Futuring Paper – The Role of the Arts and Humanities

Co-Conveners: Sheila Curran Bernard (History) and Danny Goodwin (Art & Art History)

In seeking to break down barriers and challenge our assumptions, we must continue promoting and prioritizing the arts and humanities, especially for our young people. In many ways, the arts and humanities reflect our national soul. They are central to who we are as Americans -- as dreamers and storytellers, creators and visionaries. By investing in the arts, we can chart a course for the future in which the threads of our common humanity are bound together with creative empathy and openness. When we engage with the arts, we instill principles that, at their core, make us truer to ourselves.

- President Barack Obama, National Arts and Humanities Month, September 28, 2016

What are the Humanities?

The term 'humanities' includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.

--National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, 1965, as amended
National Endowment for the Humanities

Arts Education

Every student should have the opportunity to participate in the arts, both in and out of school. We know that students who participate in the arts are more engaged in life and are empowered to be fulfilled, responsible citizens who can make a profound positive impact on this world. In addition, NEA-supported research has shown that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who have arts-rich experiences are more likely to achieve key positive outcomes—academically, socially, and civically—compared with their peers who lack access to arts experiences.

--National Endowment for the Arts


  1. Past and Present: What forces are acting on the role of Arts and Humanities in public research universities today, both those internal to the University, within the region, and nationally for higher education?

  2. To answer, we begin with a look at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences 2015 definition, of a public research university, in Public Research Universities: Why They Matter:

    In an interconnected and rapidly changing world, the United States requires an educated citizenry to support a constant flow of research and innovation and to sustain its international competitiveness. Public research universities are a foundational piece of the U.S. educational infrastructure that meets this need. A 2012 report to the president and to Congress defines public research universities as “research intensive, doctorate-granting institutions that receive a share of funding from state and local appropriations and serve as a critical component of the overall higher education landscape.” In 2013, public research universities enrolled approximately four million students nationwide—an average of about eighty thousand students in each state. These institutions provide high-quality educational opportunities to students at all income levels. Further, public research universities enroll the best and brightest students in every state: 87 percent of entering freshmen are from the top half of their graduating high school class.

    This same report argued that public research universities serve the national interest, through:

    • Regional and national economic development
    • Discoveries made or knowledge advanced
    • Advancement of the cultural vitality of their states and regions

    They contribute to the innovation economy by:

    • Fueling state and national economic development
    • Fostering research- and innovation-based relationships with business, industry, the non- profit sector, and government
    • Managing intellectual property for the public good

    forces acting on the role of the Arts & Humanities in public research universities, therefore, include:

    1. Growing recognition of the importance of the arts and humanities in addressing the major issues of our times. From climate change and intensifying pressure on natural resources to global conflict and human rights, science and technology alone can offer only part of the solution. As Dr. David J. Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote in Scientific American, “Science has two important yields: increased understanding of the world within and around us (‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’) and solutions to specific problems. But even the most profound scientific knowledge won’t solve world problems such as hunger, poverty and environmental damage if we fail to respect, understand and engage cultural differences.” He argues that “through the study of art, music, literature, history and other humanities and social sciences …we gain a greater understanding of the human condition than biological or physical science alone can provide.”

      At the same time, non-scientists need to gain “an understanding of the scientific method and the ability to analyze, synthesize and critically assess what ‘the experts’ tell them.” Both of these goals are possible in a university that breaks down the walls between disciplines and re-embraces the arts and humanities as equal partners with STEM in the effort to effectively and responsibly prepare students not only for jobs but also for global citizenship.

    2. Opportunities for local, regional, national and global recognition for achievement. The University at Albany celebrates and is celebrated for the accomplishments of its community. Through various academic departments, schools, institutes, museums, and performing arts centers, the University has attracted exceptional students and faculty and succeeded in bringing renowned individuals in the arts and humanities to campus. Unfortunately, significant damage to our national reputation in these areas was wrought by the Arts & Humanities program deactivations of 2010-2011. Addressing and overcoming this damage should be a priority as we move forward, to not only maintain current enrollments and offerings but also to grow them, for the benefit of the entire university community, on and beyond campus.

    3. Opportunities to build on current growth by actively removing walls beyond arts and humanities and others areas of university life and scholarship. In addition to reversing the deactivations and promoting a renewed focus on excellence and achievement in the arts & humanities, UAlbany should also explore new and innovative ways to create opportunities for cross-pollination, creating a more modern and rigorous program across disciplines. For an example of this, see the Rhode Island School of Design’s “Stem to Steam” initiative, which “added Art and Design to the national agenda of STEM education and research in America.” The goal of the initiative “is to foster the “true innovation” that comes with merging science, technology, art and design. This combination, they argue, “teaches the flexible thinking, risk-taking and creative problem solving needed to solve today’s most complex and pressing challenges – from healthcare to urban revitalization to global warming.” Edmund S. Phelps, Director of the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University, argues that today’s labor markets “do not need only more technical expertise; they require an increasing number of soft skills, like the ability to think imaginatively, develop creative solutions to complex challenges and adapt to changing circumstances and new constraints.”

