History in These Hard Times: Departments Struggle in a Depressing Economy

Robert B. Townsend, September 2009

Heading into the new academic year, history departments across the country are struggling through a wide range of cuts and general uncertainty about their departmental budgets. The effects of the current down economy seem to be affecting most departments—whether large, medium, or small, and at private as well as public institutions. But the specific effects on individual departments and the strategies adopted for coping with them seem widely varied.

To try to get a better picture of the actual toll the economy is taking on departments, AHA staff wrote to 110 department chairs in all 50 states; asking about the size and source of any cuts to their budgets, the effects (if any) such cuts might be having on personnel and the execution of their mission; and finally, their strategies for dealing with current economic realities.1 More than half of the department chairs responded, offering frank and detailed assessments of the situation in their departments. Collectively, they painted a grim picture of the financial state of most history departments.

Since the situation is still in flux for most departments, most were reluctant to speak on the record. Given that reluctance, and to avoid doing them any further harm, this report offers an anecdotal summary of the responses, and does not quote any of the chairs by name.

Scale of the Problem

As the responses came in, it quickly became clear that there were three types of departments:

  • Departments that remain essentially untouched by the changes in the economy. This was by far the smallest group (just 5 of the 63 responses), and they generally pointed to wise actions by a particular administrator or state politician(s).
  • Departments that have experienced very modest cuts or a freeze on expenditures, often with the warning that they should expect worse in the coming year. These departments comprised a slightly larger portion of the responses (15 out of 63).
  • Departments that have experienced cuts that required real reductions in resources, faculty, and staff, which comprised more than two-thirds of the responding departments.

Since the departments in the first category generally attributed their good fortunes to external factors, and departments in the second category could offer little beyond their anxieties about when and where the ax might fall, this report will focus on departments in the third category—surveying the types of cuts and their impact on the departments experiencing them. While this was not a scientific survey, there were enough similarities in the responses to identify common threads among the problems that the departments are facing.

Given the range of programs surveyed, and their spread across the country, the effects of the cuts seemed remarkably consistent depending on the mix of funding sources for the department, and their general mission. The losses reportedly came primarily from two income streams, either state funds (in the case of public institutions) or endowment funds (which affected private and public colleges and universities alike). None of the departments reported losses in tuition revenues, though a few mentioned that their institutions had raised tuition rates to try to compensate for losses from the other two revenue streams.

Departments that primarily teach undergraduates had fewer options when addressing these cuts. These programs were compelled to cut part-time faculty, supplies and staff, as well as faculty salaries. These cuts seemed to be having a direct and immediate impact on many departments’ ability to pursue their core missions.

Doctoral programs were not faring much better, but the pain seemed to be distributed more widely throughout the departments. Like the undergraduate programs, these departments were cutting part-time faculty, supplies, and staff, but they were also reducing graduate fellowships and research support, teaching assistantships and graduate teaching opportunities, and in some cases, support staff for the students. A significant number of departments said they were reducing the number of students being admitted as a result. By spreading the pain more widely, it appeared that many of these larger departments were able to spare their faculty some of the harsher cuts in salaries affecting faculty in the smaller programs.

Effects on Staff and Workplace

These cuts were being felt in a wide variety of places—from the supply cabinet to the supply of staff, TAs, and new faculty—but all of the departments experiencing cutbacks cited one or more of the following effects on their department.

Salaries: Most of the departments reported that salaries in the department had been frozen, and some reported real cuts in salaries through furloughs (“time off without pay”). In addition to cuts in salary, a number of programs also indicated that faculty members were also facing cuts in their overall compensation packages, through reductions in health benefits and increases in employee co-payments for health and retirement benefits.

In most cases, these were reported as institution-wide reductions, and not limited to the history department. A number of department chairs lamented that by freezing salaries, colleges and universities were failing to reward significant performance and scholarship in their department. A few departments expressed concern about losing their faculty to target-of-opportunity hires (but it was difficult to see who might be doing such hiring).

Hiring Freezes: Almost all of the departments—including those that were not taking cuts—indicated that they were experiencing at least a partial hiring freeze. Quite a few said they were still struggling to get searches for one or two positions approved. A significant number noted that they currently have a backlog of unfilled faculty lines in their department as faculty have retired or left over the past few years—some reported losses of as much as 10 percent of their departments’ tenure-line faculty. Among the departments that are continuing to hire, a significant number said they were often only adding short-term visiting faculty to plug holes in their subject coverage.

A few noted that critical subject areas, including large periods of American history, could not be taught due to the lack of faculty to teach the subject. Others noted that specialized subject areas that had been traditional strengths of their departments had been weakened (and in one case simply eliminated) as specialists in those subjects retired and were not being replaced.

