University of Washington

When Brian Reed was appointed Divisional Dean of Humanities in 2018 at the University of Washington (UW), an ACLS Associate Member, the number of majors in the division’s twelve departments were at a low point, and these numbers were affecting the overall mood among faculty. Dean Reed and others collected data, which included a student survey and conversations with deans at peer institutions. They realized they had a pipeline problem: they were not attracting sufficient numbers of students who had arrived on campus but had not yet chosen a major. The survey showed that undergraduates didn’t know what “humanities” meant; most hadn’t encountered the word in high school, which meant that first-generation students (nearly a third of UW undergraduates) were particularly disadvantaged. Separately, members of the faculty senate had identified some admissions practices resulting in missed opportunities for connecting with interested high school students. They needed a better communication strategy, one that explained the humanities to students before they arrived on campus and provided a better understanding of the possibilities of life and work after graduating with a degree in the humanities.

A grant from the Mellon Foundation allowed Reed to build Humanities First, a first-year experience for incoming students that launched in fall 2020. The grant funded a half-time program coordinator and course replacements for teaching faculty. (The University is currently planning for long-term sustainability.) Any first-year student can register for Humanities 101, a fall course that counts toward the “Arts & Humanities” general education requirement; the winter and spring courses (102 and 103) are smaller, “into the field” seminars. Each year focuses on a different theme (topics as of this writing include “Journeys,” “Health and Wealth,” and “Dreams and Nightmares”) and emphasizes humanistic thinking, teamwork, and public engagement.

Humanities First creates a “landing pad” for incoming students, providing more direction for students who are interested in the humanities but may be overwhelmed when it comes to course selection. Humanities First provides what Reed and others have come to call “defined choice.” Equally essential, the program emphasizes community through the creation of yearly cohorts. Students have responded positively. For example, the students created a Humanities First Discord server during Covid-19, when the first quarter was completely online; this server is still active. The Humanities Division has also launched a Humanities Next group, providing an opportunity for Humanities First Scholars in their sophomore year to mentor incoming students, organize events (such as a careers panel), and stay involved in the community.

The combination of outreach and curricular innovations (notably Humanities First, but also including other innovative inter- and trans-disciplinary initiatives in the Humanities Division, such as a program in Global Literary Studies) has resulted in some impressive statistics:

  • Between 2018 and 2023, there was a 62.87% increase in “Humanities Interested” undergraduate applicants (indicated on their college application).
  • The same time frame has seen a 201% increase in enrolled “Humanities Interested” students.
  • The last year alone (2022-23) saw a 26.78% increase in “Humanities Interested” applicants. This is the second largest increase on campus, ahead of the College of the Environment, Natural Sciences, Foster School of Business, Social Sciences, Arts, and Computer Science and Engineering.
  • Since 2018, Humanities majors have held steady or increased, with some departments in a growth phase (Cinema and Media Studies); others enrolled at 90-95% capacity (English); and yet others proving their success in attracting students to innovative, large courses (both Classics and Scandinavian Studies).

Reed further noted the importance of support from upper administrators, including the President, who believe in the value of a liberal arts education and the humanities. This commitment manifests itself in various ways across the institution, including the recently released podcast series Ways of Knowing, an eight-episode podcast connecting humanities research with current events and issues that features UW humanities faculty.



  • Understanding college from a student perspective—which includes thinking about students before they arrive on campus and after they leave—can help shape communication, outreach, and the curriculum.
  • Thinking expansively across the curriculum and embracing more integrated approaches to the humanities can both reveal opportunities for new curricular programs and benefit existing ones.
  • Providing a “landing pad” for students interested in the humanities helps to bring them to campus and learn what it means to engage in humanistic study.
  • Community is an important part of student learning.
  • Securing resources (whether internal or external) can be an important step in launching innovative programs. But to shift narratives of scarcity, it’s essential to change institutional cultures. This work includes bringing faculty together around possibilities, reminding them that they can make institutional change, and telling stories to different constituencies about the exciting work that’s taking place.
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