Das Ende for German at USC

Scholars are outraged by Southern Cal's decision to eliminate department. Do European languages need to be cut to make more room for Arabic and Chinese?
April 11, 2008

When the Modern Language Association released its study last year on trends in language enrollments, the figures that jumped out were the huge percentage increases for Arabic (+127 percent over four years) and Chinese (+51 percent). German's percentage increase was just 3.5 percent. But because the bases for Arabic and Chinese were so small, the MLA found more students studying German (94,264) than Arabic and Chinese combined.

Given that German enrollments are healthy, should German programs be on the chopping block?

Not surprisingly, language faculty members answer that question No, and generally German departments have avoided elimination in recent years, even without the benefits of the the booms of Arabic or the large total numbers of Spanish. So proponents of German study were outraged this week as some learned that the University of Southern California -- a large university that boasts of its international emphasis -- is eliminating its German department and not allowing any new majors or minors in the field.

The department is a small one -- three tenured faculty members and three full-time adjuncts -- with relatively few majors in recent years, although most of its enrollments are from non-majors. But the reason the department is small is that the university last approved a faculty search in German in 1991, and simply let positions go unfilled as professors retired. Now, with two professors nearing retirement, the university has announced -- with no advance warning, according to faculty members -- that the department is simply being shut down. While German departments have not been shut down in recent years, some have reported having difficulty replacing retiring faculty members, so the pattern at Southern California is one that is viewed with distress.

Howard Gillman, dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said reconsideration of German was natural. "There was a time when because of world events, the study of German and Russian and a few other languages and cultures struck us as really central. We now have a much broader perspective in the world." In this environment, he said, the "enlarged vision" may require more attention for Hindi or Arabic or Chinese and less for German. "The relative attention on the old things is going to be smaller, while we show new respect" for emerging fields, he said.

To German scholars, those are fighting words.

For a research university to close a German department "is irresponsible," and it is equally irresponsible to frame the choice as one that may be necessary to support the study of languages outside Europe, said David E. Barclay, executive director of the German Studies Association and a professor of history at Kalamazoo College. Barclay said that he is a strong supporter of efforts to teach Arabic, Chinese and a range of languages, but that language study is important enough that it must not be seen as "a zero sum game," in which the only way to strengthen Chinese is to cut German.

To imply that American society can manage without European languages because most European elites speak English is "patronizing and dumb," he said. "Whether we like it or not, and for the next half century more, the currently existing industrial and post-industrial societies are going to dominate the global economy. The European Union is not going away, but is getting stronger -- look at the dollar and the euro. Germany is going to continue to be the major player."

Barclay said he saw USC's action as part of a broader, disturbing trend in American higher education. "We have an unfortunate propensity in the way we organize international education, to be crisis driven.... So we have a crisis and realize we don't have anyone who speaks Arabic, so we frantically throw money at programs to teach Arabic, or the Cold War ends and we say 'let's cut money for Russian,' " he said. Just because the European Union "is not an institution that is scintillating with intrinsic excitement, it's still darn important."

Gerhard Clausing, chair of German at USC, said he was told of the decision on March 27, and that university officials told him the decision was final and that they would not consider alternatives. He said he spent about a week trying to figure out if there was anything that could be done, and that largely failing to get information, he felt he had to share the news with students and faculty members.

Clausing said he regularly proposed additional hiring -- frequently in conjunction with other departments, such as comparative literature -- but was turned down by the administration every time. So while he said it was true that enrollments could be higher (about 125-140 students a semester are in German now), he said it was hard to attract more students when permanent positions disappeared.

The administration "told me that the department wasn't sustainable, but they caused that to happen," he said.

One department chair outside the language fields at USC, who asked not to be identified, said that many humanities faculty members -- even those with no direct connections to the department -- are troubled by the idea that a large university would not maintain a department. "I think that a number of us feel that German is integral to a research university," said the chair.

An editorial in the Daily Trojan, the student newspaper, noted that the top universities USC compares itself to have German departments. "The decision to axe the department is outrageous. Cutting a foreign language program undermines the university's attempt to portray itself as a global leader; world-class institutions offer world languages," said the editorial.

Gillman, the dean, said that it was important not to view "a change in organizational structure" as reflecting a lack of commitment to German. He noted that the university has East Asian languages in a single department and French and Italian in a single department. And he added that basic German instruction would continue to be offered in some department. (He acknowledged, however, that while it is possible to major in Chinese, it won't be possible to major in German.)

The question, Gillman said, wasn't about German, but about the university stopping to consider its goals for languages. "We want to think about investments not just about German language, but Arabic language and culture and Chinese language and culture and Hindi language and culture, and we are thinking about where those investments should be," he said. And at this point, he added that the department is so small that he did not think he could "take care of students" who want to major in German.

Helene Zimmer-Loew, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of German, said she just heard a rumor about the closing Thursday and was planning to urge members to protest to USC. "This is very short-sighted," she said. And she rejected the idea that a large university must pick either European or Asian languages. "One would think there would be room for both."

At USC, and elsewhere in German programs, many students enroll for study of culture or philosophy or psychology, not just language -- and departments report that such courses have built ties across disciplinary lines. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, e-mailed her thoughts from Charleston, S.C., where she is at the annual meeting of the College Language Association.

"Our research suggests that there's a growing demand for languages and a continuing demand from students who want to study German. I hope that USC will reconsider; as a major university it should be playing a leadership role in supporting language study, which is an increasingly important field of study in a global economy," Feal said. At the meeting, she said that she had just heard of "fascinating work going on in Afro-German literature and culture," reflecting a broadening of German studies. "Many universities are discovering ways to expand the German curriculum and attract majors through such courses as Holocaust studies, German film, and so forth. It would be great if USC could offer their students advanced courses and entice them to major in a subject that is still vital and important."


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