Return to the Silo

April 18, 2011

As budget cuts have proliferated in the past few years, interdisciplinary programs have found themselves threatened on numerous campuses -- e-mail lists in women's and ethnic studies regularly feature the latest news on programs facing significant reductions. Most of these programs have managed to survive, in part by noting scholarly trends that increasingly favor interdisciplinary approaches.

But not at Temple University. The College of Liberal Arts there recently announced that it is moving all of its interdisciplinary programs into traditional disciplinary departments. American studies will join English; Asian studies will join critical languages; Jewish studies will join religion; Latin American studies will join history; and women's studies and Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies will join sociology.

Temple officials say that the changes should be seen strictly as organizational -- the program directors will lose the stipends and course release time that they receive to compensate for their administrative duties, but the academic programs will still be offered, just in different homes. But faculty members at Temple say that the shifts will devalue interdisciplinary work, remove the advocates for these programs, and set them on a path toward erosion. Adding to their concern is the reality that many of the affected programs focus on groups that have suffered from discrimination in society, and that scholarship and teaching on these groups took decades to win acceptance in the academy.

"This is retrograde" at a time when most universities are moving toward greater interdisciplinary focus, said Laura S. Levitt, a religion professor who is the current director of women's studies and formerly was director of Jewish studies. "This is about deinstitutionalization. This is about the slow demise of these programs."

Students have organized a Facebook campaign to keep the programs as independent units. A petition signed by hundreds questions the assumptions behind the decision -- and the message being sent about the value of these fields.

"Placing interdisciplinary programs in departments does not acknowledge the academic field each of the programs represents and instead suggests that they are random sets of interesting courses. Instead, each in the past 30 years has developed into complex scholarly fields that train faculty as rigorously as traditional disciplines," the petition says.

"It appears naïve and unrealistic to believe that a complex interdisciplinary curriculum can simply be handed over to chairs WHO ARE NOT TRAINED IN AND DO NOT KNOW THE FIELD. It dismisses the scholarship and professionalism of these fields (most of which have professional associations and offer graduate degrees in the U.S. and abroad) and reduces them to special interest majors," the petition continues.

Levitt said that there are related practical and philosophical problems with moving interdisciplinary programs into other departments. She said that program directors are needed as advocates in the university hierarchy. She stressed that the department chair of sociology (where women's studies would move) and the other chairs of departments that would gain new fields were skilled academics who would try their best to make the new system work. But she said that only parts of women's studies fit neatly into sociology. How is a sociology department supposed to judge a women's literature scholar, or allocate future faculty slots to fields having nothing to do with sociology? she asked.

"We can hope for benevolent chairs, but they have their own concerns," she said.

Mark A. Leuchter, director of the Jewish studies program, said via e-mail that he had similar concerns about the fit of the interdisciplinary programs in the departments to which they have been assigned.

"If this move can save a good deal of money (and I'm not sure it will) then this could be helpful in terms of all-around resource conservation and distribution," he said. "But the downside, as I see it, is that program directors are dedicated and experienced with the curriculum that is now being folded into larger departments where the bigger entity doesn't have the time or background familiarity to administer a program of study with the same degree of efficiency. And in addition, with regard to my own experience: plenty of courses in the Jewish studies program had nothing to do with religion, but since Jewish studies is now being folded into the religion department, I'm not sure what will happen to those courses -- so students may wind up missing out on good opportunities to learn." (One of the programs for which Jewish studies at Temple is known is a certificate in secular Jewish studies.)

Another issue of concern to faculty members is that the plan has been announced as a final decision, and did not go through typical levels of review by the faculty governance system. (Temple says that some members of some committees were consulted, but the reorganization was never brought before the Faculty Senate until after it was announced as policy.)

Levitt said that every interdisciplinary program, and every degree and certificate offered by the programs, came into existence only after extensive review by numerous faculty committees. Why, she asked, can they be eliminated without similar reviews?

Arthur Hochner, president of the Temple Association of University Professionals (the faculty union, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers), said he was bothered by "the lack of the faculty role in the decision-making here." He noted that the faculty contract specifically states that faculty must be key players in formulating educational policy. He said that moving curricular programs to new divisions should be considered educational policy, "and the faculty weren't consulted beforehand."

Temple officials were not available to discuss the changes, but they pointed to a statement by Teresa Scott Soufas, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, that explained the shifts this way: "We have located departments that are appropriate bases for their curricula and advising duties. The new home departments were selected based on faculty presence and curricular involvement. It is important to note these are administrative changes only. Each studies program -- which may include a major, minor, and/or certificate programs -- remains intact and will continue to be available to students interested in such areas of study. The curricula for the programs are unchanged. Courses will continue to be listed as offerings in each program; diplomas, transcripts...."

The extent to which the cuts are motivated by a desire to save money is being hotly debated at the university. The program directors receive only $5,000 and course release time for their duties, and administrative support for the departments is already shared, so many faculty members see savings being relatively small. Many, however, assume that budget is one motivating factor, given that Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, has proposed deep cuts to the state's colleges.

Levitt said that, if the reorganization is motivated by a need to save money, faculty members are prepared to help with alternatives. "We get that there are going to be cuts," she said. "We would have come up with ways to save, but you have to work with people."

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