Sapping the humanities: a possible alternative to the queen sacrifice

Ohio State University sealIf campus leaders want to cut programs, how can they do so without terminating departments and faculty?  A potential answer comes from Ohio State University, where humanists argue that a new enrollment strategy discourages students from taking certain classes and majors.

Specifically, goes the argument, that strategy discourages first-year students from taking humanities classes and signing up for those majors.

Here’s some data:

English professor Alan Farmer, who has a bachelor’s degree in economics, crunched some numbers last fall. Based on university admissions reports, he found that, from 2010 to 2015, the number of humanities majors who paid admission fees had dropped by 49 percent, with yearly declines ranging from 6 percent to 20 percent. A new university enrollment plan took effect in 2010. Before that, from 2005 to 2010, the number had grown by 14 percent.

49% in just five years is a big, big drop.  I wonder how much can be attributed to the recession.

University leaders don’t exactly disagree with the data:

[OSU’s vice president of enrollment services, Dolan] Evanovich, along with College of Arts and Sciences Executive Dean David Manderscheid, said humanities faculty members aren’t doing as good a job as other departments in encouraging accepted students to actually enroll at Ohio State. The yield, or percentage of admitted students who decide to enroll, is more than 35 percent university-wide, but “in the 27 range” for the humanities…

So perhaps the drop is actually happening, but it’s the humanists’ fault.

If this decline is happening, why does it matter?

Fewer students taking humanities courses means fewer dollars, which could mean fewer course offerings, making it harder to attract good students and instructors — a death spiral.

A spiral which culminates in axing faculty, staff, and programs.  Consider this a medium-term strategy for cutting back the humanities, if it’s true.

There’s more, a Two Cultures politics:

[Farmer] and others suspect other factors at work. They suggest political pressure in favor of STEM or a desire to boost Ohio State’s average ACT score by admitting lots of students with high math and science scores.

I don’t know OSU well enough to determine if Farmer’s argument has merit.  It certainly sounds plausible, and the rationale is credible.  Note that the linked article mentions financial stresses and cuts already in place:

A year ago, the [Arts and Sciences] college faced a $10 million deficit and department heads were blaming Manderscheid. Since then, a budget cut of about 3.5 percent and a large number of retirements…

If we accept that such a strategy is possible, is it in place at any other institutions?

(thanks to Roger Schonfeld for the link and Wikipedia for the OSU seal)

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9 Responses to Sapping the humanities: a possible alternative to the queen sacrifice

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    Looking at this from another direction, what colleges and universities are holding the line with humanities and other at risk programs? Not a dead cert, but I have the impression that humanities are faring well or at least holding their own UC Davis. I’m tempted to float a query (bearing in mind, of course, the habit of denial)


  2. Those yield numbers don’t make sense to me. There’s something going on here below the surface.


  3. Phillip Long says:

    It’s clearly a complicated story. There are some institutions where a strategy to drive up humanities course numbers -or perhaps to hold their own in the face of STEM growth- involves requiring high AP scores to opt out of first year writing or writing intensive courses. This pushes course numbers up to meet created demand. The humanities need to sustain instructor numbers to meet this demand.

    I suspect you’d find that an analysis of the probability of subsequnt course success based on a high AP english score versus a middle level AP score (i.e., a 5 vs a 3) earned on entrance to the freshman year would show very little difference in susequent performance. That was in fact the findings of such an analysis of AP scores in STEM core courses we did. I doubt that would surprise anyone.

    More likely is the description given in the IHE article about John Warner’s switching to contract grading trying to make writing a relevant process to the lives of first year students rather than an exercise in pleasing an instructor (the link you Bryan and Darren Cambridge shared on FB to the piece by John Warner about students not being coddled just defeated.)


  4. Concerned OSU Faculty says:

    Ohio State follows the money. Plain and simple. View from the inside.


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