    4. Incorporation of humanistic and artistic endeavors among the priorities of a university’s research division. The University at Albany’s Division of Research, under the leadership of James Dias, has made strides in recognizing the positive role of “world-class research, scholarship and artistic endeavors” in enabling the university “to grow, to attract external funding and recognition, and to engage students at all levels.” This is a very positive message and one that can be further expanded on as the arts and humanities play central role and expanded role that will better position the University to meet its vision for excellence, relevance, advancement and impact, today and into the future.

    Negative forces acting on the role of the Arts & Humanities in public research universities, therefore, include:

    1. Socioeconomic forces leading parents and students to focus on what they believe (erroneously) are “jobs-oriented” majors, versus skills- and knowledge-oriented learning. As Forbes reported in April 2015, a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found a college hiring priority in engineering (72%); business (68%), and computer science (58%). “Only 11% of respondents said they would hire humanities students…” At the same time, the “skills they most value in new hires… in order of importance” were most heavily weighted to the types of skills and experiences learned and nurtured in the arts & humanities:

      • Critical Thinking/Problem Solving
      • Teamwork
      • Professionalism/Work Ethic
      • Oral/Written Communications
      • Information Technology Application
      • Leadership
      • Career Management

      This paradox of presumed pragmatism may also be found in the U.S. Dept. of Labor Employment Projections for 2014- 2024, which forecasts arts and humanities related occupations as having “favorable” to “very favorable” prospects, particularly in New York State, in the near future (26% projected growth in employment over the period, compared to 13% projected average for all industries).

      Unfortunately, the misconceptions and their coverage in the media have affected public and private research universities nationwide (and globally), resulting in decreased admissions in important humanities and arts disciplines. These misconceptions have not successfully been responded to in the media, and have resulted in program cuts such as those at the University at Albany. These, in turn, reinforce a perception among potential applicants that the ship is sinking, which leads to even lower enrollment or to students who’d pursue those disciplines looking at institutions that still seem to encourage them. Both as part of the national community of research universities and as its own institution, UAlbany needs to give the humanities and arts the same prominence it has recently given science, engineering, cybersecurity, business, etc., working to address not only current incorrect perceptions but also to make UAlbany, once again, a destination for students seeking excellence and experience in a wide range of fields, including arts & humanities

    2. While we acknowledge and appreciate the efforts made by the university and its research division (see above), more could be done to ensure that definitions of “research” do not privilege scientific or medical discovery vs. artistic achievement or humanities-focused knowledge production. This can be viewed in several ways, such as:

      1. The understandable but challenging focus on quantitative rather than qualitative results when it comes to faculty research support. Grants from the NIH and NSF are historically much larger and designed to support research labs and significant equipment costs, in addition to supporting significant university overhead. Support from the NEH and NEA, in contrast, tends to go to individual scholars or artists or to individuals working in collaboration with outside agencies. Individual awards are far too small to allow for overhead or course release coverage; even fellowships are usually far below a faculty member’s salary level. At the same time, these awards are no less important to an individual’s professional development, and no less significant as indicators of prestige, innovation, or merit. Moreover, much Humanities and Arts research does not require grant funding; time is often far more important than money. Publications, performances, exhibitions and the like are the markers for research excellence in these fields. An emphasis on revenue generation diminishes the cutting edge research that takes place in the Humanities and Arts.

        A public research university needs to foster excellence across the full range of disciplines, most certainly including the Humanities and Arts. That UAlbany has had significant faculty attrition in these areas over the past ten years is a major concern that should be explored and addressed.

