Reprioritizing and Reallocating: Tulsa’s Cuts to the Humanities

“Education, however, is like the most good and noble companions who stay by your side right up to death”

 τῆς δὲ παιδείας καθάπερ οἱ καλοὶ κἀγαθοὶ τῶν ἀνδρῶν μέχρι θανάτου παραμενούσης –Iamblichus

A twitter correspondent reached out to me to let me know about a series of cuts planned at the University of Tulsa. The major education news sites have not reported on this yet (although the philosophy blog The Daily Nous has a write-up). In the Arts, the theater degrees are done and gone as well are a bunch of music performance majors; under the ax from the Division of Humanities: A History MA, minors in Greek, Classics, Russian, Latin and Linguistics; the BA in Philosophy, the BA in Religion. Vocational programs are not spared: from education, the program in Deaf Education has been axed. Also cut are legal programs for Native Americans (connected to the region and the school’s historical founding as a Presbyterian school for young women of the Creek Nation).

Now, the webpage insists that faculty members were consulted during this process and that no tenure-track faculty will be eliminated. As someone who has seen similar processes contemplated at a public University, such a guarantee is blithe misdirection: many of these programs were likely taught by contract and contingent faculty; faculty lines will likely not be replaced as people retire.

We also need to talk about this: Tulsa is a private university with an endowment of over a billion dollars as of 2017. I know little of the school’s internal finances, but this is not a crisis like others. (Although, I would imagine the opening of a new college of Health Sciences in 2016 and the continued operation of a law school has strained the finances. Here is an excellent thread mentioning some of the bad financial decisions which were made over the past decade). Politically motivated elected officials have not demanded the school make these cuts; financial exigency caused by lower contributions from the state or federal coffers has not made these cuts necessary. No, a Board of Trustees populated almost entirely by CEOs and lawyers has decided to re-brand the school as a “STEM University”.

What kind of arrogant and ignorant twaddle is this from a leader of an educational institution! To imagine that the sciences and the humanities can function effectively without one another is to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the history of ideas or the way that intellectual inquiry actually proceeds. I would suggest for this board and this provost a nice moral tale like Shelley’s Frankenstein, but I fear they would not have the patience to finish it.

To put it kindly, this is a heist. This is a surgical and intentional reshaping of a private University into a vocational school for business and industry. Beyond the crass, soul-crushing love of profit behind this move, there is a deeper peril: these subjects are domains that are critically misunderstood in modern political discourse. How many of our recent discussions are mere repetitions of madness with no historical memory? How impoverished is our public understanding of religions (domestic and ‘foreign’)? Given recent events, can anyone claim that an ignorance of Russian language and history has no peril? And Philosophy? Who needs to think about what it means to be a human being when we are so stoked to invest all our money in making bigger more beautiful toys and pumping up that quarterly revenue?

“Greed considers what it wants not what is right”

Quod vult cupiditas cogitat, non quod decet  –Publilius Syrus

Note, I have not yet spoken of the elimination of the Classics program. The Majors seem safe, while the Minors are being cut. Now, I would suggest that cutting Minors is not, well, a minor thing. It forces students to choose, deprives them of a good option, and narrows the credentials and experience a program can offer students without actually achieving any real savings. The elimination of a Minor is a first step in undermining and delegitimizing a major. Ok, simply put: there is no financial reason to eliminate minors. This is about curtailing student options.

Attacking the Liberal Arts and centering the studies we call the Classics as ‘useless’ is by now a typical polemical trope. As Erik argued recently, this is a class-oriented attack from those who have access to this kind of education against those who don’t. And, as I suggested last year, such an attack is our capitalism on steroids quashing the only disciplines capable of mounting a successful critique of its own self-heralded manifest destiny as the only system which can bring human beings “freedom”, “happiness” and “efficiency”.

The closing of Liberal Arts programs and the Classics at some Universities and not others is one small component of the immense cultural machine re-establishing an intellectual caste system. These closings communicate and reinforce the idea that ‘these subjects’ are only for people who can afford it. In a country where class and race are braided together in an oppressive rope, the closing of programs at some schools and not others is a reassertion of a racist hegemony.

Public institutions are facing these cuts all the time. The storied and successful classics program at the University of Vermont (where both my siblings are alumni and my sister majored in Classics) has been threatened with poorly justified cuts (There is a petition opposing this). But this is not just happening at secular institutions: the Jesuit affiliated Wheeling has published plans to cut most of its liberal arts staff. This is not a new playbook. One of the alleged reasons President Teresa Sullivan was forced out from UVA in 2012 was her resistance to the Board of Visitors’ plans to eliminate the departments of German and Classics.

This is in part connected to the specious and insidious long-term attack on non-vocational and non-Stem higher education; and it is also a feature of a strange blend of American cultural imperialism (who needs to learn to speak other languages when dollars are in English) and nativist isolationism (press 1 for English; press 2 for English; press 3 to vote for Trump and for English).

But it is also not just a Republican problem (even though Republican-led legislatures in a majority of states have gutted public funding for education over the past few decades): from 2013-2016 over 651 language programs were closed at the collegiate level. The passage of No Child Left Behind, which codified and made permanent the stripping of content and critical thinking from pre-collegiate education, was bipartisan. And President Obama supported problematic initiatives like the common core and a higher education ‘Scorecard’ which included an unsurprising albeit depressing emphasis on employment outcomes.

“The examination of words is the beginning of education.”

ἀρχὴ παιδεύσεως ἡ τῶν ὀνομάτων ἐπίσκεψις -Antisthenes

Tulsa

This is a problem of values, our sense of what our community is beyond the transactional, and who we think counts as a human being. Just look at the cowardly bureaucratic language of Tulsa’s infographic: “These changes are about reprioritizing and reallocating our resources to support those programs with the greatest demand”. Here is the patronizing and prevaricating justification: “The PPRC simply acknowledged and acted upon what our students have been trying to tell us for years. In most cases, our students have already voted with their feet.”

This is the full metempsychosis of higher education into a consumer model but without a deep understanding of the cultural and economic trends that influence student choice. Or, the way that institutions have learned to guide student feet away from student majors from (1) the way they recruit, (2) the way they promote themselves, (3) the way they orientate their students, and (4) they way they advise them.

 “Socrates, when asked what is sweetest in life, said “education, virtue, and the investigation of the unknown”

Σωκράτης ὁ φιλόσοφος ἐρωτηθεὶς τί ἥδιστον ἐν τῷ βίῳ εἶπε· „παιδεία καὶ ἀρετὴ καὶ ἱστορία τῶν ἀγνοουμένων”. GnomVat

 

There’s still some hope out there: after a year of struggle, the decision to close a large swathe of Liberal Arts programs at the University of Wisconsin Stevens point has been reversed. I don’t know how much protest matters, but I know it does. When a Dean at Brandeis University, where I work, tried to close the Department of Classical Studies and eliminate Greek altogether, faculty stood together in revolt and opposed that decision. But that worked at Brandeis because faculty governance matters here; a majority of faculty members still have the protection of tenure; and we were facing a manufactured controversy instead of an actual one.

But sometimes the voices of faculty go unheard. Sometimes they don’t have the freedom to speak because they fear for their contracts.  So, in what is now proving to be a regular act, let’s support the students and faculty at Tulsa who have been thrust into this madness without asking for it. Sense, argument, and emotional appeals don’t seem to move administrations much anymore. But sometimes noise still does.

“You must learn as long as you are ignorant, if we may trust the proverb, as long as you live”

Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas –Seneca

Here is a good thread about it:

 

7 thoughts on “Reprioritizing and Reallocating: Tulsa’s Cuts to the Humanities

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