If you stand on the corner of Park Street and University Avenue, you will find yourself between two distinctly different areas of campus. On one side squats the Mosse Humanities Building: an outdated, stagnant relic of the past. The ceiling leaks, the narrow windows shut out natural sunlight, and the fluorescent light that reflects off the dull gray soulless concrete could give anyone a severe case of seasonal depression in the middle of July. On the other side of the street stands the business school’s Grainger Hall like some beaming 21st-century palace. Farther west lay even more state-of-the-art facilities like the Biotechnology Center and the Microbial Sciences building.
This eye-catching difference between Humanities and other buildings farther west is a good visual representation of the dwindling proportion of funding available to the humanities on campus. This declining financial presence on campus is not the fault of the University of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin State Journal reports the College of Letters and Science has devoted the same percentage of their budget to arts and humanities for the last 10 years. The problem instead lies in the failure of the humanities to entice more grants, gifts and contracts from federal and private sources outside the university. Other disciplines at the University of Wisconsin have collected so many more greenbacks from the outside that the humanities seem desperate for fresh air and sunlight by comparison. The biological, physical and social sciences have all seen their research funding from external sources boosted by at least 90 percent over the last 10 years, according to the Office of the Provost. The School of Engineering has experienced a nearly 80 percent rise, and the School of Business’ extramural funding has quadrupled. Meanwhile, extramural funding for humanities research has grown by a measly 20 percent in the last 10 years.
The humanities’ failure to attract more funding has already taken its toll. Already these disciplines seem second-rate in the large research university, the subpar buildings being just one of the reasons. Three-quarters of Grainger Hall was built by grants and gifts, so don’t expect major renovations to Humanities (which was admittedly problematic even when it was first built) until it comes further in the future. Full-time professors in the arts and humanities at UW earn about 25 percent less on average than their colleagues on campus, and their teaching assistants are similarly shortchanged. The combination of lower pay, fewer research grants and some of the sketchiest facilities on campus is scaring some of our best professors away to other top universities. The English department alone has already lost 10 faculty members in the last two years. Many cited juicier compensation packages at other universities, according to the State Journal.
To strengthen and improve the standing of the university as a whole, the humanities departments must follow the rest of the campus and tempt more financial donors to their fields.
So how can the humanities appear sexy and modern to the outside world? Not by passively waiting for people to give them money. The sad fact is that humanities studies can seem very irrelevant to the “real world” when compared to other departments. Stem cell research can save lives and cure diseases, and well-engineered bridges are solid, practical contributions to infrastructure. Investing in science and technology has proven time and again to lead directly to new businesses and high-paying jobs, an especially crucial need in our turbulent economy. A literary analysis of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part 1,” on the other hand, will only trade hands with a small community of dusty academics. As for the individual student, the benefits of a humanities degree is at best abstract and intangible outside of academia. A business or engineering degree is a tangible certification for an area of work on the job market, while a humanities degree is a certification of study.
Some say a humanities degree demonstrates more “critical thinking skills” or writing skills for the job market than other majors, but this is elitist at best and offensive at worst. These skills are abstract, unquantifiable and totally unfair to apply to humanities degrees at the exclusion of others. I know several science majors who write very well, are very well-read, and philosophize at length. And even though many humanities majors turn out to be CEOs, many also become entry-level burger flippers. It’s the individual who determines his career path with a humanities major; the degree itself is not a guarantee, unlike in the professional tracks.
If the humanities are going to attract more donors from outside UW, they will have to pursue them more aggressively and argue why they are more relevant in the “real world” than they appear. They can argue how foreign languages and cultural studies are of increasing importance in a globalizing world. They can show how invaluable history and philosophy have proved in shaping public policy. They can point out that universities are perhaps the only institutions that preserve and perpetuate our own culture, to remind us of who we are and where we have come from. And I truly wish I had time to describe what the humanities have meant to me on a personal level. The benefits of contributing to the humanities won’t be as apparent without a good dose of active persuasion and rhetoric in the outside world.
Jack Garigliano ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in history and English, which should surprise no one.