May 22, 2024


Science It Works

Petitions circulate at Iowa State opposing liberal arts, history cuts

Curtiss Hall, left, and the Campanile, at right, are shown in this 2015 photo on the Iowa State University campus in Ames. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Several petitions are circulating through the Iowa State University community opposing changes to its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) — specifically its history department — after administrators earlier this year announced $15 million in cuts by the 2026 budget year.

“Cuts to the arts, humanities, and social sciences at Iowa State University threaten the university’s comprehensive nature and its ability to respond to the needs of all Iowans, not just employers and profiteers,” according to a petition “against defunding arts, humanities, and social science departments through the ‘Reimagining LAS’ initiative at Iowa State.”

The petition references Iowa State’s recent decision to exit the prestigious Association of American Universities after 64 years, which it did after criticizing the AAU ranking system — noting it favors “institutions with medical schools and associated medical research funding.”

Also circulating are two separate petitions opposing proposals to eliminate the ISU Department of History’s graduate programs.

All three letters, which have gathered dozens of signatures, demand decisions going forward involve input from faculty, staff, and students.

“Instead of allowing the elimination of the graduate programs to proceed, and instead of allowing the demanded cuts within (CLAS) to proceed, the university should regroup, reassess its financial position, reevaluate how it justifies itself … and proceed in a holistic way that shares responsibility as well as governance,” according to one of the petitions.

Iowa State spokeswoman Angie Hunt told The Gazette, “No decisions have been made on specific cuts or changes as part of the ‘Reimaging LAS initiative.’”

LAS initiative

A timeline for the initiative — compelled by a growing deficit that began this budget year at $11.4 million and is expected to swell to $15 million by fiscal 2025 — has department chairs meeting with the dean’s office in July to review initial budget-cutting ideas and “identify collaboration opportunities.”

The LAS college — Iowa State’s second largest — will announce an implementation plan in March 2023.

The university in February announced a need to “right-size its budget in response to changing enrollment and student demand, as well as position the college for future success.”

The college’s Dean Beate Schmittmann reported in February that Iowa State’s liberal arts and sciences enterprise has faced many financial headwinds in recent years — due to declining enrollment, rising costs, and other factors.

While vher college houses many courses capable of satisfying general education requirements, student needs in that area have dropped as more complete their gen-eds through joint enrollment while in high school.

Iowa State’s total enrollment this spring is 28,359, down 8 percent from fall’s 30,708 and about 3.4 percent from last spring’s 29,368. ISU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, specifically, saw spring enrollment continue what has become an annual slide to 6,638 — down 9 percent from 7,306 in the fall and down nearly 20 percent from 8,284 in fall 2017.

The college’s history department in fall 2021 reported 201 undergraduates and 33 graduate students. A decade ago in fall 2011, the department had 331 undergraduates and 39 graduates. Where only biology and psychology had bigger enrollments in the college in 2011, the history department today is bested by the college’s departments of biology, criminal justice, computer science, political science, psychology, and software engineering.

History cuts

In allocating proposed cuts, the college’s history department has been tasked with making the biggest reduction — at $955,452. Computer science has the smallest cut at $68,421.

Administrators reported cuts were based on “enrollment trends, student credit hours taught, and research productivity.”

Administrators said no graduate majors, minors, or certificates are on the chopping block yet, “some low enrollment programs may need to be eliminated if doing so will help departments and the college meet budget targets.”

Students enrolled in any cut programs “will be able to complete the programs without interruption,” according to administrators.


Losing Iowa State’s two history graduate programs — its master of arts in history and doctorate in rural, agriculture, technological, and environmental history — will harm its reputation, according to the petitions.

Alleging the proposed cuts exemplify a “hostility toward the humanities and critical thinking,” the petition argues the annual cost of the department’s graduate programs is “a small fraction of the cut that is demanded of the department.”

In an open letter this week, ISU history doctorate candidate Michael Belding argued Iowa State’s history curriculum serves a public service and its land-grant mission.

“Insisting on this cut will totally reshape the character of the department and with it, the college and university,” according to Belding’s letter. “All of ISU’s self-identified peer institutions offer not only master’s but doctoral programs in history.”

Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.

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