Why Did Allegheny Cut Its Chinese Program?

With little other information, the program’s lone tenured—now terminated—professor wonders if it’s about anti-Asian bias.

September 2, 2022
Xiaoling Shi, an Asian woman with dark hair wearing dangly earrings.
Xiaoling Shi
(Allegheny College)

Citing a structural deficit and the need to cut at least $1.5 million in faculty salaries while increasing its student-faculty ratio, Allegheny College in Pennsylvania charged a task force with reviewing its academic programs. The task force evaluated all programs for sustainability based on criteria such as enrollment, ultimately dividing them into four categories last year: strategically invest, maintain, challenged and reconfigure.

In the task force’s final report, Allegheny’s Chinese program was listed under “maintain,” not the latter two at-risk categories. Yet earlier this year, when it came time to cut tenured faculty positions, Allegheny’s administration cut the Chinese minor and terminated the college’s lone tenured professor of Chinese. 

Unanswered Questions

So why was Chinese targeted? That’s what the terminated professor, Xiaoling Shi, and some of her colleagues and students want to know. But they haven’t gotten any answers thus far: Shi’s appeal to Allegheny’s Board of Trustees was rejected, with no reason given, other than that the trustees had voted “consistently with their views.”

“Our minor had 12 students, more than 21 other minors on campus, including five ethnic studies minors,” Shi said this week. “Why was Chinese language and culture cut? The numbers don’t support the decision.”

Shi continued, “I wasn’t interviewed or consulted by the president or the provost throughout [the] process, or ever, actually. In the past 12 years when I was overseeing the Chinese program, I never had the opportunity to talk to the chief academic officer about Chinese.”

Concerned that racial animus motivated Allegheny to act as it did, Shi—who has been outspoken on campus about anti-Asian hate—filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That is still pending.

Also concerned that Allegheny violated its own tenure policies, as well as the American Association of University Professors’ widely followed tenure policies, Shi reached out to her campus AAUP chapter and the national association. Both AAUP bodies have expressed concerns about Allegheny’s process.

Joe Tompkins, associate professor of communication and media at Allegheny and president of the local AAUP chapter, told Inside Higher Ed that “what’s happening here is a pretty dangerous development, and it’s not just happening at Allegheny: these kinds of unilateral decisions to close programs from the top down. They represent a pretty major transfer of power from faculty to administration over curricular matters.” He continued, “It’s also a violation of the principles of academic governance, and it has implications for the integrity of the institution.”

Allegheny said in a written statement that its program and staffing plan “involves the elimination of faculty and staff positions around the institution. At the same time, Allegheny is investing in faculty lines in programs experiencing enrollment growth and is maintaining faculty lines in existing programs with robust enrollments. These staffing determinations were made following a thorough process and were not motivated by any discriminatory reason.”

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The college said its plan also “calls for Allegheny to have a student-to-faculty ratio that is aligned with other national liberal arts colleges. Allegheny remains committed to delivering breadth in its interdisciplinary liberal arts curriculum and is strategically managing resources through our shared governance processes for a sustainable future.” That is, Allegheny is seeking to increase its student-to-faculty ratio so that it doesn’t have as many professors for its student population, which has shrunk over the last decade to about 1,500. This is the new target enrollment for the institution, which is a departure from the 1,600 to 1,700 students to which Allegheny aspired before the pandemic.

Last year, Allegheny had 154 full-time faculty members. Its realignment plan cut that number to 129, which allowed the college to increase its student to faculty ratio to 11 or 12 to one. Most of the faculty cuts came from retirements and resignations.

Chinese Cut

Shi helped establish the Chinese studies minor at Allegheny starting in 2010. In 2021, amid COVID-19, the college said that it was experiencing a structural deficit and needed to cut at least $1.5 million in faculty salaries over several years, in the interest of sustainability. Crucially, however, the college did not declare financial exigency.

A faculty task force was appointed, and it delivered its recommendations to the college later last year. Prefacing its findings, the task force wrote, of programs already down to one or fewer full-time faculty members, “Our sense is that some departments and programs have been pared down so much (or, if they are relatively new, have never been staffed or given enough resources) that diminished student interest is self-fulfilling. Students cannot be interested in and take courses that do not exist.”

