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Elena Jackson Albarrán is a professor in the Latin American Studies department, one of the 17 majors identified as low-enrolled by the Provost's Office.

Two weeks before the first day of class at Miami University, Latin American studies (LAS) professor Elena Jackson Albarrán opened an email to see a PDF titled “Opportunities for low-enrolled undergraduate programs.”

As she read it, she knew her semester would be an uphill battle.

The document, “Opportunities,” delivered a message of required changes for low-enrolled majors in the face of elimination. It presented four options for these programs — ranging from a focus on minors to combining with other majors —  to continue to be a part of Miami, with a deadline of December to decide on a plan.

“Opportunities” is topped with a message that sums up Miami’s financial situation which has trickled down to multiple departments.

“Miami University is facing unprecedented fiscal, societal and political challenges that are prompting very difficult decisions about our curriculum,” the document read. “Tragically, we no longer have the resources to support the current portfolio of academic programs, particularly our lowest-enrolled degree programs or majors.”

Later in August, Albarrán sat at a table as a member of Humanities Futures, a working group attempting to raise enrollment in “at-risk” humanity majors.

As the aroma of a Miami-catered meal circled the room of colleagues who all received the same email, everyone's eyes met with an equal emptiness and longing for a safe future.

“I feel like I’m having breakfast at my own funeral,” Albarrán said.

What are the ‘Opportunities?’

Low-enrolled majors were identified as having 35 students or less in the program by the Provost’s Office.

Along with LAS, 17 other majors were identified as low-enrolled. These include American studies, art history, critical race and ethnic studies, classical studies, French, French education,  German, German education, health communication, health information technology, Italian studies, Latin education, religion, Russian, East European and Eurasian studies, Spanish education, social justice and women's, gender and sexuality studies.

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These majors now have four options ahead of them to continue to exist, or departments can create their own solutions to their low-enrollment problems.

The first is to “develop, revise or focus greater energy on a minor or certificate program.” The form describes this as a way to create new, smaller classes that will attract more students, especially through collaboration with the Office of Admission and Center for Career Exploration and Success.

The second option is to “propose and offer creative and exciting new courses or other learning opportunities.” This asks the programs to create a group of signature inquiry classes and highlights collaboration in different departments and the Honors College.

The third option is to “combine stand-alone majors into one major with multiple concentrations.” This would combine two or more departments to create “distinct” concentrations. An example in the document is that the B.A. in East Asian languages and cultures has multiple concentrations in Japan and China, meaning that the two concentrations could be combined into a single program.

The final option outlined is to “collaborate with other departments on a cross-divisional and cross-departmental ‘super’ major or degree program.” A “super” major would be a 50 or 60-credit-hour major specific to a student’s career path and would be either a blended or joint program between two or more departments.

A blended program combines classes from two different departments such as art management and art entrepreneurship combining and requiring classes in both the CCA and the Farmer School of Business. A joint program combines multiple curriculums from at least two departments that lead to one single degree.

Provided by Elizabeth Mullenix |

Opportunities for low-enrolled undergrad programs is a document explaining possible options that departments and programs can make to save their threatened majors.

Deborah Lyons, an associate professor in the Department of French, Italian, and Classical Studies, has been at Miami since 2004 and has had her department reduced before due to COVID-19. When the chair of her department confirmed it was flagged for low-enrollment, she was upset with the word choice provided by the “Opportunities.”

“I know they were trying to put a positive spin on it,” Lyons said, “but I think it’s really important to recognize that this is absolutely heartbreaking for those of us who dedicated our lives studying these areas.”

The start of the landslide

During Miami’s budget symposium in February, Provost Elizabeth Mullenix announced that Miami is facing a budget deficit of more than $36 million.

The deficit has been brought on by low enrollment numbers across the country, a competitive higher education market and a decrease in state funding. At the same time, the mindset of college applicants is changing.

More than a year ago, during the Board of Trustees meeting on June 23, 2022, a presentation titled “Low Enrolled and Duplicate Program Report” was discussed, in which 12 bachelor's programs were marked for elimination along with three master's programs.

According to the Office of the Provost, the Board of Trustees did not mandate the elimination of the majors. The board asked for solutions for a shortfall in the university’s budget.

This September, Mullenix explained during a Sept. 11 University Senate meeting that the humanities majors working on a December deadline to avoid getting cut are up against a shifting tide across the country from liberal arts toward career-ready programs.

“We are looking at eliminating some low-enrolled majors, and it is a very difficult decision and process,” Mullenix said at the same University Senate meeting. “We should work swiftly to make immediate progress. We don’t want to retrench faculty, so we need to rethink liberal education in the 21st century. We need to express the humanities in new ways that haven’t been done before.”

In an interview with The Miami Student, Mullenix said some students going into humanities fields have a different mindset from others, one driven by passion rather than a paycheck, which is not reflected in the national decline.

“I do think that all of our students in all majors end up doing really well and having great jobs, and that's one of the things that really frustrates me about this national trend,” Mullenix said. “I can just tell you as dean of the College of Creative Arts for nine years … our students are not going in and making a ton of money necessarily right away, but that wasn't their goal.”

