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Arguing that the humanities are facing a crisis of funding and attention, Cornell University's president, David Skorton, used his "state of the university" address Friday to say that he planned to start a national campaign on behalf of the humanities.

Much of his talk was about plans at Cornell to hire more than 100 humanists at various career stages over the next decade, but in answer to a question, he said he plans to start a national campaign on the issue of the humanities generally -- and he discussed this goal in an interview Sunday.

"I have been disappointed not to see sufficient national dialogue" on the humanities, he said. "I don't hear a national conversation about funding for the humanities." As a result, Skorton said he would focus on humanities issues in major public addresses like Friday's on campus and in others off campus, and that he would be working to involve leaders of other universities in doing the same.

Photo: Robert Barker/Cornell U.

David Skorton during his State of the University address Friday

For a start, he said that it was time for university leaders to push for a halt to the erosion of the budgets of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, and to articulate a vision for the importance of the humanities.

With regard to the budgets for the cultural agencies, Skorton noted that they survived attempts in 1994-5 to eliminate them, but had their budgets cut severely. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the endowments are today one-third below where they were in 1994, while the budget for National Institutes of Health has almost doubled and that of the National Science Foundation has more than doubled. The budget for the last fiscal year for the NEH was $167.5 million, and President Obama proposed a small cut, to $161.3 million for this year. (The total NEH budget would be a rounding error in the NIH budget, which exceeds $30 billion.)

Beyond the budgets for the endowments, Skorton said that he believes faculty morale "has been quite diminished" nationally in humanities disciplines, and that many professors fear that students are hesitant to major in these fields in such tough economic times. "It is not an exaggeration to say that the humanities may hit a negative tipping point," he said, "so there is urgency."

Noting the current budget picture, Skorton said he would start with "modest" goals: first halting any cuts in absolute dollars for federal cultural agencies, then seeking money to cover losses to inflation, and then seeking meaningful gains. But he said it was important to start making a case on why the humanities need more support -- and to make that case based on national needs, not just the extent to which such investment would help higher education.

He would make the case this way: "You can't recreate the past and relive it again, but we can understand so much more," he said, and that can be to the benefit of American goals. "When I hear military leaders talking about winning the so-called hearts and minds of people in other countries, the way I translate that is all based on humanistic and social science disciplines. That requires that we understand the language, the culture, the religion, and the values of those societies -- and that is the humanities."

Turning to current headlines, he said that the lack of civility in society points to the need for the humanities. "Watching the midterm elections, they seem nasty to me, not civil. The tragedy at Rutgers -- isn't that a lack of civility and a lack of values?" Skorton said. If people want to restore civility to public life (a goal of James Leach, the NEH chair), then "the values of the humanities need to be emphasized." He also argued that ethics problems in the business world and in academic research (with recent misconduct scandals) illustrate the importance of the critical thinking that is taught in the humanities.

Many current headlines in academe tell the stories of humanities departments being eliminated at colleges all over the country. The foreign languages have taken hits at many institutions, as have other fields.

Skorton said that, speaking as the president of an institution with far more resources than most in higher education, he did not want to criticize the choices of other presidents. And he said that it was important for colleges to deal with economic difficulties "not just on the revenue side" by raising tuition, but also by making real budget cuts, however difficult that may be at many institutions.

But he said that higher education leaders need to "be thinking broadly about all disciplines" -- not forgetting the humanities -- and then using the bully pulpit on their behalf.

Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, said he has noticed increasing concern among university leaders about "the marginalization of non-scientific work" in higher education. "At every meeting these days, there is concern expressed about the status of the humanities and the fear that the humanities and to some extent the social sciences are being sidelined in a discussion about higher education that seems to focus almost exclusively on the economic value of universities."

Berdahl said that he has heard Skorton speak "very forcefully" about the issue among university presidents and that he was pleased that he was going public with a bid to engage in a broader discussion. And he said Skorton's background as a biomedical researcher "lends a great deal of credibility to his call." Berdahl said he expected the AAU to discuss how to build on Skorton's efforts -- and that he agreed that there has been inadequate public discussion of these issues.

"If you look at what's happening to universities, they are trying to maintain the sciences and, in this downturn, to offer a justification for investment in the universities, and we have not made the case for the humanities as forcefully as we have for science," Berdahl said.

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