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The War on Liberal Arts Education


Even in a relatively good economy, college after college is seeking to turn their institutions into a vo-tech program and eliminate the liberal arts and, in some cases, the social scientists. The latest is the University of Tulsa, which at one time and not that long ago, actually had a really great History department.

In an impassioned speech Friday afternoon, University of Tulsa anthropology doctoral student Nkem Ike outlined the damage she says will occur to the local community if the TU administration moves forward with plans to cut her program.

Ike is part of a team of students and faculty conducting research related to the Tulsa race massacre, and she said the department recently received a grant from the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission to further build upon its efforts.

But last week she learned that the doctoral archaeology program, along with degrees in such areas as geology, theater, history and indigenous law, will be phased out. The move is part of what TU has branded the “True Commitment” and a “reimagining” of which degrees TU will offer.

So Ike and about 200 others whose majors are affected participated in a “funeral,” complete with a homemade coffin, on the Chapman Commons outside Collins Hall.

“We didn’t want this work to stop with us, and that’s what I think is the hardest thing to stomach is that there aren’t going to be people coming in after us doing this work,” Ike said. “They keep telling us we’ll get our degrees, but it’s not about that for us. I just think it’s a real shame that (future students) are going to miss out on the opportunity to get to engage in this.”

Ike and Diana Williams, a theater senior who helped organize the “funeral,” said she and faculty members in her department were “blind-sided” by the news of the cut to their program.

“Cutting these programs sends a message to the Tulsa community that TU is becoming something other than a liberal arts college and something other than what TU was before,” Williams said.

She and Ike questioned how programs to cut were selected and called for transparency from the 10-member Provost’s Program Review Committee, which in February submitted recommendations to Provost Janet Levit.

In a previous interview with the Tulsa World, Levit said each of the planned changes is “focused on student success.”

Where “student success” = “pleasing the uber-rich.”

The real scary part of this is going to come during the next recession. At that point, it wouldn’t surprise me to see dozens if not hundreds of schools eliminate most of their humanities departments as part of budget cutting exercises. As for what this means long term–if you think there are going to be historians to tell the story of the Trump administration, you are probably mistaken. As there are fewer PhDs and fewer history professor positions, the stories we tell become automatically far more limited and the resources to tell those stories dry up. That’s the future. I only hope I can survive the coming onslaught until my retirement, but I’m not overly confident.

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