By Jennifer Schlegel (Kutztown University)

Sitting in the Marriott conference room, listening to the panelists of “Undergraduate Desire,” I wondered if the undergraduates at my publicly funded institution might have heard their experiences and concerns narrated in the papers. I did not hear the voices of students and anthropologists in regional public universities, which is why the organizers of the panel asked me to contribute my perspective to this collection of essays.

The situation at Kutztown is distinct from the other institutions represented in this collection. Kutztown University is one of fourteen universities that comprise Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PaSSHE). The system as a whole is stressed. After a yearlong search to replace Chancellor Frank Brogan (who retired and awaits confirmation in President Trump’s Department of Education as assistant secretary of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education), the board of governors has selected Dr. Daniel Greenstein, most recently of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to be the next chancellor of the system. Among the pressing issues Greenstein will face is the very survival of the system. Within the past year, two reviews of PaSSHE have been released. The first, conducted by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, and was commissioned by PaSSHE, while the second, conducted by the RAND Corporation, was commissioned by the Republican-controlled state legislature. While redesign of the system is in order, the RAND report includes the possibility of closing some of the underenrolled and underperforming universities, including Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest HBCU. Additionally, State Senator Scott Wagner, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, stated that the system won’t be around in four years during a public hearing about the system. Should he be elected governor in November, there is every indication that he will try to make his prediction a reality. The situation is dire.

In an effort to remain competitive, universities within the system are pressed to demonstrate their distinctiveness. In doing so, we risk losing weaker programs and departments in the system to save our own. Stronger anthropology programs may survive; weaker ones may not. Students’ undergraduate desires are less likely to be fulfilled, or, perhaps worse, less likely to be imagined under such constraints. While Lee Baker speaks to the potential for parasitic relationships at Duke in his essay in this collection, the situation is ripe for programmatic cannibalism across PaSSHE. Indeed, I hope the model for partnered rather than parasitic relationships exemplified at Duke can be manifest across our system.

Tuition to attend a PaSSHE school is not quite $7,500 per year, and the average annual cost to attend for an in-state student tops $24,000 (Fact Center: Financial Data). Recent enrollment at Kutztown hovered just below 8,000 students. The mean combined SAT score for incoming freshmen for fall 2016 is 986 (old SAT) and for fall 2017 is 1063 (new SAT). The anthropology program averages forty-five to fifty majors a year with six tenured or tenure-track anthropologists who teach 4/4 loads. We are down from ninety majors during the peak of our school’s enrollment of 10,700. The vast majority of our students do not pursue graduate degrees. Some attend graduate school in professional programs, and we have the occasional student who gets accepted to a graduate program in anthropology.

The desire and longing for meaningful encounters with others is palpable among the students we see at Kutztown University. As with many anthropology programs, ours attracts Ruth Benedict’s “misfits,” who sense the relevance of the field to their own states of becoming. This is especially true in the current political climate. Our students came of age in an America that still offered the promise of a time when all might be able to safely live lives of alterity after dismantling white supremacy and heterosexism. Students attracted to our anthropology classes, including first-generation students, took pride in honing their political voices. And then the 2016 election happened. Quickly, the nascent optimism (re)turned to pessimism and fear.

There is a sense of urgency among my students given the increasing injustices they both witness and experience. Students feel a need to be equipped with knowledge and tools NOW. Their urgent calls need a rapid response, but universities and departments operate in longer time frames and therefore struggle to meet their demands. As my colleague Bill Donner puts it, “Students want to apply anthropology, they do not want applied anthropology.” Our students’ desires to do good in the world is a common theme in this collection of articles. As Rouse and Waterston point out, where this “world” is depends on where our students are coming from; habitus matters. For many of our students, that “world” is the one they inhabit. More similar to the students described by Waterston than Handler and Stoner, Kutztown students bring the emotional, experience-near element to their classes with the need for the critical focus, analysis, and understanding necessary to apply anthropology to the worlds they inhabit.

Two examples of courses that capitalize on our students’ experience-near orientations with limited exposure to critical anthropology are Hate across Cultures and The Anthropology of Frauds and Fantastic Claims. “Hate Class,” as it is known, investigates practices of dehumanization related primarily to racism, religion, heterosexism, and misogyny globally and locally, ending with an examination of hate and bias activity on our own campus, asking and answering fundamentally ethnographic questions, such as “Why is hate here, and why now?” Students are challenged to make sense of their own experiences with, and exposure to, dehumanization by examining hate as a cultural practice with the goal of challenging it in order to dismantle it. In the “Frauds” class, students learn to apply analytic tools to distinguish pseudoscientific explanations from scientific explanations, again with the goal of challenging fraudulent claims in order to dismantle them. This is a skills-based class with an emphasis on informational literacy preparing students to engage the world they inhabit. Developing and offering courses like “Hate” and “Frauds” are “rapid responses” to meeting the desires and the needs of our students, meeting them where they are.

