Profitable Humanities: Too Good to be True?

At first, I was entranced by a piece in UCLA Today about the extent to which departments in the hard sciences do or do not subsidize humanities departments. In it, Robert Watson, a professor of English at UCLA, notes that based on student fees and expenses, the English department there profited by $5.5 million (about a 10% margin), where “the physical sciences,” taken in aggregate, faced a loss of about the same size.

Lovely, I thought. This kind of fact appeals to the contrarian in me, because it gives me ammunition against detractors against what we do. I felt much as I did upon learning that the U.S. Postal Service hasn’t taken a penny of taxpayer money in decades. Ha!, I thought.

As I kept thinking, though, I ran into this problem: For every department to pay its own way is not enough, because a university is greater than the sum of its departments, from a budgetary perspective. That is, no students pay fees directly for many parts of the administration (from student affairs to the landscaping)—nor for the endowment, new construction, or other long-term considerations.

What’s more, the departmental fee-based income (or loss) is really small potatoes in a University’s operating budget1—or in terms of its overall income (or loss). The money that really matters comes in from donors. Case in point: In 2007-2008, UCLA received $481 million in new gifts and pledges alone.

That’s a huge chunk of cash compared to the English department’s profit or the comparably tiny loss from “the physical sciences,” with relatively little associated cost—perhaps a few million? And again, that’s just new gifts; the year-after-year stuff surely multiplies the number tremendously.

The more important question, then, is this: How much donor money does English bring in, as compared to engineering, medicine, athletics programs, and so on? Without any hard evidence, I can’t help but suspect those numbers are far more damning for the humanities than the short-term profit-and-loss figures presented by Prof. Watson.

(The flip side of this, which I’m invested in personally and professionally, is that general financial strength is probably the wrong measure for worth when one’s considering something like an English Department. But that’s really off-topic here, isn’t it?)

1 UPDATE: Further research confirms this “small potatoes” hypothesis. In 2007 – 2008, UCLA’s total spending on operations and capital expenditures (a mostly useless but dazzling figure) was $4,269,679,000. That’s over four billion dollars. At about one-eighth of one percent of that overall spending figure, how much can the English department’s operating profit really matter?

2 thoughts on “Profitable Humanities: Too Good to be True?

  1. Eric Kroczek March 25, 2010 / 10:16 pm

    Mark Slouka wrote an incisive essay in the Sept. 2009 Harper’s (online sub. req., though I have a copy of the magazine if you want to borrow it) about how university humanities departments have completely caved to the notion of defining their worth solely in terms of profitability, much to their detriment, just like the science and business programs do. Worth checking out.


  2. devan March 25, 2010 / 11:11 pm

    Thanks Eric. It just seems like such a bad idea to fall back on that logic. But maybe I’m naïve about the administrative realities of the university environment? Either way, I’d love to get a look at that piece, for sure. Seems like it’s the missing half of this post, really, only much better written and researched.


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