Academy Article

A Profile of Humanities Departments pre-Covid


A wide-ranging survey of humanities departments conducted by the American Academy's Humanities Indicators project shows that prior to the pandemic, departments in most humanities disciplines appeared relatively unchanged since the Great Recession, with the exception of declines in undergraduate degrees. Alongside the benchmark data on faculty and students, the study offers new perspectives on career support for students, as well as digital and public engagement by the departments.

Among the key findings:


  • Despite common perceptions that tenured and tenure track faculty are being replaced by adjuncts, the survey detected no significant change in either the number or share of tenure-track faculty members in 13 humanities disciplines since 2012.
  • An estimated 62% of humanities faculty members were tenured or on the tenure track in 2017.
  • Slightly more than half of the faculty members in humanities disciplines were women, though that ranges from 27% of the faculty in philosophy departments to 89% of the faculty members in women and gender studies.


  • Approximately six million students enrolled in humanities courses in the U.S. (though students enrolled in more than one-humanities class are counted in each course).
  • The survey detected a substantial decline in the number of students earning undergraduate degrees in many of the largest humanities disciplines, but the number completing minors in humanities subjects appeared unchanged.
  • While many humanities disciplines reported statistically significant declines in undergraduate degrees and majors, only the languages had similarly substantial changes in the average number of graduate degrees and students.
  • Only 54% of humanities departments rate the quality of the career services available to their students as “good” or “very good.”
  • At every degree level, the departments tend to offer—but not require—participation in career-related activities.

Digital Engagement

  • Prior to the pandemic, only 30% of humanities departments were teaching an online course.
  • The share of departments with a specialist in digital humanities was essentially unchanged from 2012 to 2017 (at 27%), and even smaller shares of departments offered a seminar on digital methods or had guidelines for evaluating digital publications for tenure or promotion.

Public Engagement

  • Although a growing number of commenters in recent years have pointed to public humanities as a vehicle for elevating the profile of the field, only 11% of departments indicated that such activity was “very important” or “essential” for tenure.
  • In an estimated half of humanities departments, faculty members, staff, or students had been involved with state humanities councils or community organizations. Less than a quarter of departments, however, had participated in community-service endeavors involving primary or secondary schools.



Humanities Indicators

Norman Marshall Bradburn and Robert B. Townsend