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Last week's tour of state universities by Kansas legislators gave policymakers a chance to ask questions, and it gave university officials a chance to make their case for what they do and why they deserve state funding.
Almost entirely missing from the conversation was the teaching and research in the humanities, arts and social sciences, which historically have distinguished KU and have played a critical role at universities for more than 100 years.
During the tour, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, Provost Jeffrey Vitter and others pointed to patents its researchers have generated, startups that have spun out of university ventures and new corporate partnerships. They took legislators on a tour of research labs and business incubators.They bragged about the increase in engineering students and talked of the need to invest in the medical school so that the university can produce more doctors.
Yet KU officials and legislators mostly skipped over -- both rhetorically during presentations and physically in the tour -- its research and teaching in fields without a technical or commercial component.
Tim Caboni, KU's vice chancellor for public affairs, said he didn't think the humanities, arts and other facets of the university's role were "absent from the the conversation" and that the university frequently works "to articulate the importance of the humanities." But at the tour, Caboni said the officials were responding to "a different set of issues."
Focus on value
Much of how the university made the case for state support came down to the direct economic returns the university provides: jobs, business investment and workforce training, with the emphasis on technical and scientific fields where there is a strong demand for labor. The national conversation about higher education follows similar lines in looking at the dollar-for-dollar return on a college degree. In August President Obama proposed reforms that could tie student financial aid to such markers as graduation rates, tuition price and the incomes of graduates.
Ann Cudd, the vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies at KU and a distinguished professor of philosophy, said KU administration "can make the case at many levels" for higher education funding, but cases involving direct economic benefits are more likely to be heard by legislators.
While Cudd said she didn't feel the humanities were neglected at KU, the problem might come if all policymakers and the public ever hear are discussions of economic impact. "If they're not out there defending the humanities, we might get to the point where we don't fund the humanities anymore," she said.
Much of the humanities and arts are concerned with things that are difficult or impossible to put a dollar value on. That can leave the humanities and arts largely out of a policy conversation focused on economic returns. "It's a crisis," said Paul Outka, an associate professor of English at KU. "The humanities are often undervalued in our public discourse."
At the same time, Outka said national debates about higher education that exclude the importance of the humanities are "destructive not just to the humanities but also to our economic prospects." A student who can think critically about ambiguous situations and other cultures, who can communicate ideas, who is motivated and who has a finely tuned aesthetic ability, can play an important role in businesses and the economy even if those qualities are hard to define in economic terms.
But with a tough job market for graduates, those skills, with their less straightforward economic value, may be less appealing. Last week the New York Times documented the dwindling share of students in the humanities at Stanford University and other higher education giants. At KU, too, many arts and humanities majors that have been staples of universities have lost students since the recession.
The Fall 2012 semester saw 162 fewer undergraduate English majors enrolled than in 2007, 147 fewer history students, 75 fewer art history students and 210 fewer theater students. Social Sciences such as psychology, communications studies and economics also saw enrollment drop during that five-year period.
At the same time, every individual engineering department increased its undergraduate enrollment. Likewise, in 2013, the engineering school's share of total undergraduate enrollment rose from 7.7 percent in 2007 to 12.1 percent in 2013, and business rosefrom 4.9 percent to 7.6 percent. Meanwhile, the share of students enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences dropped from 72.5 percent in 2007 to 61.8 percent in 2013.
Those departments with shrinking student numbers could face smaller budgets in the future, which would in turn put limits on faculty members and research production. In the humanities and arts, where the federal government spends far less on research and alumni tend to have shallower pockets, cuts could be even more deeply felt than elsewhere. And that ultimately could change the nature and reputation of the university.
"KU has long been seen as especially strong in the humanities," Cudd said. "It behooves us to continue that legacy."