Are Humanities Core To The Land Grant University Mission?

May 5, 2017

Scott Henkel, UW Assistant Professor of English and African American and Diaspora Studies.
Credit University of Wyoming

As the University of Wyoming faces steep budget cuts, the university community is revisiting which programs are core to the land grant mission. To a lot of people, it feels like the humanities are at odds with the sciences, and both of them are at odds with applied disciplines. But one English professor has taken a look at the history of the land grant university and found that none of that is quite true.

In the humanities, unlikely ideas come together. Lawrence Weschler is a former New Yorker Magazine staff writer and an expert on the humanities. He recently visited UW to talk about where science and the humanities meet. He says they’re not so different. “Under the humanities you can have literature, and you can have visual arts, and you have sciences. I mean, sciences are one of the great expressions of the human spirit.”

But as the University of Wyoming has to find places to cut funds, “expressions of the human spirit,” whether scientific or poetic, can seem less essential than career-track programs. That’s Wyoming Senator Ogden Driskill of Devils Tower. He serves on the Appropriations Committee, which oversees UW’s budget. He says getting people jobs in Wyoming industries should be the university’s top priority.

“My personal opinion, I’d really like to see the university educating kids for jobs and things we have in Wyoming,” Driskill says. “Probably the priorities that the legislature’s shown has been through funding beyond the block grant, which to a large degree has been engineering and the technical end of things.” 

So as the university weathers a financial crisis, what’s a good vision for its future? Jobs? Expressions of the human spirit? Scott Henkel is an assistant professor of English and African American and Diaspora Studies at UW. He says the humanities have been a central part of the land grant university mission since its beginning.

“In fact, it’s hard to imagine the land grant university without the humanities. In the early part of the 19th century, schools of divinity, schools of medicine, schools of law, were the norm in the higher education landscape. And the people who set up the land grant university mission wanted a more universal education.”

Henkel says the idea of the land grant university is to educate anybody who wants to go, regardless of their wealth. To provide wide foundations for students to stand on, and intellectual rabbit holes where they can follow their curiosity. He says a land grant university is inherently democratic—unlike professional schools or private universities, it can broadly educate a broad citizenry.

But can a land grant university do all that with decreasing funding?

“We are in a situation spanning back three, four decades now—where perpetual cuts to the university make it more difficult to carry out our mission which in turn becomes a justification for more cuts to the university which makes it even harder to fulfill our mission,” Henkel says.

UW president Laurie Nichols elaborates. “It is true I think that when we’re working on our strategic plan or when we’re looking at budgets we have to be strategic,” she says. “Because we can’t just do everything. We don’t have enough people or enough money to cover the waterfront probably in the way many people would love to see it happen, so there are times when you have to prioritize.”

President Nichols says that as university officials decide what to cut, they’re keeping the land grant mission in mind—she says she doesn’t want to see UW simply become an engineering or teaching school. She says the priority is students—on a big scale.

“I will say that we’re looking at a few programs for potential elimination,” Nichols says, “but it’s not driven by whether they’re a science or a humanities. It’s literally driven by enrollment figures; so, has this been a major that has attracted students over the years and has it graduated students?”

That’s a pretty utilitarian approach—the good of the many over the good of the few. With that philosophy, can UW continue to serve individual students who follow niche curiosities? Will eliminating small programs weaken existing ones? Both President Nichols and Henkel hope consolidations will strengthen programs and that everybody will be able to find an intellectual home at UW. Although that’s not guaranteed.

But if the humanities can encompass scientific and poetic expressions of the human spirit, Henkel says maybe they can even help the university through times of budgetary scarcity.

“One of my favorite writers, Benedict de Spinoza, said that joy was a person’s passage from a lesser to a greater degree of freedom,” Henkel says. “If the humanities work at the University of Wyoming can bring a little bit more joy in Spinoza’s understanding to everyone, then I think that we’ve done our job.”

Scott Henkel will give a talk on Monday afternoon at the Gateway Center in Laramie, exploring the history and future of land-grant universities and the humanities.