Grants | 23 March 2010

The Humanities Really Do Produce a Profit


Robert N. WatsonThis article originally appeared in the March 21, 2010 edition of The Chronicle for Higher Education.

The humanities—philosophy, art history, English literature, Slavic languages, musicology, and the rest—are quaint, elderly relatives that the real, serious, modern university (consisting of technological researchers and the professional schools) subsidizes out of charitable tradition but has trouble pampering during difficult times. The president of my university, the University of California, made that clear on national television not long ago: “Many of our, if I can put it this way, businesses are in good shape. We’re doing very well there. Our hospitals are full, our medical business, our medical research, the patient care. So, we have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department? We have to have it. Who’s going to pay it in sociology, in the humanities? And that’s where we’re running into trouble.”

President Mark G. Yudof probably meant no disrespect when he identified us as the “core problem” of the university’s budget crisis, and maybe I’m mistaken to hear more resignation than enthusiasm in the assertion that an English department is “trouble” that you nonetheless “have to have.” But he is mistaken about the economics—and you probably are, too. As Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, said in a New York Times article last fall, English students usually generate a profit. “They’re paying for the chemistry major and the music major. … The little ugly facts about cross-subsidies are inflammatory, so they get papered over.”

If you count what patients pay for treatment as income earned by a medical center, but do not count what students pay for literature courses as income earned by the humanities department, the hospital will surely look like a much smarter business. You might therefore appoint those productive health-care administrators to a death panel (called a universitywide planning committee) on lost causes like the English major.

But, according to spreadsheet calculations done at my request by Reem Hanna-Harwell, assistant dean of the humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles, based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures, the humanities there generate over $59-million in student fees, while spending only $53.5-million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category). The entire teaching staff of Writing Programs, which is absolutely essential to UCLA’s educational mission, has been sent firing notices, even though the spreadsheet shows that program generating $4.3-million dollars in fee revenue, at a cost of only $2.4-million.

So, the answer to “Who’s going to pay the salary of the English department?” is that the English department at UCLA earns its own salary and more, through the fees paid by its students—profits that will only grow with the increase in student fees.

That isn’t an eccentric calculation. Of the 21 units at the University of Washington, the humanities and, to a lesser degree, the social sciences are the only ones that generate more tuition income than 100 percent of their total expenditure. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, recently cited a University of Illinois report showing that a large humanities department like English produces a substantial net profit, whereas units such as engineering and agriculture run at a loss. The widely respected Delaware Study of Instructional Costs and Productivity shows the same pattern.

Because that evidence runs up against the widespread myth that other units and departments subsidize the humanities, and up against such well-entrenched forces within the university, it is regularly ignored or even suppressed. In the 1990s, UCLA invested huge amounts of money setting up Responsibility Centered Management, an accounting system eventually used at many universities to evaluate all the real costs of different units and the revenue they actually produce. The goal was to make budgeting fair and transparent. However, according to administrators then prominently involved in the process, when the initial run of those intricate spreadsheets showed that the College of Letters and Science was the most efficient user and producer of money, and the health sciences were far less efficient, RCM was abandoned. I have no illusions that the businesspeople and University of California medical executives who evidently have President Yudof’s ear will be more receptive to that inconvenient truth today than they were then.

University budgets, fraught with indirect costs and shared infrastructure, are far too complicated for an amateur to master, and people in other fields would surely emphasize other numbers. We’re all in this leaking, listing ship together, and the humanities will have to bear some of the pain of bailing it out. But, as Wellman of the Delta Project observed in a follow-up e-mail message to me, “cutting humanities is penny-wise and pound-foolish. … Even though scientists bring in research money, research grants never pay for their full costs, so they actually erode resources from the general instructional program. And cutting budgets further in the courses that are already the lowest cost is nutty.”

We produce a profit despite the irreducibly labor-intensive aspects of much work in the humanities, where there are seldom any single right answers toward which students may be directed, and where instruction must therefore engage actively and progressively with the particular subjective attributes of each developing voice and mind in a classroom discussion or in drafts of an essay. Class size therefore cannot swell in many of our departments without destroying our essential pedagogical function, any more than the sciences could function without laboratories.

Yet because the discretionary budget in humanities goes almost entirely for teaching staff, across-the-board cuts hit our instruction especially hard. The dean of humanities’ office at UCLA warned a few months ago that the proposed budget would require programs in this division—already the leanest in staff per faculty—to fire most of their lecturers and teaching assistants, making our curriculum unsustainable.

If you’re wondering who would ever deem that an acceptable outcome, consider that the 30-member commission that the chairman of the University of California Board of Regents, Russell S. Gould, and President Yudof appointed last year to plan the university’s future includes a dozen people from business and economics, a half-dozen from medicine, some lawyers, educational theorists, and social-science undergraduates—but only one humanist, a late addition reportedly after faculty protests. Even in the commission’s satellite working groups, humanities faculty members are outnumbered by a ratio of about 14 to 1, according to my calculations. That scientific researchers always subsidize the humanities was blithely repeated at the commission’s public forum at UCLA without challenge—and without a single humanist on the podium. The official budget-crisis Web site of the University of California warns that “a federal grant for laser-beam research can’t be used to fund a deficit in the English Department.” Top administrative positions are now dominated by people from technology and medicine, who, without any conscious bias or ill will, are naturally susceptible to that complacent belief, that well-known fact that isn’t true.

For students and faculty members in the humanities, the result is essentially taxation without representation. For the University of California system, the result may be a drastic loss of educational quality that will soon turn into a net loss of money as well—especially if it damages the traditional teaching of writing skills, languages, and cultural literacy that both taxpayers and employers value so highly.

No sane citizenry measures its public elementary schools by whether they pay for themselves immediately and in dollars. We shouldn’t have to make a balance-sheet argument for the humanities, either, at least not until the balance-sheet includes the value, to the student and to the state, of expanded powers of personal empathy and cross-cultural respect, improved communication through language and other symbolic systems, and increased ability to tolerate and interpret complexity, contemplate morality, appreciate the many forms of artistic beauty, and generate creative, independent thought.

That grandiose description surely reveals my own tribal loyalties, and I don’t mean to pick fights with my brilliant and dedicated colleagues in the sciences when it’s really the shared project of a broad and meaningful undergraduate education that’s at risk. And the gravest wounds to this magnificent public university have come from the state legislature itself, which imagines it can continue cutting what it pays for educating Californians without hurting California.

But when a university’s own leaders begin talking about higher education as if it were just another business rather than a great collective legacy, by making English professors the scapegoat for hundreds of millions of dollars in operating deficit, they need to hear some other voices. The assumption that the humanities are a vestigial parasite within an otherwise self-sufficient institutional body is dangerously wrong.

Robert N. Watson is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles.