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Public Higher Ed and the Real Value of Arts and Humanities

In a time of disinvestment and other budget pressures, these programs are too often the first to be cut. But they are where students learn to have difficult conversations in an atmosphere of free inquiry and expression.

Drama students
Drama students learning their craft. Theater programs are among arts and humanities disciplines being reduced or eliminated at public universities around the country. (Shutterstock)
It’s been a bad few months for free expression at public universities, and not just because of campus controversies over the war in Gaza.

Across the country, arts and humanities programs are being axed in a misguided attempt to balance public university budgets. From New York and North Carolina to North Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin, we are seeing academic departments, degrees and faculty reduced or eliminated.

That’s bad for the diversity of ideas that is a prerequisite for an environment of free inquiry on campus, and it’s a blow to the rich intellectual traditions that help us understand how humans relate to each other, tell stories, remember histories and make sense of our lives and our collective futures. In a time of global conflict, domestic protest and democratic uncertainty, the insights that stem from the arts and humanities are more urgent than ever.

The pattern of program cutting has been stark. In August, the president of North Dakota’s Dickinson State University revealed a plan to cut a wide swath of undergraduate degrees, including in English, communications, political science, music and theater. The following month, West Virginia University (WVU) became the first flagship state higher education institution in recent memory to make significant program cuts, eliminating 12 graduate programs, 28 majors and more than 140 faculty jobs, including degrees and courses in six foreign languages.

Later in September, the State University of New York at Potsdam (SUNY Potsdam) announced plans to eliminate 14 academic programs, including majors in art history, dance, French, Spanish, philosophy and theater. In North Carolina, a new law has made arts and humanities professors ineligible for state-funded distinguished professorships at public universities. And University of Wisconsin System (UW) President Jay Rothman recently suggested that UW should “consider shifting away from liberal arts programs to programs that are more career specific, particularly if the institution serves a large number of low-income students.”

Austerity-based program cuts at universities are nothing new, and humanities and arts programs have often been at the forefront of those targeted for contraction or elimination, though the recent cuts represent a certain intensification. With a move toward disinvestment in higher education rampant in state legislatures and private universities facing budgetary challenges of their own, these are difficult financial times for many institutions of higher learning.

But even where cuts of some sort may be unavoidable, the choice to slash arts and humanities in particular risks dire consequences, especially for free inquiry, free expression and academic freedom.

An environment of robust free inquiry on campus requires that students have access to a broad array of ideas and disciplines. More than any other programs on campus, disciplines such as literature, history and theater require a serious engagement with competing ideas and ideologies. Moreover, these disciplines offer ways of looking at the world that are ultimately practical: If America is to retain its innovative edge, everyone needs to be able to write and think creatively regardless of the profession they may end up entering. College should be about more than vocational education.

Courses in the arts and humanities are where most students learn to have difficult conversations and consider other perspectives. These disciplines serve as laboratories for democracy by modeling an effective public sphere for the rising generation and by pushing the bounds of empathy and understanding.

Those disciplines are also under attack via an organized campaign in state legislatures to ban discussions of race, gender and identity in the classroom, remove tenure protections and rewrite general education curricula. At New College of Florida, the public institution’s new Board of Trustees is attempting to eliminate the gender studies program on explicitly ideological grounds.

Unlike these political threats to academic freedom, however, the cuts at WVU, SUNY Potsdam, Dickinson State and elsewhere are not motivated by ideological concerns (although Dickinson State President Steve Easton has connected the cuts with his opposition to tenure protections). Just like legislative attacks on campus free expression, though, the elimination of arts and humanities programs at higher-education institutions silences voices and experiences and impoverishes campus discourse.

As Kelly Ward, a WVU creative writing master’s degree student, noted during the board hearing on the university’s cuts, ending its Appalachian studies program would result in “the erasure of Appalachian voices and Appalachian stories.” The motivations for these cuts may be different from those of the culture warriors, but the effect is the same: West Virginia students who cannot afford out-of-state tuition will lose access to an entire discipline.

Disinvestment and other financial challenges leave leaders at public and private institutions with hard choices. But where universities respond by denying students access to humanities and arts disciplines — to the broadest array of ideas and perspectives — they are making a dangerous decision. Heated campus controversies over the current war in Gaza are throwing into stark relief the dire need for students to learn to productively debate across differences in perspective and world views, to develop understanding and empathy. These are precisely the skills the arts and humanities foster.

Jeremy C. Young is the Freedom to Learn program director at PEN America, which advocates to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. Jacqueline Allain is the program coordinator for Freedom to Learn at PEN America.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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