History department takes significant blow in “Reimagined” LAS


Photo by Katherine Kealey/Iowa State Daily

Iowa State’s “Reimagining LAS” will cut 25 percent from the history department’s budget, pushing the department to end its grad program and reduce its faculty size from 21 to eight to ten.

Jack Mcclellan

Iowa State’s history department will see significant cuts over the next several years as a part of the “Reimagining LAS” initiative.

The “Reimagining LAS” initiative comes in response to decreasing enrollment and increasing operating costs. To cope with these changes, the college has committed to a series of budget cuts over the next several years.

The budget cuts will be split between all departments in the college, based mostly on enrollment and other budget drivers but also research productivity and impact. Most departments will see an overall cut of seven to 10 percent, but the history and philosophy departments will see the most significant cuts.

The history department specifically will see a 25 percent cut, on top of the 10 percent cut that was imposed the previous year. According to Kathleen Hilliard, associate professor in the history department and director of the department’s graduate program, the cuts will have a significant impact.

“For our department, it’s difficult to meet that cut because the majority of our budget, 99 percent of our budget is salary for faculty and graduate students’ stipends,” Hilliard said. “So, looking forward over the course of three to four to 10 years, the plan seems to be to let the department dwindle down to about eight to 10 faculty members from 21.”

According to Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a distinguished professor in the history department, the faculty cuts will be handled through attrition. This means that as faculty members leave due to retirement, new jobs, etc., there will not be replacements hired to fill their positions.

“Huge holes are going to develop in the curriculum because, well take for example, one of our faculty members teaches the history of the Middle East and he’s leaving for a job at the University of Utah,” Riney-Kehrberg said. “We will not be able to replace them, nobody else is trained to teach the history of the Middle East. We’re all busy teaching other things, so that’s simply going to drop out of our curriculum.”

Without a controlled reduction in the size of the department, it’s possible that the programs will fall out of balance, resulting in a less than whole history curriculum. Losing more than half of the faculty will force the department to scale down its operations. One cut that it looks like the department will be forced to make is the graduate program.

“Taking out those graduate student stipends and beyond that, we can’t maintain a graduate program,” Hilliard said. “Faculty members can’t do it ethically. We can’t do it responsibly. We can’t provide what we need to provide to our graduate students. So though a cut to our graduate program is not mandated, it is certainly implied.”

The uncertain future of the history department has many of its faculty members disappointed and even shocked. Though faculty clearly understand the importance of learning history and its accompanying skillsets, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is limiting their ability to provide a full education.

“We think that something is really going to be lost with these cuts, and I think our students, not just history majors, not just LAS students, but I think ISU students broadly are going to suffer,” Hilliard said. “There’s going to be a fundamental gap in their understanding about themselves in the world, about these new technologies that our students are so good at developing and engaging in and promoting.”

Hilliard would stress the importance of history and other humanities inside of other subjects and career paths. Discluding the broader contextual understanding of humanity that history offers, the department pushes students to think broadly, find patterns and present their ideas in consumable formats.

“Those are skills that I think any college or any discipline would like to amplify,” Hilliard said. “We have a lot of folks in the department who would really like to make those bridges to make those connections and really … deepen the college’s investment in innovation.”

According to Kristen Greteman, graduate student and vice president for the History Graduate Student Organization and research assistant for the Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities, diverse perspectives are imperative to creative and innovative thinking.

“I think the people who oftentimes are the most innovative, just generally within society, are the ones that are interdisciplinary,” Greteman said. “And the ones that understand different fields, different perspectives and they can take information from those and combine them to make something really great.”

Much of Iowa State’s push for innovation is centered around the idea of breaking down boundaries between colleges and departments to create cohesive interdisciplinary ideas and initiatives. Amy Bix, professor of history, shared her thoughts on the importance of history and history-related skillsets in an email response.

“The LAS College has been pushing innovation as not just products, but also social and organizational change,” Bix said. “There’s no better way to think about social transformation than by getting a rich background in humanities, especially history — you can’t properly change the future without understanding how we got to the present.”

The value in an education in history or philosophy can also be quantified in the median salary of individuals with a degree in the fields. According to Steffen Schmidt, a University Professor Emeritus in political science, people with an undergraduate degree in philosophy have the fourth highest median earnings of $81,200 a year, outranking business and chemistry majors.

Schmidt pointed out some top earners among history and philosophy majors, in an email to the Daily’s Editor in Chief.

“An example of the very top earners among these degree-holders is billionaire Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, who has a master’s degree in philosophy from Oxford,” Schmidt wrote. “In politi-speak, he is definitely what’s called a ‘job creator.’ Or, the candidates could have turned to their debate partner Carly Fiorina, who has an undergraduate degree in philosophy and medieval history from Stanford and the second-highest net worth of the GOP candidates, stemming from her tenure running Hewlett-Packard.”

Riney-Kehrberg emphasized the basic communication, writing and thinking skills that come with an education in history. The versatility of historical knowledge is not limited to historical topics but is applicable in a wide variety of business and scientific fields.

The history department has been working hard to bring these applications to light with the Career Diversity Initiative. The initiative was essentially an enrichment program meant to help graduate students develop skills to use their education in a variety of ways. According to Hilliard, before the announcement of the cuts, faculty were preparing to start implementing the initiative into undergraduate programs.

“[the initiative prepares students for] not just becoming professors, but going into public service going into business, kind of being entrepreneurial with what they were doing,” Riney Kehrberg said. “And that’s all going to come to a screeching halt because when you’ve been told to cut that much money out of your budget, graduate programs are one of the things that goes.”

Despite the upcoming cuts and reduction to the size of the department, faculty hope to incorporate these ideas into the undergraduate program.

“We’re going to try, I hope we’ll be able to integrate it into the undergrad program,” Riney-Kehrberg said. “It’s going to mean some shifting of gears. But hopefully, when we’ve had a chance to digest a bit, we’ll be ready to do that.”

Regardless of faculty’s hopes for the future of the department, Riney-Kehrberg points out that with a shrinking body of faculty members, the department will struggle to accomplish what has been possible in the past.

“I’ve been here for 22 years and you know, we found through budget cuts before,” Riney-Kehrberg said. “But this one really feels like a major reorientation, what this university is about, and frankly one that I find really unfortunate given the needs I see in my students.”