Higher Education

rhetoric, the humanities, and service departments

MLA’s Profession has a interesting new article by Christopher Newfield: “The Humanities as Service Departments: Facing the Budget Logic.” I recommend that you read it, but I will give a brief summary here.

Using the examples of SUNY Albany’s closure of language programs and Middlesex’s closure of its philosophy department, Newfield investigates and critiques the budgetary logics and arguments employed to justify these actions. In part he argues that administrators overlook or devalue the revenue generated through instruction, which is to the detriment of arts, humanities, and social sciences. As we know, typically faculty in these disciplines do not generate a lot of grant money (though their research typically costs the university nothing but their salaries) but they do teach a lot of students, though often those students are not their own majors.

The other interesting point he makes has to do with institutional perspective on return-on-investment: basically the logic that even if a department is generating revenue through instruction that doesn’t mean the money invested there might not be better invested elsewhere in terms of ROI. This logic is used to defend decisions to invest in STEM, though Newfield argues that in many cases that research doesn’t produce a profit. To the contrary, STEM research, despite the grant money it generates, costs the university money, money that it takes from instructional revenues or endowments. Ultimately, Newfield calls for faculty to insist on more transparency in these fiscal decisions and to become more involved at this level.

We can all agree these are complicated matters. Lacking the transparency of which Newfield speaks, I don’t know how this all works out at my institution. I do know, as was the subject of some recent local conversation, that UB spends $20M a year on athletics. In some ways, the conversation is analogous. It begins with asking, what is it that we hope to gain from this investment? Ideally, we would say that the objective of a university is to educate people and to produce knowledge about the world without any thought of turning a profit. Indeed, as it was in the old days, such objectives at public universities would rely upon significant taxpayer support… because we were (are) providing a service to society as a whole. Those days appear to be gone, at least for the moment.

So instead, in asking this question about ROI, we begin with knowing that we’re a tuition-driven institution. We bring in research dollars, but as Newfield points out, that money actually costs us money, just as big time athletics at most D1 institutions runs at a loss. As best as I can figure it, the hoped-for gain is in reputation or, put more crudely, brand recognition.

To give a personal example, my daughter is a high school senior, so we’ve just been through the college visit and application process. She applied to a number of large state universities (as well as some private ones). By the yard stick of US News, UB is the lowest ranked of the ones to which she applied. Are Michigan State or Rutgers better schools than UB? Are Tennessee and Oregon worse? Who knows? We are all aware of the problems of such rankings. And yet, every potential student has to make decisions about where to apply and then ultimately where to go based on some sense of what makes for a good school. This is the market in which universities compete.

So getting grants, having a visible athletics program, offering degrees in sought-after STEM and professional fields: these things all work to increase the reputation of the university. They attract more students and students with stronger academic records. Or at least that’s the theory. These students, we hope, will be more successful in terms of graduating on time and getting good paying jobs, which in turn feeds back into the university’s reputation. So if the university is aided by admitting students with higher test scores who then go on to make higher salaries, then the logic dictates that it should seek out students in STEM (and to invest in those disciplines). As a rhetorician, I feel like I’ve heard this story before, just on a disciplinary-department level, where the economics of the department are driven by the service work of composition but the reputation of the department is perceived to be driven by literary scholarship. In other words, rhetoricians have long been in this situation of having their work devalued as service.

Short of changing the entire dynamic of the way universities function is there a solution, a way for the humanities to thrive in this environment? Newfield doesn’t really offer an answer to this question. His solution, which is maybe the only one, is to convince state and federal government to change the way it funds higher education. I can offer an equally daunting approach which would involve restructuring undergraduate curriculum, where the distinction between major and non-major curriculum would be blurred. In part this might require devaluing the organizational structure of disciplinary departments. My point is that there’s no reason to presume that the institutional structures we created in the 20th century will work in this century. That doesn’t mean that we should simply dispense with them either. I would guess that trying to convince the public to change the way it funds higher education might involve some substantial restructuring of what we do.

It’s a tough argument to make. It’s always easier to change yourself than to change others, but that doesn’t mean changing yourself is easy, especially if the change you’re making is to something that you identify as a core element of your identity.

So I’ll just offer this up as a thought experiment. Maybe its just an exercise in dystopian thinking. What would an English department that thrived in the university Newfield describes look like? Not just one that rested on its historical reputation or managed to pay for itself, but one that actually was attractive in terms of the ROI logic of the university that plunks millions into semi-professional athletics?


2 replies on “rhetoric, the humanities, and service departments”

Nice response to the article Alex. I would note two things. One, does the lack of state funding actually take away from STEM fields? We know that in order to fully support stem, a lot more state money is needed. The Humanities and Arts defray the costs of STEM, and in that sense, we are helping to subsidize a system that is not being fully subsidized by states. The second thing is about sports. Andrew Zimbalist is an Amherst profesor who has been studying athletics and branding for a very long time, and his studies show that sports helps with branding in at best, 10% of the cases (i.e. a school’s reputation ramped up alongside sports). He also shows however that some schools develop what he calls a “loser’s sheen.” A school like Rutgers loses so much in sports, and this tends to tamp down applications to what is otherwise a fine school. Finally, he looks at the schools that have dropped football, like Boston U., and the schools that never had it, like UC San Diego and various other Cals, and determines that the decision to opt out of financing football does not hurt branding.


Thanks. I wasn’t familiar with Zimbalist’s research. I didn’t mean to suggest I was in favor of the investment in D-1 sports but only that the purpose of it appears to be to attract students. It wouldn’t surprise me if the results are mixed at best. (BTW, Rutgers grad, class of ’91.)

As to your first question, I don’t know. That’s the kind of question we could answer if we had the transparency that Newfield calls for. I suspect that our STEM colleagues would suggest that the lack of state funds does injure STEM. That is, if the state supported SUNY the way it did 30 or 40 years ago, then STEM departments would have more money than they do now too.


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