Economizing on the Humanities?

A couple of days ago The Chronicle reported on a University of Iowa faculty task force report on “selective excellence” in graduate and professional education. The task force of 19 professors from across the university grouped all the graduate programs into five categories, ranging from “Exemplary” to “Too New to Assess.” Effectively, the lowest category was “Additional Evaluation Required,” comprising 14 programs (12.6 percent).

The Chronicle article provoked quite a number of responses, mostly concerned with the potential impact of the report on humanities departments, since seven of the programs in the lowest category (those most at risk of elimination or restructuring) were in the humanities: American Studies, Asian Civilizations, Comparative Literature, Film Studies, German, Linguistics. The next largest group in the at risk category was four education programs. It is interesting that the departments represented by the three humanists on the task force were more highly ranked: English (“Exemplary”), Art and Art History, and Spanish and Portuguese (“High Quality”). The criteria for the lowest category included “incongruent mission,” problems in admissions, “program outcomes” such as time to degree, and “program characteristics, such as program size, comparison with other programs, centrality to the University, and plans for the program’s future.” That last criterion includes some completely subjective parameters, of course. The “Additional Evaluation” category comments that its programs “may be candidates for restructuring and/or merging with other related programs. Some programs in this category may become candidates for closure.”  Clearly, the seven humanities programs are at risk.

In principle, I see no objection to rigorous review of graduate programs, so long as the criteria for evaluation are clear and consistent. I find it hard to tell from the text of the report exactly what the criteria were, although it sounds as though efforts were made to find as many objective, statistical markers as possible. The report acknowledges that the National Research Council rankings are not yet available, though apparently some other rankings were used. The bottom line seems to be that the evaluations were based primarily on what are described as “student-based indicators (outcomes such as percent completion, time to degree and placement) more heavily than overall department reputation or productivity.” I may be missing something here, but this seems to me a fairly crude assessment of the educational economics of graduate training programs.

The University of Iowa is certainly entitled to be concerned if students are not completing their graduate degrees or if they’re taking inordinate amounts to time for completion (though it is not easy to define “inordinate” across fields). It is also true, as the report points out, that a relatively small research university (by CIC standards) in a period of constraints on growth “will require strategic focus and enhanced collaboration at curricular, programmatic, and collegiate levels.” It seems reasonable that “some reorganization of graduate programs may increase efficienty while continuing to meet the educational needs of the University.”

I assume that the task force made a good faith effort to be as accurate and fair as possible, and I also assume that there are some objective reasons to place so many major humanities programs in the lowest category — although I have to say that I am surprised to find such large number of traditional humanities fields at the bottom of the listings.

My main question is, however, what the potential elimination or restructuring of such a large proportion of the humanities programing of the University will do to Iowa’s capacity to represent the full range of the humanities both for undergraduate and graduate education? I also wonder whether, if some cutbacks are in response to poor job markets for Ph.D.’s in particular fields, whether eliminating or reducing activity in those fields will not have spillover effects on other departments, on crossdisciplinary work and on undergraduate education generally?

The bottom line is the question of the extent to which the specification of efficiency as the rule of choice in academic decisions may be in conflict with Iowa’s overall educational mission and responsibility? Shouldn’t programs also be assessed in terms of the broader educational mission of the University?

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