Despite letter to editor, UConn still corporatized

Sally Reis' letter to the editor pointed to prominent English professor, Regina Barreca, and philosophy professor Michael Lynch as a reason for an unassailable record on the humanities. The author disagrees. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

It’s not every day your university’s vice provost takes the time to call your reporting and ideas “inaccurate,” but here we are.

This response is not meant to preserve myself – I’m confident in my assertions and will get to why that is soon – it’s meant to systematically eviscerate the administration’s, specifically, Sally Reis’, self-preserving letter to the editor, one weak point at a time.

In fact, I was accurate in saying that our country, our state and the University of Connecticut care more about money than the greater good, or think that money is the greater good. This dangerous train of thought has manifested itself in UConn throwing almost all of its institutional support behind STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The first mention Reis makes in her infomercial for UConn’s humanities programs is of rankings. Ironic, since I’ve claimed multiple times that the university leadership prioritizes national rankings at the expense of students. What I’ve been writing on is a general feeling, shared by humanities students and STEM students alike, backed by the president’s comments and by capital/attention allocation, that STEM is valued more than the humanities at UConn, and it’s not even comparable.  

Next, Reis moves to an extended requiem on faculty hiring. Never in my original column did I critique Herbst’s or the university’s record on this matter. What I did talk about was the fetishizing of money in today’s society – an infection that has spread to public universities and made the position of president into that of a CEO.

When the letter begins talking about Professor Michael Lynch, I had to close my laptop and laugh. Now, Lynch is, by all accounts, an impressive intellectual and someone we’re proud to have in the UConn community. I’ve interviewed him for articles before and written on his accolades. I find it humorous, however, that he is the one who Herbst and her administration constantly falls back on when speaking to UConn’s efforts within the humanities. While researching for my original column, I heard Herbst name drop Lynch in a recording of the forum she hosted, applauding him for, what else, reeling money into the university, this time in the form of a $5.75 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. First off, this is a result of Lynch’s own work, and it is wrong for the university to take credit for it. More importantly, though, Reis spends a large chunk of her letter on him because he is one of the only high-profile academics in the humanities (See: Jelani Cobb leaves for Columbia University), and he brings money to the university.

Speaking of Lynch, let’s talk about the UConn Humanities Institute (UCHI). Reis uses this organization as another example of UConn’s support for the humanities. One of the goals of the UCHI is, according to UConn Today, to bring “outside scholars and authors to Connecticut…by its support for scholarly conferences and journals.” And yet, on Tuesday, Sept. 20, UConn held its biggest conference, “Humility in Politics,” sponsored by UCHI, bringing in renowned journalists, academics, political operatives and others, in Washington D.C. So much for allowing UConn students to attend such an event, or bringing luminaries to Connecticut. The event was more like a giant, glamorous pat on the back than something that could be useful to anyone who attends UConn with the purpose of attaining a degree.

The letter to the editor also pointed to a prominent English professor as a reason for an unassailable record on the humanities. Yes, Regina Barreca teaches at UConn. She’s awesome. These facts alone are not proof of UConn valuing the STEM and humanities disciplines equally.

Reis takes the time to write that, whether or not STEM researchers or humanities professors bring in large grants, they “are all our faculty and we support and care for them in much the same way that we support all students.” This statement is unintentionally hilarious, considering that Reis was just extolling Lynch, the $5.75 million man.

My favorite, though, is the “point of clarification” Reis brings up, saying that not all students who are living in the Next Generation dormitory belong to STEM. UConn Today, the university’s most proficient propaganda machine, seems to think otherwise: “Just over 50 percent [of students in NextGen Hall] will be engineering majors, while the rest will be drawn from a variety of subject areas, including other STEM disciplines.” Let’s delve into the learning communities that will be residing in the NextGen Hall: Engineering House, Eurotech House, Innovation House, Honors to Opportunities, ScHOLA²RS house, Public Health House, WiMSE (Women in Science and Engineering) House, Eurotech House and EcoHouse. Maybe two of these learning communities do not consist of STEM majors from the top-down, but any student can see that these are, by and large, STEM learning communities.