      2. Recent developments in the physical campus that emphasize the sciences and athletics. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s dream of educational equality and the largest state system in the country was reflected in the architecture of the UAlbany campus, as Jennifer Kabat has written in “The Butte rfl y Eff ect”—an essay that accompanies the Future Perfect: Picturing the Anthropocene exhibition at the University Art Museum. Edward Durell Stone’s original plan, in the 1960s, expanded a College for Teachers into the model of a broad-based public research institution that would provide a liberal arts education for large numbers of undergraduates and a robust range of graduate programs.
      3. To some, the large-scale construction and expansion have been interpreted as a shift of institutional priorities toward the sciences and professional training, possibly at the expense of other disciplines, beyond general education. This is quite likely an unintended perception, and no one would argue that growth in the sciences and business do not benefit everyone. But it may be time to proactively reassert the significance of the arts and humanities to the University’s mission through various means. It also might be useful to incorporate consideration of the arts & humanities into all project planning, to make their presence not separate from but a vital part of new ventures, such as the Emerging Technology and Entrepreneurship Complex.
        Just as STEM plays a significant role in the creation of programming at the Performing Arts Center, the humanities and arts should not be absent from the engineering and technology centers. In fact, the University at Albany might be at the forefront of truly integrating the full scale of human experience into its architecture as well as its academic and campus life.

    3. Imbalanced allocation of resources to sports. The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others, have assembled data to show that in the vast majority of schools, alumni donations do not sufficiently offset the cost of athletic programs, which puts disproportionate pressure on student fees and university operating budgets. Indeed, a recent report suggested that UAlbany is unusually challenged when it comes to subsidizing its football program out of its general operating budget (http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/ncaa/sports-at-any-cost). This is a
    4. campus-wide discussion but certainly an area to be considered as we review the resources allocated to the arts and humanities, now and especially into the future.

  3. Near and Distant Future: In 10 years, what forces will further shape this role? Which forces will accelerate change and which ones will slow down progress? How will teaching and learning, administration, and student service be affected?

    [The humanist] takes some cultural product that seems at first strange and off-putting — a poem by some ancient Greek or Persian poet, a novel by some African or Chinese author, a statue from an indigenous culture whose true name we don’t even know — and, if she is a good teacher, makes it familiar enough to be interesting. Doing that inevitably expands the minds of the students, bringing their horizons just a little closer to the widest horizons of all — those of humanity itself.

    Scientists, of course, do this too — when they explain the delicate structure of a trilobite or the chemical reactions driving a star. And when they do this, they are engaging in humanistic thought — not in the sense that it is about a separate group called "humans," but in the sense that it produces individuals to whom, to paraphrase the Roman playwright Terence, nothing human is truly alien. And so produces humanity itself.
    - Prof. John McCumber, The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 2, 2016

  4. The answers given throughout this paper, we believe, begin to address the forces affecting teaching and learning, administration, and student services – both positive and negative.

  5. Challenges and Opportunities: What are the implications for the institution, and students, staff and faculty? Specifically, what new opportunities may be created in the future?

    1. Renewed and expanded focus on the arts and humanities within a growing University at Albany affords a chance to build on the core values of higher education and the central mission of SUNY and the university, to provide “educational services of the highest quality, with the broadest possible access, fully representative of all segments of the population in a complete range of academic, professional and vocational postsecondary programs…” The arts and humanities have intrinsic value; they are central to and expressive of the human experience; they help us to think about ourselves and others; about family, culture, ethics, conflict, life, death, the world around us and the world within. In asking these questions now, the University has an opportunity, as a public research institution, to set itself apart (and place itself within the realm of a select number of private universities) as it imagines a more comprehensive, inclusive, imaginative, and meaningful educational experience in all of its disciplines.

    2. “Crisis” has become one of the defining features of our age, and the Arts and Humanities  are uniquely capable of providing necessary historical depth, analytical sophistication, and critical capacity to substantively address the profound challenges we currently face. They do not do so in a vacuum or to the exclusion of other disciplines, but they are indispensable to a critical engagement with our contemporary world. Consider only the most visible and obvious issues that require complex, multidimensional solutions: the environmental crises of climate change; the political crises of militarized violence; the social crises of refugee migration; the economic crises of stagnation and inequality.

    3. Changes in technology offer a significant and necessary opportunity to more fully integrate the many worlds within the university, including the arts, sciences, humanities, computer sciences, social sciences, business and more. Digital scholarship is already changing the way we gather, analyze, preserve and present findings throughout the disciplines. The arts & humanities offer unparalleled means to effectively explore the social, political, historical, ethical, aesthetic and moral implications – the context – of what is found.

    4. Perhaps paradoxically, the very technological advancements that have enabled the embedding, in software and hardware, of mastery of tasks that once required much knowledge, practice, and developed skill have fueled a renewed appreciation of the carefully-crafted or “artisanal,” the richness of books, art, and ideas as such, unmediated by technology.

