OP-ED: Whitman proposes deep cuts to humanities, arts and languages

Henry Allen, Alumnus '15

This week, news was shared with a number of alumni about a recent proposal to generate budget savings through deep cuts to academic programs at Whitman. The proposal was created in response to a crisis in College finances brought on by COVID-19. Among the proposed cuts are six tenure-line positions in Classics, Environmental Humanities, History, Japanese, Mathematics and Statistics and Philosophy that will be eliminated after professors retire. Non-tenure-line positions in numerous other disciplines would also be cut, including Studio Art, Art History and Visual Culture Studies, Biology, Chinese, French, Japanese, Music, Politics, and Theater and Dance. Some adjunct faculty will not get their contracts renewed, while others will see their positions reduced. 68 percent of the faculty cuts are to the humanities and arts, and the cuts amount to 13.7 percent of the total humanities and arts faculty. Languages are taking a particularly big hit, with the proposed elimination of 24 percent of the total language faculty leading to the likely losses of the Classics, Chinese and Japanese majors. The future of the Environmental Humanities major will also be uncertain.

These cuts were developed by a Financial Sustainability Review committee and have blindsided the Faculty. They go against Whitman’s stated Strategic Priorities and violate the principle of shared governance, which gives the Faculty control over the curriculum. Last year, the Faculty were in the process of voting to strengthen the role of language study and environmental literacy in the General Education program. Some of the positions being cut, held by beloved retiring professors, are ones the Faculty previously identified as top priorities for hiring. The cuts also fall heavily on academics rather than on non-academic offices and programs in the College. Some of the proposed cuts, like the reduction of Classics faculty leading to the elimination of Latin and Greek language instruction and the major, are out-of-step with peer institutions. Others, like the loss of Don Snow’s position in Environmental Humanities after his retirement, will throw into doubt the future of a signature Whitman program.

More broadly, cutting nearly one seventh of the humanities and arts faculty will alter the future direction of the College. While crafted in response to the current crisis, the proposed changes will last far beyond it. President Murray communicated that the positions lost this year are unlikely to be reinstated in future years. They thus constitute a long-term shift in resources away from the arts and humanities.

Before the College embarks on such a significant change of course, it could stand to reflect on the value of the humanities, arts and languages at Whitman and in the world. However, the administration has indicated that it has no interest in doing this. The President and the Board of Trustees have given a deadline of February 15 to submit feedback on these proposed cuts. That said, some reflection on the value of the humanities and arts might be in order. The last few years have been tumultuous, and many of the problems we face are precisely what the humanities and arts are primed to address. Confronting political crises and fake news and working for social justice all require the creative, critical thinking that is developed in the very departments being cut. Language study and the intercultural awareness it facilitates are crucial to living in a multicultural, globalized world. As a liberal arts college, Whitman is the place for the in-depth study of the arts and humanities. A robust humanities faculty is one of the hallmarks of a Whitman education. In proceeding with these cuts, Whitman is jeopardizing not only its status as a liberal arts college, but also its mission of preparing students for lives of purpose.

Students and alumni who wish to speak up about these changes or the way they are taking place are encouraged to send their feedback (in separate emails) to President Murray, Professor Barry Balof and Professor Sharon Alker by February 15. Share your personal experience with any of the affected disciplines. Why is the discipline important to you? How did it shape your Whitman experience? Did it influence your decision to attend Whitman? How has it prepared you for life after Whitman?

Financial sustainability is essential to the continuing existence of Whitman College, but so are the arts and humanities. These cuts will transform the nature of the College, but they are not set in stone yet. As an alumni of the Divest Whitman campaign that successfully persuaded the College to divest its endowment of fossil fuel holdings, I know that when there is a groundswell of community sentiment on an issue, the College listens. Make your voice heard while there is still time. Speak up for the humanities, arts and languages at Whitman.


In solidarity with Whitties past, present and future,

Henry Allen

Class of 2015