While small, Chinese studies made the cut. The task force listed challenged programs as those in classical studies, energy and society, French, geology, and journalism in the public interest. Recommended for reconfiguration were two combined programs: communication, film and theater, and, separately, philosophy and religious studies. All other programs—including Chinese—were to be maintained. Departments and programs recommended for strategic investment, meanwhile, were Black studies, community and justice studies, computer science, education studies, environmental science, and political science.

In early 2022, Ron Cole, then Allegheny’s provost, released a staffing and academic programs plan that differed significantly from the task force report. This plan called for changes—including the termination of faculty lines—in more than a dozen departments and programs, and for the full elimination of four programs: the film and digital storytelling major, the geology major, the religious studies major, and the Chinese minor.

All told, Cole’s plan called for the elimination of 29 faculty lines and the addition of four lines in investment areas, for a net reduction of 25 faculty lines. But after accounting for faculty retirements and other voluntary departures, Allegheny terminated only Shi. (Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said that Allegheny terminated two tenured professors, Shi and another professor in a different program, but the second professor said Friday that she resigned.)

Shocked at the news, Shi prepared a lengthy appeal. This included notes from past students and current colleagues, including her department chair, Briana Lewis, head of world languages and cultures. Lewis wrote in her letter to Allegheny’s board that Shi “has been a supremely dedicated teacher-scholar in our department over the past 12 years, and the Chinese language program has been central to the global reach of our department. The loss of this colleague and the program she has developed would leave us, and Allegheny, truly diminished.”

Shi engaged extensively with students, including Asian and Asian American students; used innovative technology in the classroom; mentored early-career Chinese instructors; did National Endowment for the Humanities–recognized work in the digital humanities; and was a “superb colleague who has continued, even after being awarded tenure, to actively seek to develop as a professional,” Lewis also said.

On Enrollments and Bias

A statement from the Chinese Language Teachers Association included in Shi’s appeal also cautioned against cutting Chinese for good. While program closures “may result from complex and very unfortunate factors,” the group said, “we urge the decision makers to resist the cutbacks and recognize the importance of learning languages—and learning Chinese in particular—in today’s world. As Chinese language teachers ourselves, we at the CLTA know that building a language program takes a tremendous amount of time and work, and that language enrollments fluctuate naturally. Premature terminations not only erase what has already been invested into these oftentimes young programs, they can also create other consequences for the institution’s future development in many regards, such as recruitment of students with global aspirations, diversity and inclusion, and securing relevant funding for designated ‘critical languages’ such as Chinese.”

Nationally, the Modern Language Association has reported that Chinese language enrollments increased from 1960 onward, peaked in 2013 at more than 60,000, and decreased somewhat (as they did in many other languages) in 2016, the last period studied. Chinese majors awarded increased from 514 across 60 institutions in 2009 to 706 across 75 institutions in 2013, and then declined again in 2016, to 648 across 84 institutions.

At Allegheny, based on an analysis Shi included in her appeal, Chinese had an average yearly enrollment decrease of about 1 percent over the last decade, from 73 to 61 students total. Both the world languages department and the college over all saw steeper annual enrollment declines over the same period, of about 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively. For reference, Allegheny enrolled 2,123 students in 2011 and 1,575 in 2021; Cole’s realignment plan cites a looming demographic cliff of graduating high schoolers in detailing the new enrollment target of 1,500.

Allegheny rejected Shi’s appeal. As of this week, she’s no longer an Allegheny employee, though she did receive a standard severance package of one year’s salary and benefits, plus an additional semester’s pay to account for the sabbatical she already had planned.

She continues to wonder why Allegheny ended Chinese and her appointment. The lack of answers has led her to believe that she was targeted for her activism against hate directed at Asians on and around campus, she said. She recalled a vigil she organized for faculty, staff and students last year following the Atlanta spa shootings, in which eight people were killed, six of them women of Asian descent. Following that vigil, Shi read a letter at a Faculty Council meeting that criticized Allegheny’s administration for the tenor of its public message about the shooting and other apparent anti-Asian hate crimes.