Mullenix also stressed that the faculty did not bring this upon themselves. She pointed out an undesired national change that is forcing the university’s hand.

“There's nothing that Miami faculty did wrong. This is a national trend in students and a shift in student demand,” Mullenix said.

David Creamer, senior vice president for finance and business services, was not available to comment on the cost of offering the flagged majors or estimated savings the university will get from restructuring.

Although it is unclear how the re-establishment of these majors will impact the university's budget, Mullenix said the goal is to keep all full-time, tenure and tenure-track faculty and teaching, clinical professors and lecturers (TCPLs).

“I think that if we were to try to scale back, it would be in sort of adjuncts, temporary faculty, you know, in those areas,” Mullenix said. “But my hope is that we will retain our permanent faculty. I don't have a crystal ball, but that is certainly what we're trying to do.”

The people affected when a major is cut

When cutting a major, it’s not just the education that is impacted.

Albarrán said that the four plans presented to programs take away the key factors that make LAS stand out to students, especially ones that relate to the material being taught.

“If we rebrand Latin American studies with critical race and ethnic studies and fold them into ethnic and justice studies or something, which is awkward, we lose a specificity, and we lose an identity brand that is important in a growing demographic of students,” Albarrán said.

In the same Board of Trustees report from 2022, the only data used to decide which programs would be eliminated was a mark set at 14.4 students enrolled in a major. Qualitative data from professors or students was not used, nor was the cost to operate each program.

Olivia Thomas, a senior Latin American studies, international studies and Spanish triple major,  echoed Albarrán about the cultural significance of LAS being eliminated or grouped with a different major.

“The only representation that I’ve seen of myself on campus is through the faculty of LAS,” Thomas said.

Olivia Thomas talked about how the Latin American Studies major has been invaluable to her critical thinking skills when it comes to discussing other countries' narratives as well as helping her in the work force. Ryann Beaschler

Daniel Martin, a sophomore political science major, said that taking LAS classes impacted how he saw his own future. After taking a LAS class, Martin was able to work with emerging Latin American college students from Colombia, Venezuela and Panama as a guide during their transition to America.

“Without seeing the differences and having those experiences [LAS classes and mentorship], I probably wouldn't be focusing my poli-sci field in Latin America alone,” Martin said.

Daniel Martin talked about how Latin American Studies has helped him understand other countries' realities and relate their experiences back to his own life. Ryann Beaschler

LAS students were informed of the major being at-risk after Albarrán sent out a form titled “Support the existence of LAS!” at the beginning of the year. Martin and Thomas said that the only reason they knew of the elimination of the major was because of their professor.

The form has one question: “LAS is valuable to me because:”

At the time this article was published, there were 39 responses. The responses range from alumni praising LAS for their careers to current students describing it as the cornerstone of the liberal arts education that they came to Miami to receive.

Jacob Geisheimer talked about how his Latin American Studies major will help him in his personal and work life when he's connecting with people from other cultures. Ryann Beaschler

The future of Miami’s humanities

An initiative called Humanities Futures was created over the summer of 2023 by the Office of the Provost to help faculty face the challenges in redesigning their programs and departments.

Mullenix said the committee has 40 members who collaborated on different templates and resource packages designed to help interested faculty members blend their programs or combine majors, as well as integrate more career applications into classes.

Nathan French, associate professor of comparative religion and member of the Humanities Futures working group, said the committee has three challenges to tackle.

Photo by Ian Do | The Miami Student
Nathan French is an associate professor of comparative religion, one of the 17 majors being threatened, and because of the small department, it has to respond in a different way.

The first challenge is to determine how Miami shows parents and students the value of humanities contributing to other degrees. The committee is working on strategies to efficiently move humanities across curriculums and is identifying institutional questions and areas that could be improved to make the curriculum possible.

“At a time when politicians, families, students want to see a clear pathway to a career, a clear contribution to the economy, there is a challenge that the humanities and liberal arts broadly face of explaining why creativity and innovation begin there,” French said.

French’s major is one of the 18 being threatened, and because of the small department, the majors have to respond in a different way. Since religion is one department with one major, if it has low enrollment, the whole department does, while other departments are still able to thrive if one major is lacking.

However, French said he’s felt no pressure or mandate to close the religion department. If anything, the College of Arts and Science (CAS) is open and willing to help.

“So as goes the College of Arts and Science, so goes Miami,” French said. “The [dean of CAS] made very clear his commitment to work with the faculty toward finding ways of ensuring our curriculum survives.”

Renee Baernstein, a senior associate dean for CAS, and professor Tim Melley, both members of the Futures Humanities group, declined to comment. 

Professors across campus have come together to help save these majors in the hopes that it does not end with Miami losing part of its humanities.

“Will there be change, there will, and while that is really difficult, I think, I hope, I trust that we can really create something that is really a model for how to do this nationally,” Mullenix said. “We have such talented faculty, and I'm sure that we can work together … to come up with some really amazing things.”