Humanities, arts, take hit as enrollments drop

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Daniel Hurley is the chief executive officer of the Michigan Association of State Universities.

Michigan Association of State Universities

Daniel Hurley is the chief executive officer of the Michigan Association of State Universities.

Capital News Service 

LANSING – Universities across the state are restructuring their humanities programs amidst financial pressures.

Fine arts programs, as well as world language instruction, are included on the list of those cut.

Declining enrollment and budgetary restrictions among public universities in Michigan, as well as the rest of the nation, have pressed faculty and administrators in the humanities to repurpose programs suffering from low enrollment.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics revealed that the number of bachelor’s degrees in humanities awarded by four-year universities declined from 16.8% in the 2010-11 academic year to 12.8% in 2020-21.

And a census by the Modern Language Association showed a 16.6% decline in total college and university enrollments in languages other than English between the fall of 2016 and 2021.

Even so, “we’re adding about three times as more (academic) programs than cutting them,” said Michigan Association of State Universities Chief Executive Officer Daniel Hurley.

Many programs being cut this year are in the humanities. 

“There’s no doubt some of these programs are subsidized from revenues elsewhere in the institution, but there comes a point where the enrollments might be so low that their programs need to be cut,” said Hurley. 

Oakland University is one of the institutions adversely impacted by declining enrollment. 

According to Oakland, its enrollment was highest in the fall of 2015 with around 16,800 students. In subsequent years ,a gradual decline occurred with a sharper dip starting in the fall of 2020, resulting in around 12,800 enrolled as of last fall.

“I’m confident in stating that the humanities have seen a sharper decline than the university as a whole,” said Daniel Clark, a professor and director of the Center for Public Humanities.

One result of this decline in humanities enrollment at Oakland is the loss of the liberal studies program.

Rather than eliminating the program though, the curriculum was reintegrated into the university’s interdisciplinary studies program.

“It’s more of a rebranding than a total drop,” Clark said.

As a history professor, Clark predicts that as humanities programs continue to wane in student interest and faculty retire or take positions elsewhere, vacancies will become less likely to be filled.

He predicted a reduction in the types of history courses offered, saying, “We’re unlikely to have as much regional coverage or (coverage) of the world as we might have had in the past.” 

Oakland isn’t the only institution suffering from such a decline.

At Central Michigan University, programs in French, German and Spanish are all on the Association of State Universities’ list of dropped programs for 2024.

Kendall College of Art and Design at Ferris State University has consolidated separate programs into a more streamlined degree. 

Its bachelor’s of fine arts programs; drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture and functional art have been combined to form one single program called studio arts. 

“The studio arts degree path provides students with greater flexibility, more choice, and a well-rounded studio art experience,” said Associate Vice President for Marketing and Communications Dave Murray.

“It strengthens our curriculum through integration and innovation, and it expands the media options and working methods available to students,” Murray said.

Mia Murphy, the chief policy officer of the Association of State Universities, is one of the individuals who coordinates the cutting and restructuring of programs. 

As Murphy has gone through the process of reviewing changes to programs across the state, she has noticed a trend in shifting away from traditional liberal arts and sciences majors to degrees with more specialization.

“We do see a lot more shifting away from the liberal arts and sciences to things that are much more applied, things that are STEM-focused,” Murphy said, referring to science, technology, engineering and math.

The state’s population itself has undergone a sharp projected demographic decline, according to Murphy. 

“The state is just getting older and grayer,” said Murphy. “There are fewer high school graduates every year. So if you took the existing pipeline, then you’re going to see just a natural decline.” 

“That also assumes that we’re not doing anything, though, to fix that,” Murphy said. “There are a lot of things we can do to counteract that in terms of making sure that there’s more equity in terms of college preparation.”

In the midst of declining enrollments in humanities programs, Clark stresses the importance of such curriculums.

“In recent years, it’s been a little bit of a harder sell, in some respects, because it seems like you can get far in this world without any foundation for your ideas,” Clark said.

 “I really, truly, think that there still is room in the college curriculum for creating a greater understanding of humanity of other cultures of our own history.”


Editor’s note: This story was updated on Jan. 20, 2024, to clarify the decline in total college and university enrollments in languages other than English between the fall of 2016 and 2021.

History professor Daniel Clark is the director of Oakland University’s Center for Public Humanities.

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