The University of North Dakota Budget Crisis in the Classroom

At a meeting a week before spring break, one of the student representatives expressed concern about the University of North Dakota budget crisis impacting teaching (and learning) on campus. He noted that low faculty morale and a lack of confidence in university leadership did little to motivate learners and had become a distraction. I think this must be true, but I’m also not sure what anyone can do about it. The entire campus community is being impacted by the budget cuts, and so it is hardly surprising that it is seeping into the classroom.

[This is the sixth in a series of blog posts on the UND budget crisis go to part 1part 2part 3part 4, and part 5.]

In my graduate historiography class, we’ve embraced the opportunity to discuss the impact of the budget crisis, in part, because it impacts the academic careers of the students in the class. Because our graduate program was de-funded, there will be very few courses available for our M.A. and D.A. students in the next year or so, and we will admit no funded students next semester. In other words, these students will witness a lull in our graduate program that will directly impact their education.

After some discussion, we decided that the best response from this class could be some kind of apologia or manifesto defending graduate education in history and the humanities more broadly. We agreed to open to make our work one to the public, first through a series of critiques by faculty and graduate students in our department and then to the wider community for comment. This work would fit into both a broader discussion of public humanities (for the students) and as part of a wider effort to document the impact of the budget cuts “on the ground.”

I read the first draft of their work this weekend with great interest. It’s pretty good, and my point in this post isn’t to call the students out on their work, but to note a few trends in their work that I think characterize the current budget situation at UND.

1. Causal Confusion. One of the most striking things about their work is the confusion about where the budget cuts that impact them originated. Most students blamed the legislature for the reduced funding to higher education, but some vaguely blamed “the administration.” What was consistent is that none of the students entirely grasped the process of budget cutting on campus and the various levels of responsibility and accountability. This suggests that the administration’s efforts to communicate how the budget cuts worked have not made it to the level of the students most effected by them.

While it is easy to say that my students needed to dig a bit deeper to understand administrative processes and the like, it is nevertheless an interesting situation that the regular drumbeat of communication from the administration did not appear to shape their views. Whether this reflects a commitment to a “post factual world,” a bit of lazy research, or a failure of the administration’s communication strategy (or a bit of all three) remains difficult to know right now.

2. Historical Context. The other issue that was a bit disappointing to me was the lack of historical context for these budget cuts. While the first draft showed a broad awareness that similar budget cuts had taken place elsewhere and that cuts to the humanities fit within a pattern that oscillates between seeing universities as workforce training and being seen as places to build civic identities and common values deeply rooted in the humanities. What was absent was any effort to locate these cuts in the history of the state or the university. 

These aren’t the first budget cuts at UND, and there is plenty of evidence available for how the university has dealt with similar cuts in the past. More importantly, there is a long pattern of attitudes toward the larger mission of higher education both at UND and across the state available both in published works, like L. Geiger’s history of the university, and in the university archives. 

Again, my inclination is not to blame the students for this oversight, but, of course, as historians you would imagine that they’d have attacked the problem using their historical toolkit. Instead, students were drawn into current rhetoric which sees these cuts and unprecedented and approaches the problem of the budget cuts in a fundamentally ahistorical way. This frees the administration to act without any kind of commitment to historical practices, processes, or (with all due caveats) tradition. It is difficult to make the case that history matters without engaging history fully in diagnosing and assessing the problems and potential solutions.

3. Petroculture. One thing that I did notice right in the background of many of the contributions to this effort is the looming specter of oil and some linked the budget shortfalls and budget cuts on the decline of oil prices. A subtle strand throughout the work is that history and historical thinking would have helped the state and the university better anticipate and adapt to the mercurial fluctuations in oil prices.

It is curious, though, that unlike many places in the world where oil has had a major impact on the local economies, none of the humanities institutions in North Dakota have yet to promote or develop a sustained interest in petrocultures. Petrocultures or Oil Humanities describes any number of approaches to economy, history, literature, or culture of oil production and consumption across various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. They absence of a focus on oil and the humanities in North Dakota has left the state unprepared to engage the challenges of the oil economy and petroculture. As the state prepares itself to be even more accommodating to extractive industry, there is greater pressure for scholars and students of the humanities to provide a critical foil to these developments. 

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