Humanities courses safe at UC Merced

Its size, number of faculty puts university in a unique position.

January 3, 2011 

Across the country, public universities are trimming their budgets in a response to lagging economies and budget shortfalls. In some cases, that's resulted in cuts in one specific area -- the humanities.

Most recently, the State University of New York-Albany announced in October that it planned to suspend several of its humanities departments next year, including classics, French, Italian, Russian and theater, because of inadequate state funding.

UC Merced associate history professor Ruth Mostern said the cuts these universities made aren't necessarily an attack on the humanities, but more of an attempt to cut back on small, isolated departments.

"As administrators in tough budgetary times have been seeking ways to reduce administrative overhead, small, isolated departments have been vulnerable," she said. "The crisis in the humanities isn't about the humanities ... It's a question of how to integrate those activities effectively into universities that are facing new budgetary challenges."

Even if UC Merced wanted to break off into tiny departments, it couldn't because there are not enough faculty members to do so, Mostern added.

Unlike some universities, however, UC Merced is keeping its humanities offerings, and it plans to increase them in the long term.

Reginald McGinnis, Western Humanities Alliance president, said UC Merced is in a unique position. "It says a lot about the UC Merced community and the university administration that they are committed to offering students a quality education across the disciplines, from the humanities and the arts to the social sciences and the natural sciences," he said.

"One often hears how it is necessary to cut programs in light of the current economic crisis. And this is, in fact, a very difficult phase in terms of university budgets. At the same time, it is essential to believe in the intrinsic value of what a university is offering to its students and the community it serves. In the long run, and even in the very near future, building the humanities will benefit everyone at UC Merced."

Humanities essential

Mark Aldenderfer,, dean of the UC Merced School of Social Science, Humanities and Arts (SSHA), describes himself as an ardent defender of the humanities and believes they are an essential component of a college education.

"There's no sense that on this campus or within the UC system there will be any attempt to reduce the range of the course offerings in the humanities or the nature of the programs," he said.

"There are individual faculty members who will say 'Why do we need courses in the humanities?' " he said.

Aldenderfer's response is that the humanities are essential because they offer students many ways to look at the the world and explain what it means to be human.

"The world is a complex place, and in order to understand that and all that complexity you need to be exposed to different languages," he said. "You need to understand that art, literature, music and studies of other cultures provide insight into the human condition and how we live in this world."

Another argument that favors keeping humanities programs is that they are cost-effective, Aldenderfer, said. Compared with science and engineering, social science and humanities professors are less expensive because they don't require large labs and don't need large numbers of graduate students.

A long-term plan for the university is to have 50 percent of the faculty in social science, humanities and arts programs and 35 percent in the sciences, he said.

Currently, there are nine majors within SSHA; two, history and literature and culture, are traditional humanities majors.

Building strengths

In the short term, budget constraints have limited program growth, especially in the next three years. The school can't add any majors, Aldenderfer, said. That's according to a memorandum of understanding the school has with the UC Office of the President, he said.

Still, the school can add minors and some faculty.

"What we are going to be doing is building our strengths as we may have them right now," Aldenderfer, said. "We are permitted to create minors as long as they don't have any resource implications. And the reason why we are not creating any majors is because we are so small that we really have to build the core before we can offer brand-new programs to any significant degree."

By 2013, UC Merced will add 50 faculty members. Roughly half of those positions will be in social sciences, humanities and arts, Aldenderfer, said. "The number of those in the humanities is something we're discussing."

Because of the budgetary issues, UC Merced is developing its humanities program on a take-it-as-it-comes basis tied to funding levels. The school has basic majors in the humanities, such as English, history and anthropology, but nothing as specific as classics or Russian. Whether those areas will grow to house entire departments is unknown.

Susan D. Amussen, UC Merced professor of history and director of the school's Center for Research in the Humanities and Arts, said most of the decisions to expand programs are tied to budgets.

"In the next five years we will probably stay in some formation of where we are now," she said. "We will probably add another foreign language minor -- Japanese may be it. We will probably slowly grow more majors, but we'll slowly grow within our framework. So much depends on budgets."

Something new

Aldenderfer, who is passionate about interdisciplinary education, said the potential for creating something different is what drew him to UC Merced.

The plan is to keep the undergraduate programs traditional, but to take more of an interdisciplinary approach at the graduate level.

Currently, the school's only humanities graduate program, world cultures, is interdisciplinary because the school doesn't have the faculty to offer distinct humanities degrees.

One plan is to create an interdisciplinary graduate program just in the humanities, Amussen said. The hope is that a person could specialize within the humanities in his or her area of expertise.

"Given employment possibilities in the humanities, we are less likely to be training people for the jobs that we have, that is, for conventional university faculty jobs," she said.

"We are likely to train people for jobs that we don't know about, and we have the opportunity to design a kind of program that gives people intellectual flexibility and strength."

Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or joppenheim@mercedsun-star.com.

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