Now to the crowning achievement, according to this letter to the editor, of UConn’s humanities outfit: IDEA grants, which do not even belong specifically to humanities majors, but “over 20 percent” of its recipients, Reis says, were from the School of Fine Arts. Am I supposed to be impressed that IDEA grants, which have funded 43 students working on arts and humanities projects “over the last few years,” are exactly what I was talking about in the initial column when I called for equal opportunity?

Before I go on, I would just like to make clear that I am not of the opinion that humanities and STEM should have the same funding. Not once did I say this should be the case. I recognize that STEM needs more money because of more expensive equipment. The bigger issue here is how the state and the university choose to support STEM financially and institutionally – meaning that, with the billions of dollars also comes coddling and celebration of STEM and disregard for humanities. This had to be said because, while there was an outpouring of support for the column from people who felt the same, there was also backlash from readers who felt I was saying STEM and the humanities should have equal funding. This is not the case.

I’ve already addressed Herbst’s comments - monetary, amenities and programming discrepancies - and quoted students from STEM and the humanities in last week’s column, so I’ll just introduce several pieces of new information before I finish.

Fine arts students whom I’ve spoken with noted the fine arts department’s budget was cut even more than it had been in the past. Additionally, the art building hasn’t been renovated in decades and the art history department is struggling to keep up because of a lack of appropriate resources. Also, the art history masters program went defunct in 2014.

STEM students have also reached out to me, saying that they recognize the inequity of support at the university but don’t feel comfortable voicing this publicly due to concerns over getting hired after graduation. Luckily for you guys, I’m an English/political science double major, so there’s very little I could do at this point to hurt my future job prospects.

I’ll close with this affecting email I received from Cameron Debrusk, a seventh-semester history major, who was doing well as a business major but decided to switch because he didn’t have a passion for the subject.

“When I changed my major I was confronted by my academic advisers who informed me that with my success in the business school I was making a mistake by leaving the school,” Debrusk said. “While I do need a job and money to survive in a modern American economy, a job in business worried me. I hated the major so much that I began to lose interest in school…It came to the point where I was unsure if I was even happy anymore. But even after I told this to my adviser, I was continually pushed by the university back in the direction of business. My adviser makes it clear to me during every visit that I should not waste my ability in mathematics and I should be taking more economics classes than the minimum I am taking to finish my minor. It seems to be a common theme at this school that because I am neither in the school of business or a STEM major that I am destined to live impoverished and unhappy. I disagree strongly.”

As for possible solutions to what has now been established as a disconnect:

IDEA grants are a good place to start. More should be offered and departments should encourage students to apply, since this program is exactly what humanities students of every discipline need. In the media and public events, Herbst and other university officials should not focus purely on STEM research when talking up the school.

Tell students that there are other ways of "getting ahead," mentioning bright humanities scholars from both faculty and undergraduates here and there, so as not to create a culture of anxiety for students who want to study something that doesn't have a direct career path to a six figure salary. Encourage them to love what they study.

Put forth more specific programs to meet with employers, since as a humanities student, no matter your major, exactly what you do when you get out of school is vague. Bring more humanities options to career fairs--beyond the fair for "Careers for the Common Good," there are options out there for students who study language, history, international relations, and beyond at companies around the country. Perhaps they'd like to meet some UConn students, and perhaps we'd like to meet them.

Sponsor publications like the Free Press and the Long River Review more, these could be nationally-recognized projects and could mean a lot more for the school's reputation. Don't spar with student groups like these, cultivate them. I'm not talking about new buildings, I'm talking about a new culture.

Reis tried to tell readers they shouldn’t take me at my word. Well, I pay UConn to go here and have everything to lose by writing articles like this. On the other hand, Reis’s job as vice provost, (well-paid at over $270,000 a year) is to make the university look good. The leadership’s breathlessly defensive response to my column, focusing on money and rankings as usual, only proved my point further. It’s time to reevaluate priorities, maybe even have a dialogue; but it’s far too late for the administration to cover itself on this issue.

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