Art history’s struggles revealed by released letters

Letters from current and former staff members about the decision to cut art history from the University of Otago’s offerings reveal academics’ views on retaining the subject, with  one saying the "writing was on the wall" six years ago. 

Documents released under the Official Information Act show a former staff member, who taught at the university for more than 10 years, told vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne categorically they would not be signing a student-led petition to keep the subject.

The staff member said they told students who were trying to keep the papers "the writing was on the wall when numbers started to tumble seriously back in 2012".

"Yes, the university should have done much more to shore up the humanities rather than allow subject areas to wither and die," he said.

However the university was "not a sheltered workshop". Art history enrolments dropped from more than 80 equivalent full-time students in 2014 to fewer than 19 this year.

Information was also provided to the university by the Ministry of Education on art history enrolments at New Zealand secondary schools in the 20 years from 1997 to 2017, revealing a downward trend from about 4000 pupils in years 9 to 13 to about 2500. Letters from another academic said the decision to cut the programme was "straightforward" and made a "compelling case from a financial standpoint".

"Students look at the discipline and see it as old-fashioned and lacking in cultural diversity, with few avenues for future employment.

"Of course, our graduates go off and do lots of things outside their disciplines, but this is not how students necessarily think when they come to university."

The correspondence included in the response to the OIA also included messages from the Student Voice group to academics, inviting them to attend a public meeting on the subject. Students organised the meeting and a rally, and OUSA representatives made a case before the university senate in a bid to keep the subject as a minor, which was unsuccessful.

The original proposal to cut the programme passed with a clear majority. The subject will be phased out by 2020.

Humanities pro-vice chancellor Prof Tony Ballantyne said on Wednesday no other academic units were under review in the humanities division. 

"We are delighted with the great success of scholars from our division in gaining grants from the Marsden fund and are pleased with the growth in student enrolments for the division as a whole this year." 

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