On December 2, the University of Vermont announced cuts to twenty-four majors, twenty-seven minors, and four master’s programs in its College of Arts and Sciences. The geology, classics, and religion departments will be closed. Others will be consolidated, likely after cuts to faculty and programming. The German and Italian majors will go. The program in Vermont studies will be cut, along with the university’s master’s program in historic preservation. In all, twelve of the college’s fifty-six majors, eleven of its sixty-three minors, and four of its ten master’s degree programs will be eliminated. The announced cuts came only from the College of Liberal Arts, a strategic choice nowhere addressed or defended. The memo from Dean Bill Falls described a “data-informed process” used to identify “low enrollment programs” over the last three academic years.
The summoning of data to determine which areas of humanistic inquiry should be cut forever from a university suggests an irony that a liberal arts student would appreciate. “Data” seem to many in higher education to be unassailable: they tend to end the conversation. Yet the question with data is always how their parameters have been set by living, inevitably interested, actual humans, and how they are then, in turn, expressed in narrative form. What comes out depends very much on what was put in. In the case of UVM, the data reflect a very circumscribed evaluation of a program’s worth based solely on a narrow band of its enrollment figures, and over a very limited period of time, three years. And the data may have measured performance in programs that had been disadvantaged by the university. If I collect data on an unplugged toaster, they will show no activity during the period during which its cord dangled down from the counter.
The reasons that a department might find itself on the block appear to vary from case to case. Not every “low enrollment” program will be cut; with the exception of geology, the cuts fall most heavily on languages and the humanities. Classics has graduated an average of 2.1 majors per year during the three-year period under review, while supporting four tenured professors and a lecturer. Religion seems to have the opposite problem: its major has shown “a modest increase” in enrollments, but pending retirements mean that, with a hiring freeze, there soon won’t be enough faculty to teach its students. Geology, according to the memo from Dean Falls, has suffered from “an increased interest in Environmental Studies,” which suggests that the pool of students entering the discipline has grown, though many of them now enter through a different door.
The data do not show how many students choose to study any of these fields in adjacent departments, but one would assume that, if the university wanted to keep its geology department, some of those environmental studies students might be enticed to move. The same is true of English or history majors moving to classics or religion. Students sometimes have to be shown the way to small departments, but when they turn up there, they often find a home. Nor do the data have much predictive value about the future demand for these programs. All it takes is one splashy cultural artifact to swell an obscure program’s enrollments. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History did that for classics in the 1990s; some of the popularity of medieval studies courses today can be traced back to Harry Potter.