An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2009

Recent trends in funding for the humanities

Harriet Anne Zuckerman and Ronald G. Ehrenberg
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Harriet Zuckerman, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1985, is senior vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and professor of sociology emerita at Columbia University. She is the author of “Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States” (1996). She edited “The Outer Circle: Women in the Scientific Community” (with Jonathan R. Cole and John T. Bruer, 1991).

Ronald G. Ehrenberg is the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. He is the author of “Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much” (2000) and the editor of “Doctoral Education and the Faculty of the Future” (with Charlotte V. Kuh, 2008).

Never abundant, financial support for the “academic humanities”1 is now scarce. How scarce it is, both in absolute and relative terms, and whether the humanities now confront particularly hard times, are the pressing questions. To piece together an answer, we ask first how much the government, foundations, and private donors provide for the humanities now compared to estimates John D’Arms made in 1995, when he completed his important review of “funding trends.”

Then we probe expenditures universities and colleges make on the humanities. Is there evidence, for example, in institutional budget allocations that the humanities are holding their own, or have rising costs of other academic activities, such as scientific research, been accompanied by reduced support for the humanities? And last, because public universities are so large and numerous, and because many operate on conspicuously tight budgets, we ask how well the humanities in this class of institutions have fared in comparison with their counterparts at private universities. The answers to such questions are not mere matters of financial accounting. Although much can be achieved in the humanities with quite small investments, the pursuit of excellence in scholarship and teaching in these fields is not cost-free. For relevant evidence, we draw on the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’s useful Humanities Indicators Prototype, as well as a variety of other available (but often imperfect) data sources.2 . . .

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  • 1 John D’Arms, “Funding Trends in the Academic Humanities, 1970–1995: Reflections on the Stability of the System,” in What’s Happened to the Humanities? ed. Alvin Kernan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 32. The “academic humanities” are “all fields of study normally grouped together . . . that are identified as departments and programs in humanities, and in which the Ph.D. is the highest earned degree.” They also include history (sometimes classified with the social sciences) and aspects of anthropology, ethnology, and archaeology. On the academic humanities more generally, see also Eric S. Rabkin, “Ways of Knowing in the Humanities,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 12 (1) (1978): 105, and Gerald Graff, “The Future of the Profession,” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 27 (1) (Spring 1994): 65–69.
  • 2The data presented in this essay have necessarily been chosen opportunistically. It has not always been possible to locate “current” data; we therefore report the latest information available. No comprehensive dataset on the finances and institutional characteristics of the humanities in comparison with other fields in the arts and sciences is available. The views expressed here are solely our own. Much appreciation goes to Mirinda Martin, a PhD student in economics at Cornell, for her research assistance and to Sharon Brucker, the data manager for the Mellon Graduate Education Initiative. We also extend thanks to Carolyn (Biddy) Martin, Philip E. Lewis, and Joseph S. Meisel for careful readings and astute comments.