As the University of Montana’s administration embarks on a new set of budgetary cuts, the ideals and values that define higher education as a guarantor of human dignity and enlightenment have come under a dangerous attack.
The elimination of the core humanities and social science offerings at UM began five years ago, when the university administration adopted a policy of attrition. The university, which had failed to generate revenue by recruiting new students, instead used the money saved from the vacant positions to cover its budget deficits. Since 2013, three UM administrations have claimed that they have not cut active programs (because they haven’t touched tenured faculty positions), but in fact, the policy of imposing a freeze on new hires actively reduces the size of departments.
As the size of departments across UM shrank, the attractiveness of UM’s course offerings in the humanities and social sciences diminished, and the number of students enrolled in these departments and programs also decreased. UM students who witnessed the disappearance of their favorite programs and courses began to migrate, many choosing Montana State University-Bozeman instead. UM administrators have argued that the attraction of MSU is its programs in engineering and agriculture; however, the main growth in MSU’s curriculum has come from its increased course offerings in the humanities. Today, MSU, once known as the ag-engineering school, offers a PhD in history and bachelor of arts degrees in American Studies and Asian Studies. In other words, the loss of humanities classes at UM has prompted MSU to introduce the same programs in a campaign to replace UM as the state flagship.
A bogus assumption prompted the recent attacks against the humanities, namely, that the fields of liberal arts and social sciences are no longer relevant in our post-capitalist society. However, defining education as merely a tool for training cheap labor in a market economy is troublingly limited and limiting. In such a context, education is reduced to a mechanical tool whose sole purpose is to provide students with particular skills, which they then use to get a job after they graduate. There is no doubt that every university graduate needs to land a job, but fitting academic programs in the humanities to the demands of global capital turns a blind eye to the critical role of humanities disciplines in a democratic society.
The UM administration will continue to use the shrinking of academic programs as the principal mechanism for addressing its budgetary woes. This policy might allow the administration to balance its budget in the short term, but it will have a devastating impact on both the attractiveness and credibility of UM for potential students in Montana and beyond. Any high-school graduate knows that organizations market themselves by offering something concrete to the public. A university’s main marketable good is its curriculum. Therefore, an attack on any university’s primary curriculum is an assault on the marketability of that university.
Luckily, there is a much more positive and far less destructive budgetary mechanism that the administration at UM could utilize. That alternative would entail a creative approach that invests in the humanities, as well as the social sciences, and strengthens the university's marquee programs. It would require that UM’s administration generate revenue proactively, via a sustained and aggressive campaign of recruiting new students, instead of reacting with cuts. Students from inside Montana, across the nation and around the world will not, however, choose to enroll at UM unless they are assured that the programs they have selected will not be subjected to any future cuts, whatever form those cuts may take.