Post Academic

The humanities are profitable? UCLA English Prof says yes…

This essay by UCLA English Professor Robert N. Watson, originally published behind the Chronicle‘s paid-content wall, has been making the rounds online, offering the counterintuitive, mythbusting claim that the humanities are anything but vestigial and freeloading–in fact, according to Watson, they are actually more profitable than the sciences.  Taking exception with another Mark Yudof foot-in-mouth nugget that the “core problem” of university budgets is “Who is going to pay the salary of the English department?,” Watson makes the novel suggestion–the English Department:

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.

In fact, Watson shows that the UCLA writing program has produced $4.3 million in fee revenue, but has only cost $2.4 million to run.  One good question would be where did the $1.9 million profit go?  Is it used to subsidize other departments in the humanities that are in the red or even programs in other schools, or does it somehow come back to the English dept, or does it disappear into the ether of UC accounting?  I think what he means here by revenue are the fees and tuitions generated by humanities students, though it’s a little bit unclear.  To be even more instrumental, you’d think that lower-division writing programs and Intro-to-Humanities courses would be able to generate even more revenue and be even more of a financial asset for schools, since they’ve become something of service curriculum for students going into the sciences and engineering.  The profit margin created by the humanities, Watson seems to explain, has a lot to do with lower costs associated with humanities classes:

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.”

You should definitely take a look at Watson’s thought-provoking piece for yourself, especially if you’re trying to find an argument that runs counter to commonplace ideas that the humanities have become a vanity project or an indulgence in the corporate university.  While I’m not sure I buy all the accounting, especially how fee generation is divvied up and tallied up by department, it’s compelling to see how a humanities type can make a powerful and, dare I say it, “practical” argument using at least one version of the facts and hard data.

“Bottom line shows humanities really do make money” by Robert N. Watson [UCLA Today]

“The Humanities Really Do Produce a Profit” by Robert N. Watson [The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/21/2010] (subscription required)


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