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German programs are finding themselves on the chopping block -- leaving language scholars frustrated.
June 12, 2009

Last year, German scholars and other advocates for foreign language education were outraged when the University of Southern California eliminated its German department, abandoning a major in the field.

It turns out that was just the start of a bad period for German in American higher education. This year, of course, the economic mess has prompted many colleges to kill programs or to draft lists of departments that may be eliminated or scaled back. USC is not alone in rethinking the need for a university to maintain a program in the language.

  • At Florida State University, German (which has both bachelor's and master's programs) is on a list of programs for possible elimination, pending adoption of a final budget. The program could get word on its survival (or not) as early as today, following several months of petitions and lobbying on its behalf, and there are rumors circulating that the program may survive.
  • The University of Iowa announced this month that it is suspending admissions to its master's and doctoral programs in German for at least two years.
  • The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is studying the German studies major for possible elimination.
  • The University of Idaho plans to eliminate an undergraduate major and a master of arts in teaching in German.
  • Washington State University is planning to eliminate its German major, although there is some talk of continuing to offer first-year German.

At least 10 job searches for tenure-track positions in German or Germanic languages have been suspended or canceled so far this year, according to academic job wikis. And the losses aren't limited to the United States. The number of scholars at British universities doing research on German language and literature is down 12 percent since 2001, and Queen's University Belfast is planning to close its German department, The Guardian reported.

To many advocates for German, the losses this year, following the lingering concerns over the USC shutdown, could seriously damage the field. Some of the programs that could be eliminated train the teachers who are needed to keep programs alive in high schools, which in turn produce some of the students who might keep German programs functioning in higher education. It's bad enough that members of the German Studies Association now have a "programs in danger" e-mail list so they can trade news on departments that may be eliminated and brainstorm about ways to build support.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said that she realized that "in light of the budget crises at many colleges and universities, hard decisions have to be made." But she said that given the oft-stated commitments of academic leaders to promote international understanding among students, "it certainly is shortsighted to eliminate these programs, especially for undergraduates."

She noted that this rollback in institutional commitment to German is taking place at a time of excitement in the programs themselves, with more ties being built to departments such as music and linguistics and Jewish studies and history. "The demand for the programs is still there. The enrollments are still there," she said.

In fact, German enrollments have been going up at a slow but steady rate. In the MLA's study on 2006 language enrollments in the United States, German attracted 94,264 students, landing it in third place among all languages (Spanish and French were first and second, with 822,985 and 206,426 students, respectively). The German figure was up by 3.5 percent from 2002. But the languages just below German on the chart saw much larger percentage gains during that period: 29.7 percent for American Sign Language, 22.6 percent for Italian, 27.5 percent for Japanese, and 51 percent for Chinese.

At the universities considering the elimination of German, nobody says anything remotely negative about the language or the faculty members involved -- the issue is simply presented as one of needing to identify cuts in areas that have relatively small enrollments that aren't growing. Given the magnitude of the cuts being talked about this year across higher education, whole programs must be included in the mix of cuts to reach meaningful savings. At Washington State, for example, eliminating the German major is estimated to save about $100,000 -- not a huge sum, but savings that are needed.

And educators in German programs acknowledge that the numbers of students involved in German degree programs are small on a per-campus basis. At the University of Iowa, there are 18 enrolled in the graduate programs that aren't gaining new students.

Roland Racevskis, the chair of German (as well as of French and Italian) at Iowa, said that the decision was "a bit of a shock to us." He said that "all that talk about globalization and internationalization in university culture doesn't make sense if we are Anglophone."

Defenders of German are rallying around programs, making a variety of arguments. A statement on the planned cuts at Washington State, issued by the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association, said in part: "To close the German Program would cut off many students from the study of their own intellectual, cultural, and social histories. And such a closing would clearly also impoverish the study of the writings of many non-Western postcolonial, economic, literary, and political theorists, whose texts are in frequent dialogue with those of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Weber, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Adorno, and Einstein, to name but a very few of the most important German and German-Jewish thinkers in the intellectual history of the last 250 years."

David Barclay, executive director of the German Studies Association and a historian at Kalamazoo College, said that he is dismayed by the idea that last year one German program was killed off and this year several are in danger. "Germany remains the dominant country in the European Union. German is the the largest of the languages within the EU, and the largest European language after Russian," he said. "It is critically important that more Americans have a knowledge of the language."

While anyone visiting Germany would find no shortage of English speakers, and there is a wealth of material in English about Germany, Barclay said that scholars need to remind people of the difference that language makes. "The assumption that one can understand the culture and not the language is flat-out wrong," he said.

Barclay said it was important for humanities scholars to enter these debates earlier, before programs are targets for elimination. Specifically, he said that it was important for German studies professors (and those who study other regions and languages) to talk more about the "service function" of language departments. It's true that the number of graduate students in German at a place like Iowa is small, he said. But Iowa's history department has an outstanding program studying German history -- and those graduate students benefit from a vibrant language program. That left him "horrified" at the idea of ending graduate admissions, Barclay said.

"We need to emphasize our interaction with other programs," he said.

Likewise, he said that German programs may want to explore making such ties formal as a way to attract more students and support within the university. He mentioned as an example the International Engineering Program at the University of Rhode Island, which is a five-year program in which engineering students study foreign languages and culture and in five years earn degrees in both engineering and one of the languages. Those who study German study in Germany in their fourth year and have internships there with companies that relate to the students' areas of engineering interest.

John Grandin, who runs the German division of the program, said that the approach works: "We have about 135 German majors at URI, and business is booming."


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