At Albany, Half a Loaf or Crumbs?

Following storm of criticism over elimination of several language majors, university announces that French and Russian will survive as minors. Professors are dubious of university's commitment.
March 25, 2011

In a time of widespread cuts, it's not every lost degree program that becomes a cause célèbre far from its campus. But faculty members in the humanities have had only to say "Albany" in recent months and the meaning was clear. The State University of New York at Albany, despite having as its motto "the world within reach," had announced in October plans to end all degree programs in French, Italian, Russian, classics and theater -- leaving many professors saying that the humanities, and languages in particular, were being gutted. Criticism was widespread, with coverage extending to the likes of Le Monde.

Late in the day on Thursday, the university announced that French and Russian would survive as minors, and that some instruction would continue in Italian. The French program currently extends to the doctoral level and the other language programs slated for elimination offer bachelor's degrees. Thursday's statement from the university said that "[t]hese actions will ensure that these program areas have a strong presence and expertise within the university," and that students would be able to study French and Russian as "focused secondary subjects." But faculty leaders said that they had little information on how the language programs would evolve.

Jean-François Brière, languages chair and professor of French studies at Albany, called the announcement "a face-saving measure," following all of the criticism the university has received. Brière said that keeping a minor should not change the view that Albany is abandoning its commitment to providing an international perspective to students. "If you want to be international, you at the least keep the major," he said. Brière said that, based on what he has been told by administrators, the staffing plan for the language departments is "waiting for current faculty to retire or to leave."

Ivan Steen, a historian who is vice president for academics of the faculty union at Albany, said that he was encouraged that in French and Russian, a minor suggested that at least some instruction would be offered beyond the introductory level. But he said that many professors -- even while aware of the terrible budget crunch facing the university -- believe that "some cuts are more harmful than others," and that language cuts are in that category. He said many undergraduate and graduate programs outside the languages require a choice of languages to be available at advanced levels.

Steen said he didn't know if that would be the case, or how the faculty members in the departments would be affected. (The SUNY faculty union is United University Professions, which is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.)

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said that the substance of minors varies widely. "A minor could have great significance or could, depending on how the minor is defined, offer no indication of having achieved high competence in language," she said.

Feal said that to evaluate Albany's commitment to languages under the new plan, one would need to know the impact on the tenured and tenure-track faculty members. "What are the long-term plans for ensuring the integrity of the minor programs, which, like major programs, need qualified faculty members to oversee and implement the curriculum?" she asked. "If you don't have faculty members who are continuing, and with the appropriate rights and responsibilities of tenured faculty, the minor could be incoherent.... It could disappear at any time."

Asked about the status of faculty, an Albany spokesman, Karl Luntta, had no details. "What it comes down to is rethinking of the program and designing it around the resources we have. Full-time faculty or part time or graduate assistants? It is too early to say what the numbers would be," Luntta said. He said that the university was committed to helping current students finish their degrees. As they progress, he said, the university does assume that the number of faculty slots would "be diminished."

Luntta stressed that the university "regrets" that any changes in languages are needed, but that the extent of the budget problems in New York State requires these types of choices. "We understand that there is a strong and deep commitment about majors and programs and subjects within the university," he said. "I think that the depth of that feeling is evident in the reactions in the media and the public."

Faculty members at Albany have not disputed that the state is forcing the university to make significant cuts, but many have raised questions about priorities. Brett Bowles, director of French studies at the university, wrote an op-ed in The Times-Union showing that the money that cuts in the humanities would save the university was only a little more than half of the university's subsidy to its athletic programs (and that figure doesn't even count student fees that are required to support athletics). "At a time of severe budget crisis when a business model is being invoked to justify the elimination of academic programs, non-academic units such as athletics should be held to the same standard of cost effectiveness. At a minimum, athletics should be expected to rely on the intercollegiate athletics fee and whatever external revenue they manage to attract," Bowles wrote.

Bowles sent an e-mail to colleagues last night in which he said that faculty members in language departments were not consulted as the administration developed what he called a plan to "quash ongoing criticism," rather than a meaningful effort to promote the study of foreign languages.

"What the decision does do is perpetuate and mask, at least to outsiders looking in, our administrators’ contempt for faculty and systematic exclusion of them from having a voice in the fate of their programs and their jobs," Bowles wrote. "The decision should not be construed as a concession on the part of the administration or a victory for faculty or students; all it does is allow the administration to save face and falsely affirm consultation with faculty while in truth prolonging the atmosphere of attrition that we have lived through since October 1 in the hope that faculty will retire or seek jobs elsewhere."

Feal, of the MLA, said that the strong reaction far from Albany wasn't a shock. "Fields are part of national and international communities," she said, and academics have expectations for institutions. "It shouldn't surprise that people looked and said, 'This is a research university and it is taking away the responsibility to do French or Russian?' It just looks off. It just looks wrong."


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