Dear UConn, stop neglecting the humanities in favor of STEM.

University president Susan Herbst discusses the role of STEM and humanities majors in regards to fundraising during a university town hall in the NextGen dorm on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus) 

The University of Connecticut does not care about non-STEM students.

Many UConn students in the humanities have had this suspicion, this feeling, that their friends in the STEM disciplines were better taken care of by the university. It’s like how kids know which sibling is the favorite but can never actually prove it because of tight-lipped parents.

Well, UConn president Susan Herbst just admitted she prefers Johnny to Sally because Johnny makes more money for the family and Sally sort of has her head in the clouds.

Here are Herbst’s words, which are more cautious, but still point to the same conclusion:

“The humanities and social sciences are tougher, it’s a much more difficult job market…I do think they [the humanities] do get less play than the STEM fields,” Herbst said. “STEM just takes a lot of money…I don’t expect the humanities…to bring in great external resources…We hope to invent – put revenue where it generates revenue.”

Let’s parse this doublespeak. Listening to the 75 minute recording of Herbst’s remarks at the forum she hosted last week in the new NextGen dormitory, all she talked about was money and fundraising. That wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for the fact that even when responding to questions having nothing to do with these topics, Herbst almost instinctually offered answers capitalistic in nature.

Amanda Pitruzzello, a seventh-semester speech language hearing sciences major, relayed her economic concerns along these lines.

“STEM students tend to be given priority in today’s job market. It leads institutions to glorify the group that is more economically successful,” Pitruzzello said. “Although I love my major, I do feel a little undervalued when compared to STEM. I think humanities students need more education on how to present their knowledge and skills acquired in their college careers.”

The money doesn’t lie when it comes to undervaluing the humanities. The state of Connecticut gifted UConn’s STEM programs with $1.5 billion over 10 years in its NextGen investment. This shows where the priorities of the state are. Students who study science and math are inherently more valuable than arts or social sciences students, because they’re likely to be worth more as a long term investment.

The first staple of the state’s NextGen investment is the luxurious NextGen dormitory, running a total of $79 million. It’s eight stories and 210,000 square feet, has 727 beds, contains study lounges far superior to that of any other on-campus living space and has an “Innovation Zone” area with 3D printers.

This is great for STEM students, and looks good for the university, but once again, humanities majors are left behind. Or, to put it in other terms, Johnny got the brand new Macbook Pro for Christmas, and Sally got Arjona.

Students have noticed this disconnect.

“As a humanities major, it feels as if the university has ruled out the possibility of having anything to be proud of resulting from its liberal and fine arts programs, which can definitely be disheartening at times,” Stephen Bogdan, a seventh-semester communications major said. “During my time here, I’ve seen a good amount of talent and potential go overlooked by the university, which is a shame.”

Bogdan is right to point out the university’s near-aversion to accomplishments in the humanities. Take Herbst’s accounting of how to move up in the almighty public university rankings, for example:

“…the big picture is that UConn has to boost its research performance,” Herbst said. “There’s no other way to get ahead.”

One of Herbst’s and her administration’s main talking points is that STEM costs more money to invest in because of expensive equipment. Or, in other words, “Sally, your writing is beautiful, but all you need is a pencil and paper. Johnny needs a microscope, and we have to build him a new research complex, we’re gonna call it the ‘Technology Park,’ which will cost millions of more dollars and will only affect him and his friends who also like science. That’s okay, right?”

A seventh-semester biology major who preferred to remain anonymous brought up the intense competition of STEM.

“If you’re a non-honors STEM major, it’s harder to find research for sure, and they almost don’t give you a second chance,” the source said. “If you’re not honors, they don’t think you’re going to make it in the STEM field. But business is above all – they don’t have Friday classes and have such a beautiful building!”

“If there’s a totem pole, arts is definitely on the bottom,” the source added.

There are layers to this issue. UConn claims to want to retain black students, and has staked this claim on ScHOLA²RS house, which purports to be a black male research learning community based in STEM. Out of approximately 600 black, male students at UConn, around 50 are a part of ScHOLA²RS house.

First of all, it is highly-problematic for there to be a black male learning community that hopes to boost graduation rates, and not a black female equivalent. But, for the purposes of this article, let’s focus on the other 550 black men who the university does not consider as a part of its “Talented Tenth.” What about the black male painters, political scientists and poets who are being ignored? This brings me to one of my past conversations with sociology Professor Noel Cazenave.

Speaking about what he saw from the corporatization of UConn and American universities at large, Cazenave felt that UConn cared only for the people who were bringing money to its business.

“We have a president that’s focused on wining and dining, she’s the ‘Fundraiser-in-Chief’ and she’s hanging out with people at that income level, and I think she’s increasingly thinking like them,” Cazenave said. “She [Herbst] mentioned that she loved two people on campus: Geno [Auriemma] and Kevin Ollie. She loves them because they are winners, they bring money, power and prestige to the university. Conversely, President Herbst acts like students of color and women on this campus are a bunch of losers, and she wants to hang out with the winners.”

STEM majors and humanities majors should have nothing against each other – they are both caught up within the inner workings of the institution – but Cazenave nailed the central thesis of this column when he later said that UConn is “stratified” between the moneymakers, STEM, and the low earners, the social sciences.

This is not just a UConn phenomenon. This is a distinctly American disease. Whether it’s the country, the state, or its largest university, we seem allergic to subjects like philosophy, literature and the fine arts because of our addiction to money and capitalism. We celebrate the wealthy and denigrate the poor. At a time when good journalism, effective, moral communicators and talented artists with something to say are needed, and are in great supply, UConn cares only for its bottom line.

As UConn builds its STEM research reputation, high school humanities students may begin to lose interest in coming to a university that is monolithic in its pursuits. Maybe this is what UConn wants. It can exclusively shift its focus to research and won’t have to deal with those pesky humanities students questioning their every move. But this is not what the world needs. Diminishing the humanities cheapens STEM, too.

None of us are statistics; we are not paychecks; we are more than numbers.


Sten Spinella is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at sten.spinella@uconn.edu. He tweets @SSpinella927.