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STEM At Risk? Higher Ed Must Heed Humanities Warnings

STEM At Risk? Higher Ed Must Heed Humanities Warnings

Humanists have long understood themselves as the canary in the coal mine of higher education.  That is, if the canary is a sign of deep structural failure and a harbinger of greater challenges to come, humanists recognize the crisis in their part of the academic mineshaft as an indicator of broader danger.

As graduations are ongoing this month across the country, and students commit to universities and colleges for the coming academic year, the crisis in the humanities shows no signs of abating.

Lower enrollments, poor administrative management and even worse fiscal planning, lack of public confidence in its value have long been warning signs.

Faculty and administrators of higher education humanities programs and departments have been squawking about the costs of letting subject matter like history, religion, philosophy, languages, literatures fail for years.

Yet humanities departments continue to be slashed or right-sized out of existence, often on the eve of graduation ceremonies, as was the case most recently at St. Cloud State. Decisions at West Virginia, where humanities programs have been consistently targeted for the last decade, produced national outrage on social media. But the devastation continues, leaving the humanities “on the cutting room floor” across the nation.

Ironically, having a college degree in any major is still the best possible predictor of job placement and economic success. This is true even among humanities majors. According to the American Academy of Arts and Scientists, 2023  statistics indicate that humanities graduates have the same chance on the job market as business and engineering majors nationally.

To be sure, data on which college degrees currently generate the highest earnings put STEM degrees ahead of humanities majors. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York released a study showing that chemical engineering majors earn the most at $79,000 early career, while advertising and public relations majors earn $74,000 and performing arts majors earn the least with $38,000. But the study also shows that the gap in unemployment rates is only a few percentage points.

The costs are huge for students, to be sure. But the dangers of allowing an arena of inquiry that is core to the kind of knowledge production colleges and universities prize to disappear are catastrophic.

The science, technology, engineering and medical fields (STEM) are finding this out the hard way in 2024.  The National Science Foundation – one of the biggest federal funding agencies in the nation – recently had their budget cut by over 8%.

Matt Hourihan, Associate Director of Research and Development at the Federation of American Sciences, warned that American science would lose its global competitiveness.

Barbara Snyder, president of the Association of American Universities, went a step further, arguing,  “Congressional failure to restore NSF’s budget jeopardizes our country’s future economic and national security.

Given the dependence of STEM on federal dollars to advance their research in university settings, these budget losses are cataclysmic. Following the canary-in the-coal-mine logic, they should be seen as omens of worse to come.

But in order for that canary logic to make sense, it is necessary to understand it not only as a quaint metaphor but as a risk management strategy with a history.

Research shows the rapid rise discussions of the urgency of anticipating risks to coal mine integrity and safety through the use of canaries, who were sent down the shaft to test for carbon monoxide poisoning in the late 19th century.

Thanks in part to this tried and true method of risk assessment, canaries became useful on World War I battlefields, where toxic gas was first used as a weapon of mass destruction. As the research also shows, canaries were not just indicators of danger. They were proactively used as risk predictors.

That makes the humanities not just predictors of what’s happening in STEM, but the prophets of what’s on the horizon for the university system as a whole.

For many if not most disciplines across the higher education landscape, the danger is already here. Social sciences are grappling with a credibility crisis, especially in studies designed to replicate data collection for verifiability purposes. As for STEM fields, the Pew Research Center reports that Americans’ trust in science is in steady decline.

If the NSF continues to inflict more cuts, the future of the undergraduate B.A. and B.S. degrees is precarious. Lack of trust in higher education in general is as pervasive as the crisis of faith is in any one domain of the academy

This crisis of trust, combined with shrinking student numbers that risk forecaster Harry S. Dent called attention to in his book, The Demographic Cliff: How to Survive and Prosper During the Great Deflation Ahead, means that higher education will struggle to recruit the undergraduates it needs to continue to flourish in the coming decades.

With research expenditures in the humanities topping $500 million per year in the last decade, the humanities as an enterprise is too big, and too crucial to the future of the whole university ecosystem, to be allowed to fail.

Campus leaders need to aggressively reframe their humanities risk-management strategies if they want to save the whole university. And STEM faculty need to reach across the aisle and learn from humanists first-hand what partial failure looks like, and how to arrest it, together.

The canary is sounding the warning for everyone.

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