Disappearing Languages at Albany

Scholars stunned by decision to eliminate French, Italian, Russian and classics programs. Tenured faculty say they were told they would lose jobs.
October 4, 2010

The State University of New York at Albany's motto is "the world within reach." But language faculty members are questioning the university's commitment to such a vision after being told Friday that the university was ending all admissions to programs in French, Italian, Russian and classics, leaving only Spanish left in the language department once current students graduate. The theater department is also being eliminated.

While the last two years have seen many language departments threatened or eliminated, faculty members at Albany said they were stunned that so many languages were being eliminated at the same time and that this was happening at a doctoral university that has prided itself on an international vision. The French program extends to the doctoral level while all the other programs have undergraduate majors as well as many students who take language courses as part of general education but who do not major.

Ten tenured faculty members in language programs were told Friday that they would have two years of employment in which to help current students finish their degrees, but that they would then be out of their jobs, according to several who were at the meeting. About 20 adjuncts and several others on the tenure track but not tenured are also at risk of losing their jobs, potentially even earlier, although details are not available.

A university spokeswoman, asked about the details of faculty jobs, said that "no faculty are losing their jobs this year and at this stage it's too early to determine when faculty positions will actually be impacted," but those who were at the briefing for the dropped departments Friday said that they were told explicitly that their jobs would be eliminated. The spokeswoman, however, said that the meeting Friday was "the beginning of a conversation about the future," without any decisions about faculty jobs.

"We were told [of the eliminations] without any hint" in advance of any concern about the programs, said Jean-François Brière, a professor of French studies and chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Brière, who has taught at the university since 1979, said that even in the context of budget cuts this year, he was shocked. "No other university of the caliber and size" of Albany has done this, he said.

George M. Philip, Albany's president, cited deep, repeated budget cuts as requiring the university to move beyond across-the-board cuts or identifying one-time savings.

Under current budget projections, he said in a statement on the cuts, by the end of 2012, administrative units will have had state funds cut by 22.4 percent and academic units will have had funds cut by 16 percent. Hundreds of positions have been eliminated, largely through leaving vacancies unfilled. "This decision was based on an extensive consultative process with faculty, and in recognition that there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs," Philip said. While all the programs slated for elimination are part of the university's liberal arts offerings, he said that "this action does not reflect the quality of the faculty appointed to these program areas, or the value of these subjects to the liberal arts." (Faculty union leaders and language faculty said that they knew of no consultation, and Faculty Senate leaders did not respond to inquiries.)

He also cited the failure of the New York Legislature to pass legislation -- strongly backed by SUNY leaders -- that would have given more control over tuition rates and the use of tuition revenue to the state's university systems, and would have saved them money by releasing them from a range of regulatory requirements.

Language faculty dispute the idea that there was sufficient consultation, saying that they were never given a chance to explain their enrollment numbers.

Eloise Brière, an associate professor of French studies, said that the seven tenured French faculty members each year collectively teach about 500 students who are not majors, about 40 at various stages of the major, and about 40 graduate students. She said that these numbers may seem low compared to departments that are able to have large introductory courses with hundreds of students.

"You cannot teach languages to an auditorium of 200," she said. "It is the nature of what we do that we are then seen as unproductive." Making decisions in this way "devalues the liberal arts," she said.

Like her husband, Brière is long-term at Albany, having taught there since 1982. She said she was particularly concerned about younger faculty members, citing those recruited in recent years, one of whom gave up tenure elsewhere. "This is devastating," she said.

Phil Smith, president of United University Professions, the SUNY faculty union, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, said that it was correct that SUNY has suffered deep budget cuts, but he questioned both the process and the decision. He said that the Albany chapter of the union was not consulted on the cuts, even though changes of this magnitude should have led to such discussions.

Even with a need for cuts, he said, some programs need protection at a comprehensive university like Albany. "I can't understand how a university can eliminate classics programs and languages like Italian and French," he said.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said via e-mail: "The plans of the State University of New York at Albany to deny students access to higher learning in three modern and two classical languages are a distressing reverse to the university’s recent efforts to promote global competencies. The advanced study of the languages, literatures, and cultures of the French-, Italian-, and Russian-speaking world are essential components of a liberal arts education in a university setting. While these are financially difficult times for the SUNY system, an institution of the caliber of the University at Albany should honor its claim to offer students a comprehensive, world-class education."


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