Shi’s speech, which she said was prepared with the input of other concerned parties, was entered into the minutes of the Faculty Council. It said, in part, “We are dismayed by the lack of personal message from the president, a humanist; we are appalled by the institution’s lack of action on the national event. With an event of this magnitude, there should have been college-wide institutional efforts to create a space addressing issues such as sexism, racism, hate crime, gun violence and the complexities going into it. Instead, the institution relied on students, faculty and staff helping out each other. Please do not think we are overreacting: Asian and Asian American community members are invisibilized and traumatized, the second time, by our own institution.”

Shi said she later met with Allegheny’s president, Hilary Link, to discuss the matter. In that meeting, Shi said, Link referred to Faculty Council meetings as “not fun” and otherwise suggested to Shi that she’d misunderstood the point of her letter. (Shi’s email records confirm that she scheduled a meeting with Link in early April, but the college did not respond to questions about Link’s alleged comments, beyond its statement that Shi hadn’t been laid off for any discriminatory reason.)

Questions About Process

Beyond the lack of answers as to why Chinese was cut, Shi has lingering concerns about the process. Based on AAUP standards, tenured faculty appointments may be terminated other than for cause in cases of financial exigency, which Allegheny never declared. (Elsewhere, the AAUP has identified and objected to a trend of institutions laying off faculty members without declaring financial exigency during the pandemic.) The only other circumstance in which tenured professors may be terminated, other than for cause, is for educational reasons, as determined by the faculty, according to the AAUP. Allegheny’s Faculty Handbook mirrors this policy, saying that “termination of tenured positions, because the faculty voted to discontinue departments or programs for reasons other than financial exigency, shall be based primarily on educational considerations as determined by the president after consultation with the appropriate college committees and with the approval of the Board of Trustees.”

Cole’s written plan says that he consulted with various faculty bodies, but there was never a faculty vote to terminate Chinese.

Tompkins, president of Allegheny’s AAUP chapter, said that “both AAUP guidelines and our own Faculty Handbook are pretty clear that in the absence of financial exigency, if you’re going to terminate a tenured position through program discontinuation, it can’t be for economic reasons. It has to be for educational reasons.” Allegheny declared early in the program re-evaluation process that the college’s bylaws override the Faculty Handbook, Tompkins said, though that remains an open, hairy “legal question” from his point of view.

Anita Levy, associate secretary at the AAUP’s Washington, D.C., office, wrote to Link last month, saying, “We are especially concerned with the extent of the faculty’s involvement in the decision to terminate this tenured appointment on stated grounds of program discontinuance.”

AAUP holds that professors who protest their termination due to program discontinuance have a right to a full hearing before a faculty committee, as well. Allegheny’s Faculty Handbook is less clear about this right, saying only that professors in this situation may appeal in writing to the board within 20 days, and that the “decision of the Board of Trustees on the appeal shall be final.” In any case, Shi doesn’t have the answers she wants.

In its written statement, Allegheny said that it’s not able to comment on any individual personnel matters. More generally, it said, the college’s governing board unanimously approved the faculty staffing and academic programs plan in February.

“Shared governance is foundational for decision-making at Allegheny, and the plan was created through that process as outlined in our faculty handbook,” the college said. “The process included a faculty task force that made recommendations regarding program eliminations and growth opportunities.”

Allegheny “is also aligning its faculty size to correlate with its student enrollment,” the college said. “In 2017, the college undertook a data-driven strategic planning effort to respond to the predicted enrollment decline in higher education across the country. Allegheny proactively made a decision to reduce its enrollment size and corresponding staffing over a 10-year period, but the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this timeframe.”

Allison Connell Pensky, a former associate professor of psychology at Allegheny who resigned this year, and current research science associate at another institution, said, “The impression I had throughout the whole program evaluation process was that upper administration knew a priori what their decisions would be and we the faculty were led through a farce masquerading as shared governance that broke our handbook procedures. I did not have trust in the decisions of upper administration for the past couple of years I was a faculty at Allegheny.”

In the “small, rural town” of Meadville, Penn., where Allegheny is located, “our minoritized students, especially our Asian students and students of Asian heritage, will feel the pain of this administrative decision for a long time,” Pensky also said. Shi supported Asian student groups on campus, among others, she continued, recalling how at a student-led protest against Shi’s termination, students spoke about how “this decision feels personal, like a message that people who are not in the majority just don’t belong at Allegheny.”

 

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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