Budget shortfalls are now frequently being used to justify decisions that clearly undermine educational goals. In most cases, as in that of the SUNY-Albany suspension of five humanities departments, the few figures given do not offer specific evidence of the stated budgetary need. In the case of the Browne Report that threatens to cut Britain's public funding for university teaching by 80%, the mayhem is prompted by a polemical metaphor at the start of a section on page 47 -- public funding is a "hidden blanket subsidy to institutions" -- and anchored by one entirely unexplained number for "minimum investment" -- 700 million pounds per year. The tone of this report is one of blithe immunity from counterargument, and it is superficial in a way that is possible only for a small, appointed committee that does not feel the need to make a serious case for the millions of practitioners of the professions on which it passes judgment.
In this climate, it is particularly urgent to get the numbers right, and for everyone affected to inform themselves about what the numbers actually are. America's most prominent English professor, the New York Times blogger Stanley Fish, got into the act last week by commenting that the SUNY-Albany cuts could be rejected on professional grounds but not on budgetary ones, since the humanities "do not earn their keep." Fish was roundly criticized for this, and takes up a couple of pieces of mine (the one he doesn't link is here) and by the UCLA English professor Robert N. Watson (UCLA Today version). The good news is that Fish describes the much more aggressive stance university leaders need to take in relation to political and business leaders. On the other hand, the post unhelpfully reiterates the common misconceptions about university funding that Prof. Watson, I, and others, working independently, have been trying to undo.
Fish continues to describe research funding as "soft money" that adds to university budgets. In reality, extramurally funded research loses large amounts of money, e.g., $720 million in losses on $3.5 billion in gross research revenues at the University of California. This means that extramural research funding is not actually available as soft money to "shore up" the humanities or anything else, but requires large infusions of internal cash flow to keep going. These infusions, aka "cross-subsidies," can only come in large amounts from a combination of state funds allocated for instruction and/or student tuition, also generally paid with instruction as a primary goal. UC President Mark Yudof himself has acknowledged in a response to Prof. Watson that this means that "the humanities indeed can be seen as cross-subsidizing science, engineering, and similar departments."
Fish also suggests that Watson, I, and others might be right about a "small private liberal arts college," but are wrong about the lower-fee public university. But publics generally have kept their expenditures lower in line with their lower incomes: our general argument that these universities need to use cheap fields to support expensive ones would remain the same. Bob Samuels has attempted some calculations for UCLA, and it's worth noting that UCLA has roughly $25,000 per student to spend in state funds plus tuition (minus financial aid). Poorer schools like SUNY-Albany don't have a different model: they are just more desperate to maximize returns on the model, as the Albany cuts indicate.
No doubt there are cases in which a hum department with very low enrollments at a low-tuition public with low per-student public funding does lose money. SUNY-Albany should show the numbers they were working with: I would bet that if those five departments run in the red, their collective loss is small by comparison to the losses on the campus's sponsored reserach. In any case, we should assume these to be special cases rather than the general rule, and then get real numbers so we can have rational discussions about how to fund what, discussions that include humanities professors and students before their fields get whacked in the night.
The larger point is neither to separate teaching from research (students should help pay for research to a transparent and agreed-on extent), nor to cut science funding. The point is to fix funding shortfalls (see, e.g, Barnett and me on this point), and have an honest series of debates about the true costs of both research and teaching. It has served neither science nor the humanities disciplines to pretend that science costs much less than it really does. I recommend reading the actual analyses Fish references and helping to develop more open accounting standards at universities, which would be of great educational benefit.
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