CLA hopes to revitalize the humanities

by Colleen Winters

The College of Liberal Arts might provide 47 percent of the University’s undergraduate instruction, but it only receives 23 percent of the Twin Cities’ campus instructional budget.
The underfunding has taken its toll on the college, but CLA faculty members and central administrators are looking for ways to bring it back to life.
“We have a very bold plan and a very complete set of ideas about what is necessary,” said CLA Dean Steven Rosenstone.
In the next few weeks, the college will propose to central administration ways to improve the humanities departments. The dean and department heads say a lot needs to be done.
“The humanities have in fact been hurt very badly,” said Richard Leppert, chairman of the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature.
Leppert, who has been at the University for 25 years, said he has seen the college’s resources decline since he came here.
He said the efforts of Rosenstone and the stated intentions of administrators are encouraging. “But we have a very long way to go,” he said.
A big problem that departments in the humanities face is a low number of faculty members. “The humanities and arts departments are very seriously understaffed, relative to the departments at the major research universities with which we compare ourselves,” Leppert said.
“You can’t staff a curriculum and train students in the absence of faculty,” he said.
Shirley Garner, head of the Department of English, said her department has fewer full-time faculty members than any of the English departments in other Big Ten schools. The department’s budget in faculty lines has been cut by $429,508 since 1993, she said.
The department has lost eight faculty members to resignations and retirements since 1993 and has only hired four, bringing the total to 37 full-time faculty equivalents, Garner said.
But for the first time in several years the department has been given permission to search for three new faculty members. The new hires will help bring the numbers close to where they were five years ago, she said.
Response to the search has been very positive, Garner said. For the three positions, the department had 1,320 applicants.
“We hope to fill these positions by next fall. That will be one step toward revitalizing,” she said.
Resources for research also need to be provided to the college, Rosenstone said. In the natural sciences, he said, about 35 percent of researchers get federal funds. In the humanities, only 2 percent are federally funded.
“So the result is that while engineers and scientists can apply to all kinds of agencies and private corporations to get their work funded, those kinds of resources simply aren’t available to the humanities,” Rosenstone said.
Support for graduate students is needed as well, he said. “The humanities disciplines here have been almost crippled because of their inability to put together competitive offers to attract the very best graduate students in the country,” Rosenstone said.
Other ways to rebuild the humanities include building on the strengths of the arts community in the Twin Cities, creating collaborations between the Institute of Technology and CLA, improving the facilities for the college, and building a Humanities Institute, Rosenstone said.
“What we’ve proposed is a University of Minnesota Humanities Institute, which would not just serve the college, but would serve the entire humanities community within the University,” he said.
The institute would provide opportunities for interdisciplinary teaching, research and creative activity, Rosenstone said. “It’s a model that’s worked very well at other universities,” he said, “and I think it’s a powerful idea that will serve all kinds of people in the University regardless of their particular intellectual agenda.”
These plans to improve the humanities departments will be presented to central administration in the next few weeks, but administrators are already voicing their support.
“I haven’t forgotten the humanities,” said University President Mark Yudof.
Although he said there is more attraction to “big-ticket items” such as digital technology in the Legislature, Yudof said he and the Board of Regents will try to systematically increase funding for the humanities.
Identifying funds within the University and looking for private support will be priorities, he said.
“We will raise money and make investments to upgrade and improve the humanities,” said Executive Vice-President and Provost Robert Bruininks.
Yudof cited plans for a New Media Institute, which makes up $18.9 million of the $290 million University budget request, and the search for faculty members in the English department as evidence that improvements are underway.
But Leppert said the college is exercising “cautious optimism” toward the proposals. “I think there’s some promise out there,” he said, “but it’s the kind of thing where we need to wait six months to know for sure.
“In the 25 years I’ve been here, the humanities have been promised things many times and have been given them precious few times.”