The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No English or history majors? Marymount U. weighs cuts in humanities.

As trustees of the Catholic university in Virginia consider a plan to eliminate nine undergraduate majors, the faculty are livid

4 min

Update Friday: Marymount trustees have approved a plan to cut English and several other majors.

Marymount University, a Catholic institution in Northern Virginia, would eliminate undergraduate majors in English, history, philosophy and several other subjects under a controversial restructuring plan its trustees are scheduled to consider Friday.

Even the major in theology and religious studies — a staple at many colleges but especially those with Catholic affiliation — would be cut. The plan, which has spurred fierce faculty protest, represents a pivotal moment for a 3,700-student institution in Arlington that describes itself as a “comprehensive Catholic university.”

Marymount President Irma Becerra endorsed the cuts in a Feb. 15 letter to the university’s Faculty Council. In all, the plan calls for phasing out nine bachelor’s degree programs. Among other majors that would be eliminated: art, mathematics, secondary education and sociology. For economics, the Bachelor of Arts would be cut, but the Bachelor of Science would remain. Also proposed to be cut: a master’s program in English and humanities.

“True to our mission, all university programs will continue to be grounded in the liberal arts and focused on the education of the whole person,” Becerra wrote, “but MU cannot financially sustain offering majors with consistently low enrollment, low graduation rates, and lack of potential for growth.” Becerra was unavailable for an interview Thursday.

Becerra, in office since 2018, faces intense criticism from within the university community. “I’ve said to her I am absolutely opposed to this,” said Ariane Economos, director of the school of humanities and an associate professor of philosophy. “She knows the faculty in general are opposed to this.”

Holly Karapetkova, an English professor who is also the poet laureate of Arlington, called the plan “bizarre” and said faculty are unable to see how it will save a substantial amount of money or raise the university’s profile. “I don’t know how you could have the same mission that we supposedly have and not have the humanities majors,” she said. On the faculty for 15 years, Karapetkova said the issue is personal. “I’ve given a significant portion of my life to this institution,” she said. “I believe in it.”

Founded in 1950 to serve women, Marymount declared itself to be coeducational — enrolling men in degree programs — in 1987. Its website says Marymount was the first Catholic college established in Virginia.

Like many regional universities, Marymount faces enrollment and revenue challenges. About 2,275 of its students are undergraduates. But of those, about 500 are dual-enrollment students, primarily based in local high schools. Those students, who might be taking a course or two from Marymount, do not bring the university as much revenue as full-time undergraduates.

Federal data show that 31 percent of its undergraduates identify as Hispanic or Latino, 30 percent as White, 14 percent as Black or African American and 12 percent as international. Estimated tuition and fees are listed at about $37,000 for this school year, not counting room and board, but nearly all full-time undergraduates receive financial aid or scholarships. Nearly 30 percent of freshmen have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell Grants.

College enrollment declines for third straight year since pandemic

Nick Munson, Marymount’s director of communications, said data show a modest to small number of students in degree programs proposed for elimination — 15 each in English and history, 10 in art, eight in sociology, six in math, three in philosophy and none in theology and religious studies.

“These programs are simply not ones that are in demand,” Munson said. “However, we will continue to provide a strong liberal arts core and offer classes in the subjects above. Also, it’s important to mention that Marymount will continue to have a BA in liberal studies going forward.”

A university statement on the restructuring suggests that resources from the targeted programs would be reallocated to others “that better serve our students and reflect their interests.” But there was no specific indication of plans for staff or faculty cuts.

Among the university’s larger programs, according to federal data, are nursing, business administration and information technology.

Faculty say humanities courses often draw substantial enrollment even if the number majoring in those subjects is small. Economos contended the proposal before the trustees represents a significant blow to humanities. “What it looks like we’re going to be doing is focusing on majors that are training you for a very specific job,” she said. “That’s a real change from the mission and identity of the university.”