The more common effect of these hiring freezes was that faculty members were being pressed into teaching more—and larger—classes. As one department chair observed, “we already can’t meet student demand for classes.” A number of chairs indicated that their faculty were taking on a growing number of introductory-level courses, limiting the number of upper-level courses available to majors. Four chairs noted that the majors in their departments have already begun to complain about the lack of courses necessary for their undergraduate degrees. Several other department chairs also indicated that larger class sizes were undercutting efforts to improve pedagogical practices in their departments or implement new guidelines on teaching.

Reduction in Part-time Faculty: A majority of the departments indicated that the recent cuts forced some reduction in their use of part-time and adjunct staffing. In all their accounts, this added to the teaching load for the full-time faculty—both in class loads and class sizes—and exacerbated gaps in subject coverage.

A number of the doctoral programs noted that the loss of these positions eliminated traditional “bridge” positions for their new PhDs, as they make the transition onto the academic job market. This was further indicated by observations from a number of departments (all in urban areas), who noted that when they could use part-time faculty, it had become much easier to find high-quality candidates.

Cuts in Staffing: A significant number of departments indicated that they had experienced some reduction in the number of support staff, either through direct cuts or by not replacing staff that left for other positions. Two of the smaller departments indicated that this had occurred through other means—by merging history with another department and dismissing some of the “redundant” staff.

These staff reductions were felt in a number of areas, including placing a greater burden on department chairs, by reducing the amount of advising and administrative support to students at all levels. One chair noted that “we are having to distribute that work creatively—and it will probably be our greatest challenge this year.”

Cuts in Travel and Research Support: Almost all of the departments experiencing cuts reported that their travel funds had been severely curtailed, and in a few cases eliminated. A few reported that sabbaticals had been eliminated. These funds were clearly used in highly varied ways, depending on the institution, but there seemed to be a widespread consensus that historians would be traveling much less in the coming year to archives and conferences.

Graduate and Doctoral Students: A majority of the doctoral programs also indicated sharp reductions in support for their doctoral students. These cuts include tuition funding, teaching-assistantships, and other research support. In most cases, the department chairs indicated that these cuts were accompanied by sharp reductions in the number of students being admitted to their programs.

For a number of graduate departments, it appeared that these cuts have highlighted their dependence on teaching assistants. As one chair conceded, “we have fewer grad lines, which means bigger classes.” This shift in responsibilities is adding to the burdens on full-time staff, particularly as more of their time is shifted to introductory-level courses.

Cuts in Supplies: A number of departments reported a sharp curtailment of basic supplies, but particularly paper. A number of department chairs noted new limits on faculty use of paper, and in some cases, the removal of photocopiers and copying privileges. Three departments also noted that all phones had been taken out of their faculty offices, and four reported that support funds for computers had been curtailed.

Cuts in Special Programs: A few chairs reported that other organizations housed within their department—editorial projects, institutes, and specialized history organizations—had either taken severe cuts in the current budget cycle or faced significant cuts. According to the chairs, this was jeopardizing a variety of projects ranging from older “papers” projects and institutes to newer efforts (often inspired by the Teaching American History grants) to expand K–12 connections.

Identifying Solutions

In most cases these cuts seemed to be affecting all departments in the institution, and were not singling out the history departments in particular. But a few of the respondents noted that economic problems at the institutional level were exacerbating traditional tensions between the hard sciences and the humanities fields. As one chair noted, “Academic cultures among faculty on campus are becoming more fractured and polarized as the fight for resources deepens—that for me is the most disheartening.”

While the responses were generally bleak, a few departments reported about a few levers that had successfully pried vital funds out of their institutions. The best solution seemed to involve making a case that a particular faculty line or activity represented a core responsibility for the department, or a specialization bringing national attention.

Others noted that they were responding to cuts by making greater use of technology. A significant number of chairs indicated that recent cuts in paper usage had increased faculty use of online syllabi, for instance. A number of chairs cited this shift with ambivalence, however, as they felt some pressure to use online teaching as a substitute for hiring faculty—essentially as a way of increasing class sizes.
Some departments are using the changed environment to creatively develop new programs that reflect a wider range of opportunities for historians. Three of the departments indicated that they are working to develop initiatives on public history tied to local resources and employment opportunities.

All of the department chairs indicated they are doing the best they can with the resources they have. But as their revenues shrink, many of them reported that (in the words of one chair) “morale is very low and people are scared.” Another chair noted that “We have not yet seen an erosion of our teaching and research capabilities, but we may sing a different tune later in October and November as we work on our budget plans.”

Judging from the responses to our survey, one of the more thankless jobs in history—the chairing of academic departments—has become significantly more difficult.

—Robert Townsend is the AHA’s assistant director for research and publications.


1. The departments selected were not a “random sample” in the statistical sense. We contacted the largest department at a public university in every state, the largest producers of undergraduate history degrees, and a sampling of history departments at private institutions and smaller public institutions.