Stony Brook launches a queen sacrifice by cutting humanities and humanists

Stony Brook University seal, via WikipediaStony Brook University, a leading American university and member of New York’s SUNY systemis cutting back on the humanities.  It’s another example of what I’ve been calling a queen sacrifice, as an administration reduces academic programs and professors.

One component of Stony Brook’s strategy shuts down or fuses several humanities departments:

Specifically, the departments of European languages, literatures and cultures; Hispanic languages and literature; and cultural studies and comparative literature will be combined into a single department of comparative world literature. The move involves suspending a number of undergraduate majors and graduate degree programs within those departments. The undergraduate major in theater arts also is suspended.

Some of these closures and consolidations were announced this summer.

This move then leads to getting rid of faculty, including both adjuncts and tenure-track professors:

In addition to planned reductions in non-tenure-track faculty lines, three assistant professors of cultural studies in good standing within their department have been told their contracts will not be renewed past 2018. Two additional faculty members in theater have received similar notices of nonrenewal.

Stony Brook is making other cuts as well: “[President Samuel L. ] Stanley also announced that balancing the budget will entail a 3 percent decrease in academic personnel, a 6 percent decrease in administrators and a 10 percent spending cut across other areas.”

My readers will be unsurprised to learn the reason for this sacrifice is financial.  Things have changed after a generation of expansion, economic growth, rising reputation, and giant contributions.  “Lauren Sheprow, a university spokeswoman, said via email that like many research universities across the U.S., Stony Brook is ‘faced with some new and unanticipated budget constraints.'”  Being a public institution in New York, Stony Brook’s financial problem is bound up in that state’s politics:

Stony Brook blames its nearly $35 million budget deficit, in part, on the SUNY 2020 Grant Challenge. Passed in 2011 by the New York Legislature, the $140 million initiative enabled Stony Brook and other campuses to hire faculty members and make additional investments. Revenue has since declined, however, creating a shortfall.

To make up that shortfall, “a mandate from President Samuel L. Stanley, Jr. requires [the College of Arts and Sciences] to decrease spending by $3.5 million”.

Enrollment plays an important role here, as you’ve all heard me say repeatedly.  Back to the campus spokesperson: “Sheprow…  noted that new fall 2017 enrollments in the reduced academic programs were low…”  As the president put it in speaking to faculty, “I think we really have to make decisions based on enrollment”.  Recall that New York state is one that’s not growing a K-12 population, nor are surrounding states.

Note that the strategy doesn’t just consist of cuts.  As with other cases, some financial savings shift towards other disciplines, ones that seem more likely to generate revenue and student numbers: “Meanwhile, Stony Brook is adding 13 other tenure-track faculty lines, mostly in the natural sciences.”  As one dean put it,

[Sacha] Kopp repeatedly stated that these cuts were made with the college’s strategic goals in mind. “The word strategic does imply that we’re going to be adding resources to program A because it can help lift us up as a campus. And that might mean that we take the resources from program B,” he said.

This story offers another case of an American campus cutting faculty without declaring financial exigency.  (That’s a key term for the American Association of University Professors, referring to situations when an institution is in dire enough financial straits where layoffs become a survival strategy.  The AAUP can sanction campuses that ax faculty without that declaration.  Stony Brook had made no such declaration.)

I’d like to close with several observations.

  1. That shift from humanities to STEM faculty – do we have a term for this yet?  In business terms, it looks like a correction.
  2. Note that Stony Brook student athletics are unaffected.
  3. These cuts don’t exactly match the university’s commitment to diversity.
  4. This isn’t a major personnel cut for a university of Stony Brook’s scale.  These are fewer than ten tenure-track faculty and some unknown number of adjuncts, out of an instructional population close to 2,500.
  5. Are we still saying everything’s fine in American higher education, or have we generally accepted that we’re in crisis?
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6 Responses to Stony Brook launches a queen sacrifice by cutting humanities and humanists

  1. crosenfi says:

    Re: “Are we still saying everything’s fine in American higher education, or have we generally accepted that we’re in crisis?”

    Higher Ed has an opportunity to adapt to a model that includes not only STEM subjects alongside the Liberal Arts curriculum, but trades knowledge, abilities, and skills as well, as I’ve heard is done sans stigma in European colleges. We are very close to the point with new technologies, such as AR and VR, that the Liberal Arts and more praxis-oriented knowledge and skills could and should be synthesized. Anything else is unfair to our future graduates. So, yes, we are in crisis, but it’s a real opportunity, and I say that with no irony or wistfulness for past perceptions of what should be considered “scholarly” and what shouldn’t. It’s time for change.

    • What a finely ambitious response, crosenfi. Do you think we can successful combine studies with practice?

      • Absolutely. Apprenticeships with a proper mentor already accomplish this goal and have been around since people have needed to learn. The most significant obstacle I see is getting the “Trades” educators and the “Liberal Arts” educators working together. And that solution needs to come down “from the top.”

        I had one terrific experience working with an employee in our College’s Print Shop to learn how to make a chapbook using Adobe InDesign and their professional printers. It was a challenging project for the students, but they ended their semester with a book of their poetry that they created themselves, practically from start to finish.

        Also, the owners of large design and manufacturing and design companies, when asked what kinds of skills they would like students coming out of college to have, they don’t focus on things like being able to design in CAD or somesuch technology; they say that they need people who know how to communicate, process new information, and collaborate. This requires a graduate who can think deeply and have traits such as empathy, consideration, and appreciation for differences in people and in their ideas. All this, from my personal college experience, is gained from learning about other philosophies, cultures, psychological traits, and personal experiences.

        At the same time, I’ve had students strongly request to learn technology-based skills, such as web coding, by working on one project in a Humanities course for a few weeks, when it takes a talented student several years of dedicated study just to get to the point where they would be employable in this field.

        It certainly won’t be easy, but I believe it’s the only logical path forward for higher education to be successful as a place of “higher learning” and worth its cost in time and money.

  2. tcherner90 says:

    I wonder what the tuition increase was, if any… Also, has the AAUP ever litigated a university in the way alluded to? I like the notion of this situation being part of a larger “correction” in higher ed. There’s been shifts to STEM in society and education. Think we can make a better move to STEAM?

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