      1. Maker-spaces thrive not only because technology has enabled the more democratic distribution of technologies such as 3-D printing, custom programming, and robotics, but precisely because we have become alienated from the means of production of the goods we consume and yearn for creative outlet and agency. Further, the maker-space movement, which affords those interested in invention and fabrication a communal, collaborative environment in which to realize their ideas, is based on the well-established model of the studio (in art, music, theatre) or lab (in the sciences) setting in the university.
      2. Likewise the seminar rooms of Philosophy, History, and English continue to be sites of rich and intense learning and intellectual exchange that require neither synchronous chat nor high resolution imaging.
      3. Libraries, and the richness of human learning they contain, stubbornly continue to play a pivotal role in the intellectual lives of a university campus, and serve as the source of innovative and transformative research in the Arts and Humanities. Even as they move to embrace and take full advantage of the digital technologies that are transforming the way information is gathered, analyzed, preserved, and shared, they also remain indispensable as vibrant, dynamic spaces in which people interact with each other and with artifacts of the past and present.

    5. With the widespread adoption of personal technology and effortless “connectedness” comes an increasing focus on interiority and a challenge to ethics/morality, as well as an increasing fragmentation and ubiquity of information. An important role of arts and humanities is the advancement of criticality: of describing, interpreting and evaluating an overwhelming flood of information. These disciplines also provide a modality to help restore a historically central aspect of education, learning and experience that encourages self-reflection and knowledge of one’s life within the context of civic society.

    6. Arts and humanities education at the University can help bridge a growing societal gulf between these aspects of our expressive culture, by instilling (in our students, our faculty and administration, and our various publics) an appreciation for and understanding of their inherent and essential value. In the arts and humanities as well as in the sciences, there must be freedom to nurture creativity, innovation, and investigation for its own sake, without concern for pragmatism or practicality. They must be free to speak truth to power, and to give voice and access to those without either. A renewed focus on the arts and humanities allows the University to address historical differences between what is construed as practical/useful in education and what is not; it also offers a powerful way to explore and challenge the divide between popular culture and more “elite” forms of artistic expression.

    7. The increased privatization of public educational institutions challenges the historic role of the State university as a public trust, a means by which all citizens, rich or poor, can gain access to comprehensive liberal, as well as professional education. A comprehensive vision of public education requires the reintegration of the Arts and Humanities within the disciplines. Only in this way can we restore the central role our public educational institutions play in shaping the well-rounded leaders and educated citizenry needed in a rapidly changing society.

  6. Responsibilities and Charges: How will the future developments and opportunities affect the university – impacted departments or units? How might UAlbany respond to these within the strategic planning process?

  7. What does it mean for a culture if these means of grappling with human experience become unavailable on public university campuses but remain available on private ones? Will that not make even more prominent key divisions among us?
    -       Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed, New Republic, September 6, 2013

    We must start now to break down the walls not only between academic disciplines and departments, but also between academia and the public--encouraging cross-fertilization and understanding.

    1. A first step in any strategic planning exercise ought to be asking faculty what they and their departments need in order to succeed and thrive. We should embrace interdisciplinary and innovative projects, as we argue below. However, that cannot come at the expense of building strong departments staffed by tenure-track research faculty. If we are to become a nationally competitive school, capable of recruiting top research faculty, top doctoral students, and top undergrads, we must invest in the core academic mission of the university.

    2. Interdisciplinarity grows from a basis in strong departments. But it can be fostered by sound strategic planning. We advocate for the strategic hiring of faculty to encourage research and teaching that encompasses the sciences, arts, and humanities. We endorse the development of courses in the history of science, the art of mathematics, artistic expressions of political and social developments, etc.

    3. We should endorse the incorporation of the humanities in the University’s ongoing efforts to involve all students, across disciplines, learn more and effectively engage with the broader world, through the use of technologies in the classroom; through language acquisition and the study of global cultures; and through travel and first-hand experience of life and learning outside the U.S.

    4. We should encourage the promotion of majors and coursework for students across the disciplines that debunks the popular myth that “artists” and “scientists” are wired differently (as reported in Discover and elsewhere, neuroscience has proven this to be false) or that exceptional work is the result of isolated genius, rather than collaboration, effort, perseverance, and even failure, thereby encouraging interdisciplinary work, exploration, and appreciation.

    5. We need to encourage and promote the interdisciplinary efforts of faculty, staff, and students whose work straddles academic and real-world practice, as well as emphasizing the artistic and humanistic aspect of STEM efforts and vice versa, creating a visceral sense of the connective tissue that binds not only the academic disciplines, university- wide, to each other, but that also combines what we do with the world at large. The Arts and Humanities offer a crucial means to engage our many ways of knowing and doing.

    6. Through a combination of the above efforts, and through integrating these efforts with the University’s growing commitment to public engagement efforts, we hope to make the work we do less “elite” and more relevant to our neighbors, and more attractive, useful and meaningful to the students of tomorrow.