Slashing humanities degrees; preparing for a queen sacrifice?

Greetings from a rainy, chilly northeastern Virginia day. I’m buried on work, especially on climate change and AI, but wanted to note this story as I keep modeling post-peak higher education.

College_of_Saint_Benedict_and_Saint_John's_University_sealsIn Minnesota is a pair of campuses, the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, which, while separately named and around five miles apart, are closely linked, even to the point of sharing the same board of trustees.  Those trustees just approved a proposal from their combined president to cut a series of majors, concentrations, and minors.  Almost all of these are in the humanities, according to local radio news:

The list of majors being phased out includes Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Gender Studies, and Theater (minors will remain in these programs). The Dietetics concentration in Nutrition and composition, performance, and liturgical music concentrations within music are also included.

Language and area studies in particular met the chopping block:

Language majors and minors being phased out include French, German, Latin, and Japanese. Asian Studies, Chinese, Greek, and Peace Studies programs will disappear entirely.

Why is this pair of campuses taking such a step?  I can’t find arguments about an overall financial crisis, yet Inside Higher Ed says the cuts are about enrollment within those programs, as well as overall enrollment slipping:

The provost of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University has cited overall enrollment decreases and specifically low enrollments in these courses…

The linked institutions’ enrollment has dropped 25 percent over the past 15 years…

Provost Richard Ice… provided charts showing that, among the majors being eliminated, dietetics has 29 students enrolled, peace studies has 10 and all the rest have fewer.

In addition, there’s this statement from the president: “President Brian Bruess … says reducing the courses available will allow resources to be shifted to popular degree programs and keep the placement rate up.”  Provost Ice concurred:

“It was about prioritization,” Ice said of the program cuts. “We [have] a number of programs that are large and growing, and some of them, I’ll grant you, are in the professional programs. But we did not have the resources to move into those areas of high demand by students, and so this was about repositioning.”

College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University mapped

Why does this matter for the broader picture of higher education, beyond the particularities of this academic entity?

We can see the general trend of declining humanities majors expressed here.   There is also the strategic principle of withdrawing support from programs serving relatively smaller numbers of students, compared to other departments at the same institution.  Enrollment changes overall and within units are key.

Is this a queen sacrifice, when an institution cuts tenure-track faculty?

That’s harder to say.  According to Inside Higher Ed faculty cuts have already been happening, and some more are on the way:

Ice said the changes will mean 25 fewer full-time-equivalent positions, but the linked institutions have already reduced about 20 of those positions, including through retirements. He said there’s an ongoing incentivized retirement program.

The article describes these positions in terms of FTE, but not tenure status, so it’s not clear how many were, say, full time contract employees without tenure, or a mix of adjuncts.  If the retirements don’t cut enough instructors, are layoffs in order?  That is the main way of reducing spending.

According to Wikipedia the two campuses employ “300 full-time; 52 part-time” faculty.  Just assuming full time instructors, these cuts represent roughly 8% of the whole.

In other words, this *could* be a queen sacrifice in operation, or one about to happen.

As I keep saying, watch for more of these.

(thanks to Jason Green @ Mastodon)

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2 Responses to Slashing humanities degrees; preparing for a queen sacrifice?

  1. sibyledu says:

    That Wikipedia number is outdated. According to IPEDS, the two colleges had 273 FTE faculty in Fall 2021. They reported 232 full-time faculty, of which 185 (80%) were tenured or tenure-track. So depending on how they are counting, they might already have eliminated the 25 positions (if you start from the 300 full-time base point as given on Wikipedia), and they might easily reach a reduction of 25 positions from their current position without laying off tenure-track faculty.

    But once again I ask, like Abraham arguing with God about Sodom, how many righteous (tenure-stream) faculty constitute a queen sacrifice? If they lay off ten, or eight, or two, is that still a queen sacrifice? If they lay off eight and then hire ten new, some of which are outside the humanities, is that still a queen sacrifice?

    And if we assume, for the sake of argument, that they are correct and that students just aren’t enrolling in those majors, then what choice do institutions have? Why should institutions subsidize instruction in French and German when they need to find funds for student services like mental health as well as for faculty in growing programs?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I hesitate to stand before a deity, but do wrestle with Chronos, so I’ll answer: just a few tenure-track faculty count as a queen sacrifice, given their status.

      “if we assume, for the sake of argument, that they are correct and that students just aren’t enrolling in those majors, then what choice do institutions have?”
      I’ve put this question to academics and gotten interesting responses.
      Some respond that a university must be a UNIVERSE-ity and cover the full range of human thought, and that can mean offering majors with supporting faculty even when they don’t attract many students.
      Others say the major enrollment argument is part of a certain management style which isn’t realistic – i.e., the institution as a whole should be the unit of decision, not individual departments.
      Still others say it’s a question of time. Arabic language and early modern philosophy aren’t winning high enrollments now, but they have in the past and will likely do again.

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