Petersen: The College of Humanities Deserves Better


(The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Josh Petersen, Digital Managing Editor

The University of Utah has a robust humanities program with talented faculty, a dedicated and intellectually curious student population and plenty of extracurricular opportunities. Students outside of humanities enrollment likely have no idea this is the case, however. Advertising brochures, New Student Orientations and general public relations from the U tend to focus on STEM and business at the expense of every other field of study. To be fair, the U provides an excellent education in these emphasized areas. The Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute gives students the unique opportunity to innovate and develop as entrepreneurs. Some of the U’s finest achievements come from research conducted by the faculty and students in the College of Science. Still, the College of Humanities continues to attract world-class faculty members who give students valuable life and career skills. It is a shame that the department is of treated by the university as an afterthought.

The U’s hyperfocus on business is clear even in the geography of campus. At one point last year, I dramatically told a friend that English majors would have to start meeting at a Pizza Hut in Taylorsville so that the business school could have another new building. This joke was obviously an exaggeration, but the differences in facilities are significant. The David Eccles School of Business dominates central campus with two large buildings — the Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building, finished in 2013 for a $72 million total, and the Robert H. and Katherine B. Garff Building, which opened in 2018. While the new Gardner Commons building currently houses some humanities classes, there is still not enough classroom space to accommodate many humanities students. Many classes are held in random buildings on campus, including the Business Classroom Building, which is an older and less technologically advanced building that is barely used by the current business school. (This problem is in no way unique to the humanities. The Daily Utah Chronicle found that the current Performing Arts Building is in disrepair and is not conducive to the needs of the College of Fine Arts.) It’s true that a fancy classroom does not necessarily equate a quality education and wealthy donors outside of U leadership often fund new buildings. (Insert a joke about unemployed philosophy majors here.) Still, a lack of investment signals a lack of interest, and since I came to the U in 2016, the humanities have seemed low on the priority list for many.

The treatment of the humanities feels particularly hard to stomach because it represents a larger national trend. Many students themselves are rejecting the humanities — enrollment in the field has been steadily dropping for several years. Benjamin Schmidt, a history professor at Northeastern University, called this trend a “crisis.” Many feel these degrees are impractical or financially imprudent, but the facts paint a different picture. Humanities graduates report similar levels of employment and job satisfaction compared to all other areas of study. These financial calculations often overshadow other important points about the humanities. My education in the field has made me more thoughtful, more empathetic and more aware of the world around me. If years of bad news in business and politics have taught us anything, it’s the need for a deeper understanding of topics like ethics, history, gender and race — really anything taught to a humanities major. I’ve found my time in the humanities incredibly worthwhile. I simply wish that leaders at the U made it clear that they feel the same way.

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