Against national trend, Vanderbilt humanities remain strong

MHS and Economics have seen some growth while most majors remain relatively consistent


Sahanya Bhaktaram

Cohen Memorial Hall, which houses many humanities classes and a fine arts gallery.

Grace Lee, Staff Writer

Despite a national decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities and social sciences following the 2008 economic recession, Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science did not have any significant changes in major enrollment according to Dean of the College of Arts and Science John Geer. 

Geer declined to provide information on the enrollment status of individual departments or majors but said that though there has been little change overall, Vanderbilt did see small shifts from humanities towards social science majors, particularly MHS and Economics. 

“Everybody in the humanities saw that there was some drift, especially after the recession,” Director of Undergraduate Studies for the English department Lynn Esterline said. “I think most places are on the rebound now. My own personal sense is that it was an overreaction to the recession and also too narrow a definition of utility.”

Sociology Director of Undergraduate Studies David Hess echoed Geer and Esterline in an email to The Hustler, saying the main trends that were observed were shifts between social sciences and humanities, partly due to the growth of the MHS major. 

Over the last five years in A&S, there has been a slight decline in humanities majors. Science majors are basically flat over that same time period, with social science majors slightly higher,” Geer said in an email to The Hustler.

Geer emphasized that Vanderbilt believes that the humanities, sciences and social sciences are all of great importance and educational value. 

“We are different than many of our peers, because we will continue to invest in the humanities.  We have historical strength in these areas and if we move away from them we put our mission at risk,” Geer said.

In 2019, the University of Tulsa cut 32 degree programs to trim its budget, including philosophy, religion, and Russian and Chinese studies in an effort to focus the university’s money and energy on more pre-professional majors, like engineering. Though the State University of New York at Stonybrook hasn’t made any official cuts yet, it revealed plans in 2017 to cut humanities programs to rectify its $1.5 million budget gap.

At least fifteen states currently offer funding bonuses for certain majors at public universities that are high-demand in the job market, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. As part of a larger shift away from liberal arts education towards pre-professional preparation, Governors in Kentucky and South Carolina have suggested incentivizing major enrollment by post-graduate earnings, thus de-incentivizing humanities major enrollment.

Within specific departments at Vanderbilt, varying strategies have been employed to sustain or boost enrollment numbers. For example, the Sociology department created a major in Environmental Sociology to respond to student interest and also made other changes in response to student feedback, Hess said.

Similarly, the English department made changes to make the major seem more attractive. The English major is now more flexible so that it’s easier to double-major; for example, there are courses that are advisable to take first, but there is no strict order of courses that is required, according to Esterline. This allows students to more easily fit English courses into their schedules.

“There was a recent article in the Washington Post from an economist, [about] the fact that English majors ten years out do as well as their STEM peers,” Esterline said. “Not right off the bat in terms of salary, but after ten years it seemed pretty equal and they actually have very long legs in their career whereas some of the STEM people get trained in a technology that becomes obsolete.”

Geer echoed Esterline in discussing the long-term success of STEM and humanities majors.

“There is no one path to a successful career,” Geer said. “A STEM major might make more money right after graduation, but that gap closes over the course of your career. The best way to succeed in life is to follow your passion, whether that is Physics or Philosophy.”