Stanley Fish responds to the flood of comments that he received on his recent posting on the NYT that claimed that the humanities don't pay. This piece is better but he concedes too readily to administrator mumbo-jumbo. The comment below from Christopher Braider in Boulder, CO, states my views so well that I'll let him do the talking. The only thing that I would add is that in the last decade the number of faculty in Big Science at many R1 institutions has increased--administrators presumed that their salaries could be covered in part by large federal grants. But these grants are also drying up and becoming harder to get. So not only do the grants not cover all the costs--which exacerbates the cross-subsidy issue in times of declining state support as Chrisopher notes--federal grants are also becoming harder to get, making the venture capital model of expansion of Big Science all the more unsustainable.
While you've got the basic outline of the financial plight especially of public universities down right, you've still got the arithmetic wrong.
You are of course right that humanities departments don't bring in grant money the way the sciences do. And yet, as you concede, they have still traditionally made a profit since the overheads (including salaries, benefits, and plant and utility costs) are lower than the tuition revenue they generate. And if this was true before the current financial crisis arose, it remains true now since tuition continues to more than cover the costs. The financial situation in the humanities hasn't changed because it has never depended on either external grants (since they have never generated any) or state funding (not needed since tuition covers it all). I'd even go further and claim that the profits humanities departments have actually increased during the crisis. At institutions like my own here in Colorado, salaries have been frozen for two years now and, EXCEPT, typically, in the natural sciences, faculty positions left open by departures and retirements are generally left vacant. Yet tuition has sky-rocketed, with the result that the ratio between faculty costs and tuition revenue is even more favorable than it was before.
So what has really changed if it isn't the profit-loss calculation for the humanities? What has changed is that the catastrophic decline in state funding means that universities no longer have a way to cover the structural shortfalls created by Big Science. While science departments do indeed bring in extra-mural funding, that funding has NEVER sufficed to cover the cost. This has meant that the losses the sciences incur had to be made up with state money. Once state money dries up, that leaves only two options: rapidly rising tuition for ALL students, whatever their majors, and cannibalizing the rest of the institution to pay the bills the sciences run up.
Until this basic fact of life is faced for what it is, administrators will continue to do what your report of their standard defense of their policies leads them to: invest ever more money in big science (as, here in Colorado, they go on doing in absolute as well as relative terms) in the HOPE that the research dollars science brings in will somehow, someday catch up with the costs. The problem is that, even in the good times, they never caught up with the costs; and they're much less likely to do so now precisely because the general public funding situation is so bleak.
The result is this: what looks like hard-eyed realism is in fact fantasy, and all the more clearly so when administrators talk, as they do, of potential patents--the idea that molecular biologists, for example, will make some breakthrough in bio-technology that will in turn brings floods of money pouring in in the form of huge licensing fees. Nothing of the sort has ever happened, and certainly nothing on the scale necessary to recoup the giant losses sustained in providing the infrastructure big science needs.