As is the case with undergraduates throughout the country, a knowledge of anthropology prior to matriculation is the exception, not the rule. Our students, much like the students Handler and Stoner refer to, are interested in making the world a better place. For them, doing anthropology to change the world does not include fieldwork abroad. The world they seek to change is the one they are engaging with every day. Students who cannot afford textbooks cannot afford to study abroad. Students who are experiencing food insecurity and visit our on-campus food pantry are looking for local opportunities.

Our students have limited choices and resources when it comes to experiential learning opportunities, which may become further limited in Pennsylvania’s political and economic climate. While possibilities for going abroad for the types of engaged learning described separately by Piot and Middleton have increased, going local is more realistic for our students and our funding models. A local focus provides a way to create an anthropology with an experience-near orientation

Kutztown University is the home to the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, an open-air folklife and research center dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Pennsylvania German folk culture. While explicit student interest in the local ethnic and ethno-religious culture and language of the Pennsylvania Dutch is minimal, students are attracted to gaining skills in cultural preservation, museum studies, historical research, food and culture, and cultural representation. In terms of interdisciplinary opportunities, students in biology, history, geography, German, and library science are “doing anthropology” in a unique field setting. For our undergraduate majors, internships are available that provide experience and opportunity for research that can lead to conference presentations and a more competitive résumé for employment following graduation.

A local focus provides a way to create an anthropology-near orientation. If doing anthropology means, at its most basic, applying critical thinking skills and holistic perspectives to the world around us every day, then, we tell our students, the opportunity to “do” anthropology is all around them. Investing in anthropology undergraduate education and addressing students’ interests in applying anthropology is also a way to develop the cultural awareness and sensitivity of the residents and citizens of Pennsylvania. The local focus of our curriculum is impactful as our traditionally-aged students become adults since our students overwhelmingly end up remaining in Pennsylvania for their adult lives.

We need to be able to adapt our curriculum to fit our students’ emerging interests while also attending to the needs of the institution. I see opportunities for this to occur in interdisciplinary endeavors, in the classroom, and in the field. In the PaSSHE system, the sixth most popular major is “social sciences” (Fact Center: Student Data). Anthropology is lumped in there, though some argue we are not a social science but belong with the biological sciences or the humanities. In the same way that UVA created an interdisciplinary global studies program and Duke an interdisciplinary international studies program, my university is seeking a way to combine the social sciences proactively. If we combined our disciplines, we would advertise and recruit as a unit, provide learning communities as a unit, and develop disciplinary tie-ins through the development of new minors and certificate programs.

While many are on board with the creation of new disciplinary minors for social science majors, there remains the unanswered question of how minors are valued by our institution in terms of receiving budgetary support by generating “butts in seats.” And while some fear anthropology programs will be diluted through interdisciplinary collaborations, others suggest that social science students would encounter anthropological perspectives that would have been unavailable to them without the new programs.

We have had success with a local archaeological field school. Students report having been transformed by their field-school experiences in rural Pennsylvania. For some, this is the only opportunity they will have to dig. For others, it becomes the basis for participating in a research project that results in undergraduate conference posters and papers. Currently, 100 percent of the anthropology majors who have participated in the field school graduated within four years. Our students’ success has increased the likelihood the field school will continue to receive institutional support. We are also applying anthropology on our campus. For example, we have had some success with a multiyear research project on the use of our university library. It is important for the future of our program that we are able to demonstrate that our students have developed skills and a theoretical orientation to solving problems in their own backyards.

Other examples of applied work performed by Kutztown University anthropology majors include the student with the not-quite-full-time job at a local bank who suggests to her boss that the newly initiated friendliness campaign comes across as too aggressive by male patrons, the student volunteering in a hospital who researches the bilingual needs of patients, and the student attending a country line-dancing club who asks the manager to weigh the social and economic impact of eliminating racist songs from the DJ’s playlist. And sometimes our students who never imagined themselves in academia get hooked, like the student who took a cultural anthropology class as a freshman on a whim, knowing that his career as a professional firefighter was set up. He ended up with an anthropology BA, MA, and a career in higher education administration. Does it take an anthropology degree to do any one of those things? Did anthropology ever matter more?

Anthropology programs in underfunded public colleges and universities manage the often-competing interests of state legislatures, the business sector, and university administrators, as well as the interests of students, parents and anthropology professors. All have skin in the game. Remaining relevant to—and one day ahead of—each of these interests is crucial for the survival of our programs and the R1 programs who graduate the next generation of scholars and applied anthropologists.