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Pennsylvania public universities seek innovative ways to teach humanities as interest wanes

(Photo via PennWest)

Elaine Povich, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
January 8, 2024

Second in an occasional series on academic changes in state-funded colleges and universities. Read the first part.

Last year, Ashley Lawson, a communications major at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, had to take a journalism class online, even though the professor teaching the course was on her own campus.

Lawson was in the class with students from Lock Haven, Bloomsburg and Mansfield universities, which had been integrated in 2022 under the name Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania to reduce costs. The state schools had been running in the red and losing student population.

“All the journalism classes are forced to be taken online,” Lawson, 25, said in a phone interview. “Even though in the ‘Writing for Mass Media’ class, almost the entire class were all Lock Haven students, we were taking a class online via Zoom, even though our professor was right there on campus.”

As state universities across the nation face budget troubles, declining enrollments and pressure to cut humanities courses and majors that have few students, some university systems are searching for innovative ways to restructure majors or entire universities.

The schools aim to continue teaching the humanities while also reducing costs and focusing on students getting jobs after graduation. For some schools, that means integrating the humanities into science or technology majors. For others, it means offering online humanities courses to students spread out on multiple campuses.

But the changes have sparked protests from some students and faculty who say the cutbacks will harm the quality of the courses and reduce the number of professors.

 Nick Marcil, far right, and Ashley Lawson, fourth from right, join fellow students at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg to protest consolidation of six state universities. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Lawson)

Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that to survive, the humanities must adapt.

In a 2020 piece for Inside Higher Ed, Mintz wrote that supporters of the humanities must defend the value of the studies both in “purely intellectual terms — as a way to … strengthen the capacity to think, contextualize, reason and reflect at a very high level,” while also engaging with the sciences and professional skills.

For example, he said in a recent interview with Stateline, a pre-med course could include literature on pain and illness, the history of medical and public health, and an art history class on representations of the body. “We felt that those who are going into health sciences should include things they ought to know,” he said.

Universities would need to train professors and set curriculum to integrate the humanities, he added.

“The humanities can speak to bigger issues than we typically speak to,” he said. “In a real pre-law integrated curriculum, that’s about ethics and law and about every facet — that’s a wonderful thing and the students will be really good lawyers when they come out.”

Some state schools, such as West Virginia University, are cutting back humanities programs. Some are folding humanities courses into other majors, such as at the University of Maryland, where a new “PPE” major combines philosophy, politics and economics. In Pennsylvania, where another three state schools — California, Clarion and Edinboro — were combined to become Pennsylvania Western University in 2022, the integration saved $2 million.

And the University of Arizona a few years ago created a degree in “applied humanities,” which includes courses in business administration, public health and game studies.

The degree offers students professional skills along with “cognitive, creative, international, interpersonal and intercultural intelligences and competencies taught in the humanities,“ the school says.

The percentage of bachelor’s degrees conferred by four-year institutions in the humanities dropped from 16.8% of all degrees in the 2010-11 school year to 12.8% in 2020-2021, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

And state spending on higher education fell in 16 of the 20 most rural states between 2008 and 2018, when adjusted for inflation, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research and policy institute.

Pennsylvania consolidations

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein said in an interview that sharing programs, services and procurement saves money.

“It’s not just humanities, it’s physics, chemistry. These would be hard to sustain in a smaller school,” he said. Greenstein said there are opportunities to employ faculty differently with “programming and course sharing that we could not do before.”

Greenstein said that smaller branches of state universities must focus on helping graduates get good jobs and improve their standard of living. “Our job is to ensure that our graduates have the skills they need to pursue lifelong learning and to launch them into the marketplace. We provide people with the tools to continue to learn.”

But consolidation also can cause job losses.

study of the planned restructuring of the Pennsylvania higher education system, done by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2021 before the consolidation took place, noted that the plan would mean “large cuts in staffing, both of faculty and of professional and classified staff in good unionized jobs,” amounting to 14% of overall employment. That would hurt the economies of the areas around the consolidated schools, including both job loss and tax revenue decline, the study predicted.

At Lock Haven, 23 faculty members received letters saying their jobs could be cut at the end of the 2023–24 academic year, according to the Association of Pennsylvania State College and Universities Faculties, the union that represents faculty members and coaches.

Nick Marcil, who got undergraduate and master’s degrees in education and higher education policy from West Chester University, another Pennsylvania state school, joined protests on campus and in Harrisburg in 2021 against the consolidations. Protesters called on state lawmakers to direct more funding to higher education. That, he said in an interview, might have staved off the consolidations, which he said would lead to insufficient online classes and fewer faculty members.

“Our job is to ensure that our graduates have the skills they need to pursue lifelong learning and to launch them into the marketplace,” said Dan Greenstein, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor.

Marcil is now an organizer with Debt Collective, a nonprofit group that seeks to lower or cancel student debt.

Greenstein, the Pennsylvania state system chancellor, disagreed that online classes are lesser ways to learn than in-person courses with instructors. He said pandemic changes taught universities that online learning is in some cases preferable, as it allows flexibility.

Other efforts

At the University of Maryland, which has seen a decline in students signing up for humanities classes and majors, administrators are moving to integrate studies of language, visual arts and creative arts into other part of the curriculum.

The new PPE major combining philosophy, politics and economics drew more students last fall than philosophy as a stand-alone major, with 164 majoring in PPE and 46 in philosophy, according to Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities Stephanie Shonekan.

“We discovered that students are really looking for pathways to figure out ways that they can take humanities and find their way into a career,” she said in an interview. “This takes the traditional fields and makes them make sense to students.”

She also pointed to an immersive media design major, or IMD, which is a collaboration between the studio arts department and computer science. “They learn how to be creators and designers in a way that is very 21st century,” she said. “Some come at it from the computer side, some from the arts side.” That major can lead to careers in gaming platform design, filmmaking or the immersive arts, she said.

At the University of California, Berkeley, there is no shortage of students interested in the humanities: The number of first-year students declaring majors in the arts and humanities was up 121% in 2022 over the previous year.

The school promotes the humanities by reframing the question of what purpose it serves, such as by talking about the impact of artificial intelligence on society, according to Sara Guyer, dean of Berkeley’s division of arts and humanities.

Enrollments are increasing in areas “where there is an artistic or creative component,” particularly in film, music, theater and dance, said Guyer, who is also director of the World Humanities Report, an organization that promotes the study of the humanities. However, Guyer said that in more traditional areas such as European literature, there has been less growth or even a decline.

She said Berkeley is working hard to communicate with students and potential students about the usefulness of the humanities by bringing in alumni who have successfully worked in careers after being humanities majors, recognizing strengths in the humanities in applicants for admission and communicating with the public about the courses the school offers.

“When I talk to students, I find that we are living in a moment where there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” she said. “STEM questions are humanities questions.”

“Climate change is another one,” she said. “We can develop a huge suite of technological changes … but without culture and deep understanding of humans and human experience, what will happen?”

She said science fiction writers, for example, are always thinking about the future and what can happen. “That’s the way humanities and what appear to be scientific questions come in contact with each other.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.