Yesterday, I wrote an open letter to the Provost of the University of Southern Maine, my alma mater. USM is in the process of imposing a disastrous package of cuts including the layoffs of a dozen tenured and tenure-track junior faculty. My own English Department, which even after the years since I’ve graduated still feels like my academic home, was hit hard. Others—including economics, sociology and theatre—were also targeted. And I am filled to bursting with grief and rage. But I also want to think through all of this, and what I see is a call to action for those of us who study literature in pursuit of social justice.
The Portland Press Herald’s story on the layoffs is a good place to start. It covers the cuts, the student protests, the campus policecalled in to quell that activity, and the coming response from USM’s faculty. The conflict centers around administration’s claim is that a budgetary shortfall demands these cuts, including the layoff of a dozen professors, coming cuts to staff, and the elimination of 2 degree programs (which will also involve faculty layoffs). But in another PPH piece from March 16th, Susan Feiner points out that the story isn’t so simple:
“The public’s been told the University of Maine System is collapsing. But it’s not. Assets and reserves are growing. Liabilities are declining. Year-over-year revenues exceed expenses. Operating cash flows are positive.”
But a university is, they keep telling us, a business. Rather than hearing about education and students, we hear about marketing new programs to customers. So the business demands more cuts – apparent economic health of the system notwithstanding. And, big suprirse: those cuts aren’t to the expensive, labyrinthine ranks of administrators. The idea that the university is a business spells, as Jacobin Magazine put it in a piece that ran earlier in March, “The Death of American Universities”. Either we can have a model in which students are customers, or we can have education. But we can’t have both.
And this leads me back to my own education. I’m a doctoral candidate here at Lehigh. I’ve moved from the urban comprehensive university to a private research institution. We’re safer from—though not immune to—cuts like the ones going on at USM. But the drastic cuts we’re seeing at USM should worry us. They come partly from a mindset that the university is a business and must be run in service of employers. The same mindset creates the idea that an educational focus ought to translate directly to a field of employment. At the root of all of this, I expect, is a misrecognition of what the study of literature, and the humanities more broadly, do in the world.
And this point, at least, leaves me a little hopeful. As a department that believes that “the study of literature…is essential to the work of social justice,” we have an opportunity. Perhaps our best show of solidarity with USM students and faculty would be continuing to articulate the value of the humanities. And I don’t think that means we have to prove an English degree is good business. Just that it’s good education.