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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- From various corners of higher education come the cries that the humanities are dying, seemingly "all because somebody has a big lab somewhere," said Barrett Taylor, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia.

And in rebuttal, he said at a session at the Association for the Study of Higher Education here, are those who point out that the number of humanities majors has stayed largely static since the mid-1980s. "You still have majors, so things are good," they say.

In a paper presented here, Taylor and his co-authors seek to explore what he called “the murky middle ground” in the debate over whether the humanities are dying or thriving. "The Humanities Crisis: Death or Taxes?" examines the relationship between incoming revenues and the proportion of degrees awarded in the humanities at various types of four-year institutions, to see if the authors can identify a "qualitative change in the status of the humanities."

The authors -- in addition to Taylor,  Brendan Cantwell, a professor of education at Michigan State University, and Sheila Slaughter, a professor of education at Georgia -- find that "[n]either death nor prosperity seems imminent." But while the humanities aren't dying, the institutions (at least the private ones) that focus on them do pay a price in the form of a kind of "tax" that suggests a slow diminution, Taylor said.

The study examined baccalaureate and research institutions, both public and private, using data from 1988 to 2008. At baccalaureate colleges, the authors looked at the relationship between overall tuition revenue and the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the humanities. At research institutions, they analyzed the relationship between overall federal grant income and the number of Ph.D.s awarded in the humanities.

The authors set out to determine how much of a “tax” burden the humanities are to colleges and universities, given that the disciplines are generally seen as less of a moneymaker than other fields. The researchers write that the humanities “have become disfavored in the policy climate of competitiveness because many policy makers regard these disciplines as unlikely to yield novel discoveries or workforce development.”

The study shows that private institutions, both baccalaureate and research, net lower revenues by way of tuition and federal grants when they focus on humanities disciplines. The public universities in both realms do not seem to be affected by this “tax,” the researchers write, and the easiest explanation for that is the subsidies these institutions receive from state governments, which provide "some level of insulation," Taylor said. The humanities are much more dependent on direct public support than are other disciplines and fields because work in the humanities rarely generates revenue in private industry, the study says.

The authors note that state appropriations to higher education have taken a hit in recent years, creating the potential for these public institutions to face “tax” burdens like their private counterparts.

The study notes that other forces may lead to a future “inversion” of the humanities as a discipline, meaning that the fields would retreat “into the small number of elite institutions that are able to afford the luxurious pursuit of market-inefficient activities.

“Where the humanities were once the province of institutions insulated from quasi-market forces by state subsidy, they may become the domain of institutions insulated by decades of accumulated advantage,” the researchers write.

Doug Lederman contributed to this article, from Charlotte.

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