Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Department Chair as Admission Counselor and the Fate of the Humanities On Our Campuses

I learned yesterday that two honors students have committed to Messiah College to study history.  This news made my day. I have been courting these students for a few months now.  I know their names. I have met their families. I even know their favorite historical era.

As humanities enrollments decline across the country it has become necessary for department chairs and other faculty members at colleges like Messiah to get  more involved in the admissions process.  The days of leaving recruitment solely in the hands of the college admissions staff are over. Departments like ours need to make a compelling case to prospective students and their parents about the value of a history degree.  We at Messiah College have done well on this front.  We have thought hard and long about what our students can do with a history major after graduation. We have developed a career plan that begins with a first-year "Introduction to History" course heavily focused on career development.  I have also devoted an entire chapter of my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past to the question "What Can You Do With a History Major?"  (This year we began giving a copy of this book to some of our prospective students and it appears to have paid off in the form of a modest increase in the number of incoming history majors). We have developed a new Public History concentration to attract students and have brought the department more fully into the world of the digital humanities.  A lot is happening in the Messiah College History Department and we are proud of the work that has been and continues to be accomplished.

But a history major continues to be a hard sell in today's economic climate. I have had to fight tooth and nail for every new major.  I have made more phone calls, sent more e-mails, and composed more hand-written notes than I ever have before.  I have appealed to the Admissions Office and Financial Aid Office for better packages for accepted students.  At this point I am one step short of making visits--Bear Bryant style--to the living rooms of prospective history majors.  ("What would it take to get you in a Messiah College History Department uniform?")

As a Department Chair I get one course reduction per semester to handle my administrative and recruitment duties.  The work I put into recruiting students alone is far more than the time it would take me to simply teach another section of the United States survey course.  Yet I remain committed to building a very strong History Department at Messiah College--both in terms of the faculty we hire and the students we bring to study with us.  I continue to see this as necessary work.

But I am also sympathetic to history department chairs at small colleges like Messiah who do not take their work as recruiters very seriously.  In order to sell a program to prospective students you have to have a strong program to sell.  You have to believe in your product.  Many colleges have abandoned a commitment to the humanities (and liberal arts more broadly).  Yes, they still offer courses in history, English, philosophy, foreign languages, etc..., but they tend to understand the courses that humanities faculty teach in terms of service to the larger and more attractive professional programs.  I have been around the country--as an external reviewer and as a visiting lecturer--and have talked to a lot of faculty members and administrators. The latter are talking online learning, STEM, professional training, and money-making graduate programs. College administrators are rarely speaking the language of undergraduate liberal arts.  Why work hard at recruiting new history majors when administrators are cutting faculty lines, reducing budgets, and chipping away at what were once proud departments.  This can only result in a sort of malaise among the humanities faculty as they lose more and more confidence in the administration's willingness to see their disciplines as essential to a college's liberal arts mission.

Some schools are trying to hold the liberal arts line (I talked to faculty from a few of them this weekend), but such schools are becoming fewer and fewer in number.