Taylor Garner and Hunter Davis are in the University of Kentucky’s fine arts building waiting to go to class. They’re both dance majors.
“I think you should do whatever makes you happy, whatever you’re passionate about,” said Davis, a sophomore who said she’s confident she’ll be able to leverage her degree to get a job.
“Even if I couldn’t find a job in dance, I would still open up a business.”
Garner, who’s also majoring in communications added:
“I feel like we put in four years of work just like all the other majors, so it’s kind of the same deal,” she said.
Not according to Gov. Matt Bevin.
Earlier this week, he called on a room full of state university officials to get rid of academic programs that don’t graduate students into high-demand jobs. He specifically called out people studying “interpretive dance,” a program that isn’t technically offered in Kentucky.
“Find entire parts of your campus — this will be sacrilege to some — that don’t need to be there,” Bevin said at the Governor’s Conference on Postsecondary Education.
“…Either physically as programs, degrees that you’re offering, buildings that literally might exist that shouldn’t be there because you’re maintaining something that’s not an asset of any value.”
This has been a frequent theme for Bevin, who has skewered liberal arts and fine arts majors throughout his term. During his state of the commonwealth address last year, he called for subsidizing engineering majors over those who study French literature, saying:
“All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.”
At Kentucky’s public and private colleges and universities, about 67,000 people have earned degrees in English literature, liberal arts and fine arts over the last 10 years. That number has been steadily increasing, along with academic programs Bevin considers more practical like those related to science, technology, math, engineering and health.
Nearly 188,000 people earned degrees in STEM and health fields in Kentucky over the past decade as demand grows nationwide.
But proponents of liberal arts education say there’s a reason to study subjects like dance or French literature, too.
“People tend to think of the arts as a zone where there is no success, that we’re not part of the economy, but in fact the opposite is true,” said Moira Scott Payne, president of the Kentucky College of Art and Design at Spalding University in Louisville.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts contribute about $700 billion to the national economy every year, a number that has grown more than 30 percent from 1998 to 2013.
And in Kentucky, about 60,000 people have jobs in the creative industry, representing about $2 billion in earnings.
Payne said ultimately, many people with arts degrees might not pursue careers in the creative field. Even so, they bring critical thinking and communication skills to the workforce.
“We teach our students how to sort of fail and then succeed,” she said. “Our students leave with a kind of sense that enables them to be entrepreneurial in their lives.”
For UK dance major Hunter Davis, it also comes down to passion.
“I think you should do whatever makes you happy, whatever you’re passionate about,” Davis said.” Don’t really go in just focusing on money, you’re not going to be happy if you’re focusing on money.”
Sue Patrick, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education said the agency already reviews degrees offered by state universities to make sure they are applicable to today’s workforce and graduating students.
“The Council’s program review is an extensive process, and programs are reviewed on a cycle determined by the institution,” Patrick said.
“We look at many factors, including evidence of student learning; job placement, graduate school admission, and transfer; enrollment, degrees conferred, and credit hour production; and evidence of collaboration with other programs.”
In the wake of Bevin’s call to scrap some degree programs, University of Louisville and University of Kentucky issued statements defending their liberal arts and fine arts majors while saying they are focused on STEM degrees.
“The University of Louisville has seen tremendous growth, for example, in programs such as engineering and nursing, and we continue to make investments there,” said interim U of L President Greg Postel in a statement. “But the university also places great value on the traditional liberal arts education. We remain committed to those programs and would have to study them extensively before making any cuts.”
University of Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton said the school’s graduates from STEM programs have grown 22 percent over the last six years, but liberal arts are still an important part of the school’s programs.
“Employers also tell us they need graduates who communicate well; think critically; and work well in teams,” Blanton said.
“These ‘soft skills’ are exactly what students learn in majors and classes in English, History, the Humanities, and Fine Arts, among others. We continually review our course and program offerings to ensure we position our students with the substantive knowledge and interpersonal skills necessary to compete and succeed.”