Foreign Language Cuts at SUNY Prompt Debates

As they say, “it isn’t over until the fat lady sings. . .”  The decision to eliminate the Italian, French and Russian departments (as well as classics and theater) at SUNY have caused quite a stir and now, it seems, some thought-provoking debate.

Here’s the latest on the cuts from The Miscellany News, October 28, 2010 (story by Mitchell Gilburne:

State University of New York (SUNY) Albany’s decision to cut their Italian, French, Russian, classics and theater programs has ignited scholarly discourse and has forced educators to question the global state of education.

Proficiency in a foreign language, particularly Latin and French, has long been a symbol of educated status. Now, however, these languages among other disciplines find themselves unrepresented at SUNY Albany, a public institution. Now, the scholarly community at large is plagued by the implications of what many be seen as an affront to higher learning.

Vassar College’s Italian Department Chair Eugenio Giusti identifies what he feels to be the true mark of an education as, “growth of the individual, which needs to be a complete affirmation of the individual.” Giusti is firm in his conviction that an education, particularly when concerning foreign language, is an exchange; one that cannot be characterized by picking and choosing suitable components, but rather one that is fully and irreversibly experienced.

It is exactly this experience that much of Vassar’s faculty insists is integral to a complete education. “Is it enough to study a language only to be able to order a coffee when we travel?” asks Vassar’s Dean of Studies Joanne Long. Long’s question challenges the notion of language as a purely utilitarian tool. Long continues, “There is a tendency to find what is consonant with your own worldview rather than be pushed to see difference. Language widens your imagination of possibilities.” Long is adamant that the defense of language, and the humanities in general, must avoid the vagaries that often plague the defense of education as an insular entity. She presents the value of studying language by linking it inseparably with mastery of one’s native tongue, “The study of languages takes things further, looks at things in more detail, makes conclusions that are more nuanced. The power of analysis is part of what the liberal arts is doing. You can’t understand your own language until you understand another.” Giusti fears that globalization combats the sanctity of bilingual ambitions. He notes, “Under the general view of globalization only a few sectors are viewed as valid, that is, commercially valid, and things are only pursued in that direction.” Long echoes these concerns by calling SUNY Albany’s thriving Arabic and Chinese Departments into question.

Though she is by no means critical of their success, she wonders if the equity that the University sees in these departments is derived from the ease with which proficiency in such languages translates into a tangible career path. Dean of the School of Education at SUNY Albany Robert Bangert-Drownes confirms these suspicions in his partial explanation of the University’s methodology. “There may be an indirect relationship,” he admits. “Students may be more heavily enrolling in Arabic and East Asian studies because they have the anticipation that they’ll be doing more business with those cultures. But there was no decision at the administrative level to suspend programs on that basis,” he clarifies. Regardless of this assurance, Giusti finds Bangert-Drownes’ explanation as support for the notion that, “The knowledge of a language is not viewed as an enriching process but instead as a market tool.”

It is just this vision of the future that leaves Chair of Greek and Roman Studies at Vassar College Rachel Friedman deeply uncomfortable. She explains, “This is part of a trend of commodification of education by which only what can be quantified is valued, and there is a growing sense that education has to be utilitarian and functional.” Long continues this thought offering an image of a “Crisis of the Humanities.” She says, “There is some movement, worldwide I would say, to understand education as a tool for economic development and even national and cultural posturing.” Friedman describes this trend as “a xenophobic narrowing of American education.” As a classicist, Friedman is well aware of the value of the past to inform the present, and is wary of endorsing a policy that disregards the history of the institution it is playing god with.

Administrators at SUNY Albany approach the suspensions within the humanities in a pragmatic light characterized by fiscal concerns and quantifiable evidence. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at SUNY Albany Heidi Andrade explains, “Our budget has been cut 30 percent…it’s amazing that we’re offering education to anyone at this point!” However, challenges to the University’s decisions do not stem from the necessity of cuts, but rather from the narrow range of this gutting. Andrade explains the determining factor behind the cuts, “These decisions were based on enrollment, and productivity of the faculty. If people are not enrolling in the classes then those are the classes that get put up to be suspended.” Though Andrade asserts that “The humanities are alive and well at SUNY Albany,” the sentiment is tempered by her remark that “languages are notoriously trendy,” and her original e-mailed statement professing, “I cannot claim to have any particular expertise nor even passion for the issues you raise but, like any good academic, I will say something anyway.”

Friedman, however, is frightened to see the fate of unquantifiable skills be determined by numbers, noting, “that’s a blunt instrument for an institution of higher learning to be using.” Bangert-Drownes is acutely of this, “We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he says, “I remember leaving meetings feeling nauseated because of the dire financial situation the University finds ourselves in and the lack of options.” Torn between ideals and reality, Bangert-Drownes admits, “I don’t think this represents anyone’s definition of what makes a good education; I don’t think that any decision to downsize is a good one.” he concludes. Though Bangert-Drownes is sympathetic to the fates of the recently departed disciplines at SUNY Albany, Long is suspicious of sinister possibilities. “One fact to keep in mind, in looking at Albany,” she laments, “is that the only way that you can get rid of tenured faculty is by getting rid of a department.”

In response to the developments at SUNY Albany in light of the current economy Friedman asserts, “You could argue that state schools are more enrolled and have a greater responsibility.” Bangert-Drownes, however, is reassured by his University’s response to an increased interest in public education. “We could open the gates and allow students to enroll and make money off of them and make poor quality classes, and I think this University did not want to do that. It did not want to capitalize on enrollments,” he finishes, “I actually think this University is making a courageous move.”

Is SUNY Albany a trendsetter or an outlier? Giusti sees the cuts at Albany as the next step in cerebral commoditization. “That tells you a lot about a public school, because you see them producing not people who think, but people who produce with their brains, you make them into a business.”

Bangert-Drownes agrees that the position SUNY Albany has found itself in is a reflection of a need for education reform. “My sense is that the state is schizophrenic about its higher education program,” he says, “We want a large and expansive and successful public education system in the state, but we don’t want to pay for it. I really see the story here as a story about financial support for public higher education.”

Despite the difficulties of financial pressure, Vassar professors are chafed by the fact that a large, and historically important sector of knowledge is being withheld from future attendees of SUNY Albany. Friedman concludes that SUNY Albany’s actions may carry as much meaning as the languages they have suspended proclaiming, “I think liberal arts colleges have to take a stand and convey a commitment to education on its own terms, and sometimes the choices we make have to be seen as significant for what they communicate about our values.”

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