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Humanities Retrenchment at Pitt

April 24, 2012

Long considered one of public higher education’s finest destinations for graduate work in the humanities, the University of Pittsburgh has cut off admissions to master’s and doctoral programs in German, religious studies, and classics in response to reduced state aid.

Some students and faculty fear those departments may soon be totally eliminated, and online petitions are circulating demanding that admissions be restored in classics (620 signatures) and German (1,460 signatures). "This represents a significant step back from one of the university’s oldest and most lasting commitments, from a subject to which so many others owe an immense debt," reads the classics petition. The German petition laments that the decision "sets a precedence for the dismantling of the humanities based on profit-orientation."

If eliminated, these departments wouldn’t be the first casualties of the nation’s newly condensed college coffers. But the fact that these cuts loom at Pittsburgh – and in programs with students who have turned down offers from elite private universities -- poses larger questions about the university’s commitment to graduate humanities education and whether this decision is a harbinger of future cuts.

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Provost Patricia Beeson declined repeated requests for an interview, citing “end-of-semester duties.” But the independent faculty newspaper, the University Times, attributed a statement to Beeson saying the suspension of graduate admissions could be a precursor to the total elimination of those departments. A campus spokesman said those departments wouldn't be closed, but then said Beeson’s statement was portrayed fairly in the Times.

Students already enrolled in the three programs will be able to finish their degrees, and those already admitted for the fall are still allowed to come. Undergraduate programs won’t be affected, university spokesman Robert Hill said. He added that Pittsburgh’s commitment to graduate programs in the humanities remains unchanged.

But the real question is less what those three departments will look like in five months, and more what they’ll look like in five years. “A best-case scenario will be that somehow these cuts can be reversed,” said Edwin Floyd, classics department chair. “A probable scenario would be that there would be no [classics] department. Faculty will be absorbed into two or three other departments.”

Pitt declined to make any administrator available for comment, but agreed to have Hill answer written questions. Hill said there were no immediate plans to close any of three affected departments, and reiterated that the graduate programs were only having their admissions suspended, leaving open the possibility that those suspensions could be lifted.

Asked whether other programs could face similar changes, Hill said “We have nothing to announce, but we are constantly evaluating programs.”

The German, classics and religious studies programs were identified for admissions suspension  “based on a set of criteria that included scale of the program; costs vs. revenues; national positioning of the programs; external perception of the programs; and student qualifications, graduation rates, honors, and placements,” Hill wrote. The university wouldn't say how much money it expects to save.

Faculty Assembly President Michael Pinsky declined to comment, saying it was an “internal issue” going through “appropriate channels.” But David Givens, a doctoral student in religious studies and president elect of Pitt’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, said his constituents are concerned their program could be next. “Students are worried about -- both within the College of Arts and Sciences and outside -- is this a trend?” he said. “Are our programs at risk?”

Floyd, the classics chair, and John Lyon, the German chair, criticized not only the decision but also the way it was made. Both said they were called into the dean’s office -- along with their religious studies colleague who didn’t return a message seeking comment -- on Monday, April 2, and were informed that the university was considering suspending graduate admissions to their programs. That Thursday, Floyd and Lyon said, the dean called to tell them that decision was going into effect.

Both chairs said they were given no chance to state their case for maintaining graduate admissions. “There was no real conversation,” Lyon said. “We were told.”

When asked to clarify the role of faculty chairs in the decision making process, Hill wrote that they were indeed consulted. He declined to expand on that explanation.

“The decision to suspend admission to these programs was a difficult but necessary step given the current budget situation, and was made in consultation with, and informed by the input of, the Dietrich School Deans, members of the Dietrich School Council and the school’s Planning and Budget Committee, as well as the recommendations submitted by the Dietrich School chairs and directors,” Hill wrote.

While Lyon disagrees with the decision to target the German department, he said he understands the need for the university to trim its budget. But he said doing so without meaningful consultation with those impacted -- which he says happened here -- is irresponsible.

“There’s financial exigency,” he said. “The university has to make cuts somewhere. It’s how they go about doing it and the process.”

 

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