Despite the importance of the humanities in contextualizing our societies and strengthening cultural bonds, the humanities have seen declining enrollments in recent decades, with departments around the country affected. As noted by The Kansas Reflector, many flagship state universities, especially those in rural states, have seen deep and uncompromising cuts to their humanities programs. It is not beyond the realm of imagination that the University of Maine System (UMS) may soon follow their lead; signs have already appeared that the UMS is de-emphasizing the humanities in favor of other disciplines.
Take our Labor Studies minor. The labor union movement has played an inextricable role in Maine’s political history. The federally protected right to unionize continues to hold relevance in Maine labor-management relations, including on the Orono campus, where the Graduate Students’ Union received formal recognition in October to protect working hours for graduate students. Recently, in Fort Kent, where another UMS campus is located, a majority of nurses at Northern Maine Medical Center voted to unionize in order to ensure stronger protections and better working conditions for healthcare workers. Still, despite the labor movement’s presence in the annals of Maine political history, UMS has not emphasized the maintenance of its Labor Studies minor.
For the 2023-24 academic year, the entirety of classes in this minor were moved online, reducing the participation of the in-person students who make up the bulk of UMaine’s enrollment. Many states, including those with a stronger union history than Maine, have passed right-to-work laws, restricting the power of unions and collective bargaining, while union enrollment has declined every decade since the 1970s. If we don’t continue to encourage student involvement in these fields, we risk losing knowledge and discouraging those who would otherwise be involved in labor organizing.
With the exception of the more peripheral minors, such as Labor Studies, the main campus of the UMS has largely escaped the hollowing out of the humanities witnessed by many other universities, likely due to its sizable student population and considerable endowment aided by state funding. Other, smaller campuses in the UMS have not been so lucky, with UMaine Farmington witnessing the most drastic and well-publicized declines. The college has attracted much attention in the last few academic years as it jettisoned most of its adjunct faculty and cannibalized several of its humanities departments. Farmington’s administration has completely ended its world languages department, theology department, philosophy department, and women’s and gender studies department. For a school that had long prided itself on the strength of its liberal arts education and had fashioned itself as a ‘teacher’s college,’ it is difficult to imagine UMaine Farmington remaining an independent university for any extended period of time. Enrollment has declined by over a quarter, with the lost tuition only exacerbating its already dire financial situation. If UMaine Farmington were to close, it would have a knock-on effect of cascading budget shortfalls that would damage the already struggling economy of rural western Maine.
Additionally, STEM fields have become increasingly oversaturated, and a degree in these disciplines may not be as valuable as they once had been. Big Tech has struggled with maintaining a stable workforce, with technology conglomerates laying off more than 260,000 workers in 2023 alone. The cuts have not stopped in the new year, with Paypal recently releasing roughly 2,500, or 9 percent, of its workforce. Alongside cuts, which can simply signal a reallocation of jobs in a particular industry, Big Tech has also instituted hiring freezes that lockout recent graduates entirely. With this in mind, students who opt not to lead a career in the humanities in order to pursue what they believe will be a more lucrative career in STEM could be prevented from finding work in either.
The decreased importance placed on the humanities evident throughout higher education has compounded negative effects on the schools themselves, the labor market for young graduates, and American society. It is crucial that the UMS continues to recognize the outsized importance of the humanities, both for its own sake and for the sake of its student body.