The myth of the vanishing humanities professor

As much as I try to be a kind, sensitive, and empathetic institutional researcher (group hugs every fifth Tuesday – no, not really!), I can’t resist salivating just a little bit whenever word of a new uber-explanatory claim pops up on my radar.  Part of my interest comes merely from a persistent drive to apply evidence to better understand what we do.  Sometimes, we make decisions that produce unintended consequences – and many times the impact of those decisions rises to the surface inductively, through the observations of some who, thankfully, are uniquely predisposed to see it.  However – and I fully own up to my dark side here – the chance to test a claim that has already gotten itself a bandwagon, a theme song, and the specter of pitchforks and torches storming the Bastille is an institutional researcher’s dream chance to “speak truth to power.”  It’s bratwurst to a Bear’s fan, grog to a Viking, a soy latte to an NPR member . . . you get the picture.

For many, the recent decision to merge the German and Scandinavian programs has felt like another body blow to the core values on which Augustana was founded.  Moreover, this decision all too easily feeds into a larger narrative that Augustana, like many traditional liberal arts colleges before it, has long since abandoned its commitment to the liberal arts even as it has disingenuously held on to the relative prestige of claiming to be something that it is not.

So . . . have we gutted our commitment to the liberal arts?  I purposefully choose this inflammatory language because it is exactly the wording that was used when the claim was made to me – complete with raised intonation and eyebrows.  While there are many ways to unpack this question; I’m writing a blog, not a book.  However, there are a couple of ways that we might examine our data to test this claim.  To that end, I’d like to introduce a couple of data points and one observation that might flesh out this story just a little bit.

One way that an institution might shift its commitment away from the liberal arts would be to move faculty positions away from core liberal arts disciplines like the humanities, foreign languages, and fine arts and add faculty lines to new or existing pre-professional programs.  While this by no means should be consider “smoking gun” evidence, if this were indeed the case, it would provide strong evidence to support the claim that Augustana had given up its commitment to the liberal arts.

So I decided to look for any evidence of a shift in faculty distribution over the past ten years. (Whether we should have gone back further to the late sixties or early seventies is an entirely valid critique).  Nonetheless, we started by building a baseline from 2001.  Thanks to Sarah Horowitz and Jamie Nelson in Special Collections, we tracked down a 2000-01 college directory and manually counted the number of faculty in each discipline.  As best as we can tell (it’s possible that some faculty were not listed in the directory for some reason), there were 78 faculty FTE (full time equivalent) employed by Augustana in the humanities, foreign languages, and fine arts ten years ago.  To put that in context, these 78 faculty FTE made up 49.6% of the 157 total faculty FTE.

So how does the 2000-01 distribution compare to today?  Last year, 2011-12, 114 faculty FTE were employed in humanities, foreign languages, and fine arts disciplines – 53.3% of our 214 total faculty FTE.  In the particular case of foreign languages, in 2000-01 there were 18 faculty FTE teaching in foreign language departments.  In 2011-12, there were 20.33 faculty FTE teaching in foreign language departments (we included classics in this analysis to be sure that Latin and Greek weren’t left out).

This evidence hardly supports the assertion that Augustana is gutting the liberal arts.  Just as a reminder, I am not suggesting that this is “smoking gun” evidence to dismiss the aforementioned claim. There might be evidence that other academic departments have lost positions to the pre-professional programs or that the relative distribution of full-time and part-time instructors has shift away from the core liberal arts disciplines;  although a cursory glance suggests to me that neither of these possibilities are likely.  So, at least in terms of overall faculty distribution in the traditional liberal arts, the trend over the last ten years suggests an increased investment in the most traditional liberal arts disciplines.

But this data doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a shift in students’ academic behavior patterns that might translate into a different distribution of majors and minors.  In this context, there certainly might be some perceived winners and losers.  Our institutional data does show some changes in student academic interests over ten years, but the totality of these shifts merely complicates the story.  While the proportion of students declaring their “primary” major in the humanities has declined, the proportion of students declaring a “secondary” major or minor in the humanities has remained strong and maybe even ticked up slightly.  Some of this is due to an overall increase in the number of second majors and additional minors that students now obtain.  So even thought this data might reflect a modest shift in student priorities, its a long way from suggesting that the college is gutting the liberal arts.

So where does this leave us?  That isn’t my question to answer.  My goal here was only to test the veracity of a claim that seems to be a popular rallying cry in some circles at the moment.  Based on this evidence, and if the degree to which our investment in and distribution of faculty lines across the college represents our educational philosophy, it’s pretty hard to make the case that Augustana has abandoned its commitment to the liberal arts.

However, this evidence doesn’t address the question of whether or not our collective emphasis on an interdisciplinary, liberal arts education has waned in the face of increasingly siloed major requirements, a growing belief in the perceived value of a double major and/or a second minor, and institutional policies that waive course requirements fundamental to the liberal arts (e.g., foreign language competency).  But that conversation is a very different one – one that probably involves an examination of our espoused values, a hard look at the ramifications of our actual curricular and co-curricular policies, and a mirror.

Make it a good day,



4 thoughts on “The myth of the vanishing humanities professor

    • Humanities included the fine arts (music, theater, studio art), foreign languages (the usual suspects including classics), and english, history, philosophy, religion, political science, art history, and communication studies.

  1. What does “full-time equivalent” mean? (I’m wondering who the .33 FTE foreign-language faculty member was last year.) Is there a problem with just comparing the numbers of actual, whole, full-time faculty from 2001 with those from ten years later?

    Given the hiring boom that occurred when Abernathy was dean, I’m not surprised to see the increase in percentage of FTE faculty in the humanities. But in the next few years, as full professors retire and tenure lines are not renewed, I’m not sure that we’ll see either an increasing or even a steady percentage of full-time faculty in the humanities at Augustana. Besides, 53.3% is hardly a liberal-arts mandate. (“Yay! We’re slightly more than 50% committed to the liberal arts!”)

    A more involved comparison might be one that looks at a percentage of credit hours taught by contingent and part-time faculty in those years, both campus-wide and in the humanities. Is Augustana now relying more on contingent than on full-time faculty to teach classes? If so, is that shift happening more in the humanities than in other fields of study? I honestly don’t know, but I think it’s a question worth asking.

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