.

Compiled by Kaitlin Louie


"College English Dept. Fights Class-Time Cuts," nytimes.com, September 17, 2012, Ariel Kaminer

"Emory Shuts Down Departments," emorywheel.com, September 18, 2012, Evan Mah

"Why a liberal arts education is the best job preparation," September 19, 2012, Kenneth P. Ruscio

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