By Emily S. Tai
Two years ago, I reported that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker began his campaign to “reform” public higher education in his state by removing the long-cherished Wisconsin Idea from the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement. While this particular effort was foiled by the Wisconsin State legislature, the Governor was able to remove tenure guarantees from state law, replacing older safeguards to faculty employment and research with a new indication that any professor could be terminated “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.”
Wisconsin Brain Drain
Wisconsin’s elimination of tenure inspired the immediate departure of at least one source of new and original ideas in public higher education: Sarah Goldrick-Rab, whose Wisconsin Hope Lab blazed trails in raising awareness about the economic struggles of American college students. Goldrick-Rab now teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia. Governor Walker’s decision was praised by members of the Wisconsin Board of Regents as a means to give them “flexibility,” in a time of financial crisis. The governor’s policy decision has been criticized, however, by those who worry that the new state of job insecurity within the University of Wisconsin system will not only send current faculty packing but discourage other, innovative researchers from even applying for jobs.
Scholars Need Not Apply
At the University of Wisconsin-Superior, however, it’s not even clear there will be any jobs to apply for. Recently, the University announced that it would be eliminating nine academic majors and fifteen minors in such areas as Political Science, Chemistry, Art History, and Sociology. While administrators have insisted that students currently enrolled in these programs will be allowed to finish, and that no faculty layoffs loom on the horizon, the move at Wisconsin-Superior is consistent with trends in other states. This fall, Matt Bevin, Republican Governor of Kentucky, also recommended cutting humanities programs that might not be “helping to produce that 21st-century educated workforce.” Bevin has also imposed limits on Kentucky’s community college-scholarship program, which, like CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), or New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship, makes college more affordable for state residents. But program cuts have also been occurring close to home. This fall, the President of New York’s State University at Stony Brook announced plans to collapse several programs in language and literature into a single department, despite fierce faculty opposition. Even elite, private institutions have not been immune, as Johns Hopkins University announced plans to eliminate its program in Russian this fall, as well.
While Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker didn’t finish college, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin did. Bevin attended Washington and Lee University, and majored in East Asian Studies. Indeed, an international study conducted by the British Council in 2015 found that 55% of the world’s leaders studied a subject in either the humanities or a social science.
So when a college announces plans to cut programs in the Liberal Arts and Sciences, are they really trying to train tomorrow’s leaders?
Or are they merely training tomorrow’s followers?
Emily S. Tai is a professor of History at Queensborough Community College who serves on the UFS Executive Committee, and edits the UFS Blog.
The UFS Blog is a forum for CUNY Faculty, and welcomes the expression of all points of view.
Like the UFS Blog on Facebook.
Photo: The Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library, Creative Commons 2.0