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Shock Doctrine: Higher Education Version


Colleges and universities around the nation are using COVID-19 related budget crises to double down on their long existing attack on the humanities and social sciences.

First, the University of Vermont.

Katherine Brennan, a 21-year-old religious studies major at the University of Vermont, checked her inbox Wednesday afternoon to find an ominous subject line: “Changes in the College of Arts and Sciences.”

The six-paragraph email announced that UVM would be eliminating more than two dozen of the college’s low enrollment academic programs to address a “substantial budget deficit.” The message arrived just before one of Brennan’s classes, which, ironically, she said, was on the importance of studying religion.

“My professor had to hold class after he had just been told that his job was theoretically on the line,” Brennan told Seven Days. “He was working through all of it just as we were. All of us were shocked.”

Unveiled at a time when many students are finishing the semester from home, the dramatic restructuring plan announced Wednesday would phase out 12 majors, 11 minors and four master’s programs — or one-fifth of the college’s offerings. The impacted programs have graduated or enrolled an average of fewer than five students over the last three years, according to Dean Bill Falls, who wrote in an email to faculty that the cuts were necessary in light of the college’s unprecedented $8.6 million deficit in fiscal year 2021.

As it stands now, Falls’ plan would terminate majors including Geology, Religion, Asian Studies and several language programs such as Greek, Latin and German. Minors in many of these subject areas would also be cut, plus others in Theatre and Vermont Studies. Master’s programs to be cut include Greek & Latin and Teaching Latin, Geology and Historic Preservation.

The plan would wipe out the college’s Classics, Geology and Religion departments. Other departments would be consolidated.

On to the University of Colorado:

And then to Marquette University, where a large group of science faculty are standing up to these cuts attacking their colleagues and the need for students to receive a well-rounded education.

This is happening around the country at school after school, only hurrying up already existing issues.

There are a few things happening here. One of course is massive administrative bloat, which is never on the chopping block. Another is that a College of Arts and Sciences is funded almost entirely through tuition dollars. There’s simply not outside funders out there willing to give a few million to a leftist historian so that I can hire research assistants and publish some more attacks on global capitalism and worker exploitation. Schools have become addicted to those outside dollars, to the point that in many departments, the literal definition of research is “attracting grant money.”

What is also happening is a massive disconnect between what people say they want college to be and what it is actually is becoming. What it’s becoming is a job training program for a capitalist society. But what people also say colleges should be doing is teaching about diversity, global citizenship, tolerance, etc. These two things can’t coexist. There is no value under capitalism in these issues. So what you see is programs being cut in German and Chinese at the same time that university is talking about being a global campus and sending engineering students abroad. You see Leadership Studies programs (a major in literal bullshit) figure out ways to check boxes in general education programs for diversity and humanities while History and English and Anthropology die on the vine. You see Sociology turn into Criminal Justice where hard discussions about race are replaced by faculty who are dependent on access to riding in police cars in order to do their research, making them complicit with a racist justice system.

I am teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey course this spring. This is a class that routinely got 125 students less than a decade ago. Right now, I have 42. This is the only section of the U.S. history survey that is being offered at a flagship state institution this semester. At the same time that our students are wanting to learn about racist policing and the injustice at the heart of our system, the university is destroying the very programs that will actually teach these issues, programs that are not financially beholden to corporate America or racist policing or the military-industrial complex. And there is almost no pushback against this from anyone with power, very much including Democratic leaders. My own governor, Gina Raimondo, is open in her utter contempt for the arts and humanities. She literally thinks the only valuable education is in STEM or business, which is somewhat ironic since her own degree is in Economics. But she is completely beholden to the idea that the only thing higher education is good for is to please employers in Rhode Island.

I don’t know what to do here, but I am fully convinced that by the end of my career, assuming I still have a job, I will be in the Department of Misfit Toys with 8 other professors still hanging around from the days when universities taught critical thinking.

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