Colleges defend humanities fields amid tight budgets

? Like many humanities advocates, Abbey Drane was disheartened but not surprised when Florida’s governor recently said its tax dollars should bolster science and high-tech studies, not “educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology.”

Drane, a 21-year-old anthropology major at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has spent years defending her choice to pursue that liberal arts field.

And now, as states tighten their allocations to public universities, many administrators say they’re feeling pressure to defend the worth of humanities, too, and shield the genre from budget cuts. One university president has gone as far as donating $100,000 of her own money to offer humanities scholarships at her school.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s comments last month cut to the heart of the quandary: whether emphasizing science, math and medical fields gives students the best career prospects and a high-tech payback to society, and whether humanities fields are viewed as more of an indulgence than a necessity amid tight budget times.

“You can definitely feel the emphasis on campus, even just based on where the newest buildings go, that there is a drive toward the sciences, engineering and (the) business school,” said Drane, a senior from Plymouth, Mass. “I’m constantly asked what job opportunities I’ll have in anthropology or what I’m going to do with my degree, and I tell people that it’s giving me a skill set and critical thinking you can apply to anything.”

Humanities studies peaked in U.S. colleges in the 1960s and started dwindling in the 1970s as more students pursued business and technology and related fields. Today, more than 20 percent of each year’s bachelor’s degrees are granted in business; in humanities, it’s about 8 percent.

Liberal arts colleges, too, have declined. A study published in 2009 by Inside Higher Ed said that of 212 liberal arts colleges identified in 1990, only 137 were still operating by 2009.

At Amherst College in western Massachusetts, a healthy endowment makes closing the doors a remote possibility at best. But its president, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, experienced the same concerns about the humanities in her previous job as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was tapped this year to serve on a commission for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences to review the issue.

Martin said many universities struggle with declining enrollment in those fields.

“There are more and more people in higher education — and I hope political leaders — who are understanding that an over-leaning emphasis on the sciences to the expense of the humanities is not a good thing for the country,” she said.