First they cut the humanities …

The academic news picture these days is not bright. Tuition hikes, budget cuts, program closures, research funding reductions … Perhaps I should find some other theme for this editorial. Perhaps you’re all tired of this one from endless and helpless conversations at department lunches and coffee breaks – not to mention career conversations with and among the not-yet-tenured generation. What a worn and depressing theme to be tossing onto everyone’s table in the holiday season. And yet, it is a theme that urgently needs discussing, and who more qualified than STSers to discuss it? We ought to be experts on just such a theme: the value of Science and Academe when confronting recession, and strategies for achieving recognition for that value, the role of Academe in democracy, and so on. So at the risk of spoiling the holiday mood, let’s see if I can spark a discussion.

In preparing to write this editorial, I googled the key words “academic”, “budget”, and “cuts”. It is not a new theme. Even in recent decades we have been through wave after wave of such cuts. No shortage, then, of empirical grist for an STS mill to examine.

What I found concerning the current wave (though perhaps not new for this wave, only I didn’t spend much time examining older materials) gave cause for concern for many reasons. First, it was almost exclusively articles from campus newspapers. Second, the cuts are targeting the rhetorically and economically weak. Third, research financing is being cut, even as part of tenured staff wages. And fourth, no one seems to be discussing the corruption connection. I could probably find further causes for concern, but let’s stop with these four for now.

First: The mainstream press seems unconcerned about academic budget cuts. Admittedly, I have done only a quick search, but the scarcity of mainstream sources on the first few pages of google hits is striking. So here’s one question for us science studies specialists: How do we build alliances with the public when starting from a base of media indifference?

Second: The cuts are targeting students, especially lower-to-middle income students. With tuition leaping upwards and campus jobs disappearing, only the wealthy and those so poor as to qualify for full financial aid. Another question for us science studies specialists: How might the role of science in society be affected by changes in the class background of students?

The cuts are also targeting subject areas with low rhetorical power. Not surprising, of course. This is how discourses work. Topics are seen as frivolous will be the easiest to attack. According to CBS News (01/10/2010,, accessed 21.12.2010,), cuts at SUNY include “eliminating existing programs, a decrease in scholarships, delays in snow removal and a reduction in university policing. Some of the programs to be cuts include French, Russian and Italian languages, theater, and classics.” This, and the famous text on intellectual nonchalance, attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), inspired my title. “First they cut the humanities … but I didn’t protest because I was in social sciences. They they raised tuitions and cut scolarships, but I didn’t protest because fewer students meant more time for my research.” In other words, when will the cuts hit us, and will we have protested in time and effectively?

Of course (and no surprise to us STSers), the notion of “frivolous” is a highly political one. Thus, when Arizona has decided to cut all ethnic studies program funding from public schools, this is not simply a matter of saving money. In fact, these programs have been running at a profit. What the measure does achieve is a monopoly for neo-liberal individualist models of history and the silencing of post-colonialist, collectivist, and critical views. (For more on this see, accessed 29.12.2010.)

Third: I haven’t managed to confirm rumors of furloughs and wage cuts of 50-60% for tenured adacemics in teaching positions, essentially paying only for teaching time and moving control over research agendas to outside funding sources, although I do see documented reports of less drastic furlough and wage cut measures. Also, increasing use of teaching-only (often non-tenurable) positions would have similar effects, as would shifts in funding from basic to applied and non-earmarked to topic earmarked programs. So where is the locus of control over research agendas heading, and what agendas are being prioritized?

Fourth: The University of California, where I am currently spending a sabbatical year, is formally owned by its regents – a board appointed by the governor. Intended as a structure to preserve Academic autonomy, it can also be used to serve other interests. This Fall it was revealed that at least three current and recent regents have managed to convince the board to move pension and investment funds into high-risk ventures that have profited these three at great cost to the university (see, accessed 21.12.2010). In other words, Academe is not a world apart, not exempt from the larger trend of increasing concentration of wealth amongst a few and increasing impoverishment of the many. Questions for us as scholars of as well as in Academe might include: How does this feed into and how is it fed by deterioration of democracy? What are the consequences for knowledge production?  And what can we as STSers do about it?

I wish you all the best for the New Year. The immediate future may look gloomy, but here’s hoping we will survive, even flourish.


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