Should Universities De-Prioritize English Departments for Engineering?

Some American colleges and universities are cutting entire departments. But the Baffler magazine wonders if something else is going on:

The ostensible reason provided for these cuts and terminations is “prioritization,” a term used by university administrators to rank which programs deserve funding and attention. One such “prioritization” committee at St. Joseph’s College in New York described it as a ranking of “centrality and essentiality,” “demand and opportunity,” and “productivity, revenue, and resources.” If the terms sound like university administrator gobbledygook, that’s because they are, cleverly disguising administrative judgments as some sort of due process. Around the country it is terms just like these that have been thrown at social science and liberal arts departments. Suddenly, faculty in these departments are expected to justify why they exist and why anyone would need a degree in English.

The two examples from Indiana, from Marian University and Purdue, also reveal how terms like “prioritization” are being used to disguise politically motivated excisions. Prioritization routinely argues that engineering departments need to be the ones getting more money and resources from the administration. Unlike English or political science, which are seen as useless and pointless majors, engineering and computer science carry an implicit promise of a job. Who needs to have read Shakespeare or know about how our political system works when you can rush off to be one among the armies of coders who make our digiverse possible?

That is the dream. In reality, “prioritization” debates, particularly in deep red states, are excellent cover for changing the political demographics of American colleges and universities. The Marian University case is instructive in this sense; the ostensible championing of STEM fields maps neatly onto the project of eliminating the most left-leaning professor, inevitably in departments that teach English or history or political science. If you have a right-leaning board of trustees in a red state like Indiana, professors like Johnny Goldfinger are unwanted, even threatening to those who would like student voters to know less rather than more about the processes of democracy. In a country where everything is riven and divided around political lines, this could well be a covert attack against the otherwise enduring liberal-ness of the college campus….

Despite what current debates about liberal arts would have you believe, not all employers are looking for software developers. A long-range perspective proscribes a rounded education, geared not just for the moment we are in. It is very likely that coding and other functions that administrators believe are the ones that deserve the most priority will be carried out via artificial intelligence processes that can do the painstaking work with far greater accuracy and speed than a human ever can. A liberal arts education is essential to surviving in our polarized world. In educating students in how to respect differences and create dialogue over disagreement, a liberal arts education provides skills essential to maintaining a healthy and functioning democracy.

Creating arbitrary epistemological rankings, where one kind of knowledge is given precedence over others, is failing to attend to the needs of the whole student capable of earning a wage but also of leading a good life….

It only makes sense if the actual purpose of slicing off departments and professors is part of a larger political project that has nothing at all to do with providing the best education.

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