After cuts, Pitt announces Year of the Humanities

By Dale Shoemaker / News Editor

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After drastic cuts last year, Pitt will seek to resurrect the humanities.

Last year, Pitt cut its religious studies graduate program and suspended admission to its German and classics graduate programs. Now, Provost Patricia Beeson has announced that the 2015-2016 academic year will be the ‘Year of the Humanities,’ just as the 2014-2015 school year was the ‘Year of Sustainability.’ 

Pitt’s focus on the humanities, though, comes at a time when some professors are questioning the University’s dedication to the very programs it hopes to promote in the coming year. In mid-April, Jackie Smith, a professor in the sociology department, Michael Goodhart, a professor in the political science department and 76 other professors sent a letter to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher with concerns about his announcement that Pitt should commercialize the results of its research. 

“We recognize the economic realities facing modern universities … Yet the commodification of knowledge through intellectual property law can effectively exclude most of humanity from the benefits of our research … Commercialization has its place, but it also carries substantial risks,” the professors warned in their letter.

In response, Gallagher said he had hoped to highlight the fact that commercialization was one method to allow Pitt to have an impact on academia and in the United States. Pitt, he wrote, does not have the same goals as a commercial institution. 

“We don’t. We are here to educate students … we seek public benefit, not profit … but when our goals can be advanced by the translation of our research into new products or services … we should have the capacity to do so in ways that are consistent with our values and our public mission,” Gallagher said.

Pitt made the cuts last year, however, because it couldn’t afford to fund the programs. The year is not a response to the Chancellor’s push toward commercialization, Don Bialostosky, a composition professor and chair of the committee that will lead the year, said.

“The humanities are not going away. The humanities are not commercializable in the same way some of the other enterprises the University sustains are,” he said. “But they’re fundamental to the education of wide-ranging and creative undergraduates and graduates.”

As for Pitt’s recent announcement of the year, Smith said she hopes she and her colleagues can address the issues they find most pressing, such as capitalism’s role in climate change.

“I’m hoping some of our signatories will develop programming that will allow more space to discuss these issues, and the Year of the Humanities offers an opportunity to do that,” she said in an email.

Courtney Weikle-Mills, a professor in the English department, said the year is an opportunity to have a larger conversation about the humanities in general. 

“I think, and hope, it’s about recognizing what we already do as valuable and also about getting ideas to grow and to better communicate what we do to prospective students,” she said in an email.

Even still, the humanities, nationwide, are hurting, according to Bialostosky.

“I think it’s a moment in the national conversation when humanities education has been devalued,” Bialostosky said. “There’s a cycle about these sorts of moments of valuation and devaluation, but this is a kind of low point amongst students.”

The cuts, he said, left some to think Pitt didn’t care about the humanities. 

“I think the University is eager to reassert its commitment to the humanities,” he said. 

The focus on humanities is a University-wide initiative and seeks to answer the question  “what does it mean to be human?” according to the Humanities Center website.

Bialostosky is chairing a committee that will initiate projects and events, like hosting workshops and speakers, throughout the year. 

The action of the year will come from a committee of 13 professors from various disciplines and one administrator from student life. Pitt gave the committee $100,000 to dole out in grants for various projects. The committee posted a call for project proposals on the Humanities Center’s website in April. Non-humanities faculty can submit proposals and the committee will use the $100,000 to match up to $5,000 in project proposals, the website said.

Pitt instituted a similar framework for the Year of Sustainability last year, including a call for project proposals, according to its website. 

But as proof of Bialostosky’s claims, both Pitt and President Obama took definitive stances on the importance of the humanities last January. Within just a few weeks of each other, Pitt announced cuts to several humanities departments and Obama encouraged an audience to pursue a trade rather than a college degree. 

On Jan. 30 last year, Beeson announced that Pitt would eliminate its religious studies graduate program and continue the suspension of admissions to its graduate programs for German and classics. Pitt had suspended admissions to the three programs in April 2012, The Pitt News reported last year. 

Sixteen days earlier, at a General Electric plant in Wisconsin, Obama said students would do better to learn a trade than study the humanities.

“But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” Obama told the audience. 

The nation has listened. As of 2012, the percentage of students graduating college with a degree in the humanities has fallen by half since 1966 — from 14 percent to 7 percent — according to data from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At Pitt, this trend meant heavy cuts to the religious studies, German and classics departments last year.

These cuts, Bialostosky said, “left a possible perception that the University did not value the humanities,” and the President’s remarks hinted at the nation’s attitude toward the humanities in general.

Beeson said in a statement that Pitt hopes to redouble its focus on the humanities this coming school year.

“We hope that the Year of the Humanities in the University will not only draw attention to this importance, but will also result in collaborations across the University that will enrich the curriculum far beyond next academic year,” Beeson said.

The committee includes professors Geri Allen from the music department, humanities center chair Jonathan Arac from the English department, Margaret McDonald from the school of medicine and Terry Smith from the history of art and architecture department. 

So far, the committee is planning to invite speakers and host conferences that it hopes will stimulate humanistic thinking at Pitt.

Bialostosky said that Beeson has tasked the committee with identifying connections between formal humanities departments, the sciences and the social sciences.

Though it’s not formally on the agenda, one thing that might emerge from the year is the possibility of team-teaching, which would involve two professors from different departments teaching the same class at the same time.

Bialostosky said this could lead to the development of the health humanities, or the study of how medicine and humanities can collaborate. This potential for collaboration is what sets the Year of Humanities apart from the Year of Sustainability, Bialostosky said.

“This year is more an intra-university development than it is of developing awareness of something that’s happening in the world as a whole,” Bialostosky said. 

Pitt’s timing is good, too, given the nation’s current attitude towards the humanities, Weikle-Mills said — and as the President addressed in his speech last year.

“It is disheartening to see the negative press on the humanities nationwide, and I’m happy to see the University taking a lead in celebrating the humanities,” Weikle-Mills said. “It sends a strong message, I think.”

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