I was dismayed to read Gov. Matt Bevin’s comments suggesting that universities should restrict or stop offering majors in subjects, such as interpretive dance, that he does not believe will lead to well-paying jobs.
I can’t speak for all the universities in Kentucky, but the University of Kentucky does not have a program in interpretive dance. We do have a major and minor in dance. These programs are housed in the College of Fine Arts, which regularly offers musical and theater performances to the university community and the public.
The dance program is an integral part of our offerings in the arts; without it, the quality of our educational program in the other fine arts would suffer greatly. Our fine arts programs not only contribute to the region’s quality of life, but, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the fine arts industry contributed over $700 billion to the United States economy in 2013.
Engineering and science are not the only areas that can lead to viable and financially rewarding careers.
Our vigorous arts program attracts high-achieving students to campus who major in other areas while also majoring or minoring in arts programs. For example, a January 2017 dance performance called “In Flight” featured performers majoring in agricultural biotechnology, communication sciences and disorders, food science, nursing, international studies, accounting, economics and marketing, political science, computer science, and mathematical economics, plus a medical student and a graduate student in psychology.
Would all of these students have chosen to attend UK if they had not been able to pursue their passion of dancing as well as their chosen majors?
I understand that Bevin used interpretive dance as just one example of a “frivolous” major. He has previously sniped at French literature majors, and I’m sure he could find fault with other majors. So let’s examine this whole concept of dropping “frivolous” majors so that students are forced into ones that supposedly lead to better-paying careers.
Students who choose to major in STEM fields because they perceive them as well-paying or prestigious, not because they are interested in them, are much less likely to succeed in the difficult classes required by these programs. Does Bevin think that canceling programs in the humanities or arts is going to cause students suddenly to be interested in the sciences and engineering?
If we force them into majors in which they are not interested, we are likely to see not more graduates in STEM fields, but more students who leave college in debt and without a degree — the very worst possible outcome.
It’s also important to note that students already choose majors based partly on what they believe will best prepare them for careers. That’s why we have a lot more biology majors than English majors. Students don’t need the government to tell them what their majors should be. I’m surprised that our libertarian-leaning governor would even think this was a good idea.
The governor might also be surprised by how economically relevant certain majors actually are. For example, a large proportion of philosophy majors go on to earn law degrees. It’s not that they realize a philosophy major is useless, so they go to law school; they choose philosophy because it teaches them skills they can later apply in law.
We who teach STEM understand that the country needs more students trained in these fields. We constantly strive to improve our teaching methods and support services so that success rates in our classes improve.
But we reject the notion that we are somehow in competition with other areas of education within the university, and that dropping non-STEM programs will suddenly lead to a much larger number of STEM graduates. In fact, the opposite is likely to happen, as students who seek a balanced life involving the humanities and arts as well as the STEM fields would choose to attend other universities.
To implement what the governor suggests would be like cutting off your arm because you think it will make you run faster.
Robert B. Grossman is professor of chemistry at the University of Kentucky and a faculty trustee.