April 4, 2001

Administrators Discuss the Fading Humanities

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Four of the University’s top administrators reported their concerns about the corporatization of American universities to a small audience in Olin Hall yesterday.

President Hunter R. Rawlings III; Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin; Walter Cohen, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School; and Philip E. Lewis, the Harold Tanner dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, presented talks based on papers that they had given last October at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Each of the four was worried about the effect on the future of humanities’ curriculum due to the federal government’s heavy funding of scientific research. Additionally, they were concerned with the difficulty of humanities’ departments nationwide with asserting themselves as a valuable part of the university system.

Lewis cited the “linkage of research to political and economic goals” as one of the reasons for the corporatization that is taking place in American universities. All four noted that since the humanities do not receive the large amount of research funding bestowed on the sciences, their role in universities has weakened and become less defined.

Faculty hope that the symposium will be the first of many. “We hope for a series of talks on the changing [nature] of universities,” said Davydd Greenwood, Goldwin Smith Professor of anthropology and director of the Institute for European studies.

According to Rawlings, though German schools’ problems are not strictly caused by the increased corporatization of universities, the issues they face are much more difficult than those in the U.S.

In his introduction, Greenwood emphasized that all four speakers originally received their degrees in humanities disciplines.

“Our situation at Cornell is different than I’ve seen it … in that these administrators are confident enough to discuss this topic,” he said.

He also pointed out that, although academics are willing to talk about the disciplines that make up the university, there is a lack of discourse about the state of the universities themselves.

“The academy itself seems off-limits for academic discussion,” Greenwood said.

Rawlings’ talk gave an overview of the decline in percentage of bachelor of arts degrees and graduate degrees in the humanities conferred in American universities, occurring while university enrollment figures have soared from 52,000 in 1870 to 16 million today.

“Campuses are no longer the precincts of a few privileged white males,” he said.

He also said that humanities’ professors have become less and less accessible over the years to the general public, decreasing their visibility in everyday life.

“[Humanities] practitioners talk and write [mostly] for each other,” Rawlings concluded by extolling the virtues of teaching students how to think critically for themselves.

“In my view, the example of the teacher is critical. … That is the most important duty that we perform,” Rawlings said.

Cohen focused on the job market for those who receive their Ph.D.s in a humanities field, noting that they have trouble finding employment in academia.

“It may take a few years of searching,” Cohen said.

In the meantime, he said, the chances of finding tenure-track employment at a university are not heartening. “I’d say, that over this entire period [1975 to 1995], the job market was poor,” he said.

In his paper, Lewis noted that scientific research receives much more funding than any research in the humanities.

“There are concerns about the all-pervasive lure of wealth,” he said.

Using eCornell, the for-profit online distance learning company that will begin to offer non-credit courses in the fall, as an example, Lewis said, “The humanities will be the last group to exploit that technology.” The first offerings from eCornell will be courses from the Hotel School and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“The humanists seem to be the rear guard,” he said.

Martin stressed that humanities departments’ identity should not be viewed as “the conscience of the University.”

“I think that we [should] not place all our bets on what the humanities can do as an ethical leader for scientific discoveries,” Martin said. Rather “the humanities provide an essential service to the University [by themselves].”

The participants hoped that other large, research-oriented institutions would embark on a similar analysis of the state of the humanities.

Archived article by Maggie Frank