In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, a university that wanted to offer courses in Pashto or Farsi seemed to have a smooth road ahead. The Education Department increased spending on foreign language programs, especially those teaching rare languages, and student interest was on the rise.
But a decade later, programs in those languages, as well as many others that are infrequently taught but considered strategically important, face elimination on campuses after deep federal budget cuts.
National Resource Centers, so designated by the Education Department to teach foreign languages and culture at universities around the country, lost 47 percent of their budget for fiscal year 2011 in the last-minute deal  to avert a government shutdown in April -- a surprise to observers who had not thought the program was especially vulnerable. Since relatively few students opt for Bengali or Burmese over Spanish or French, federal funding was often the factor that made such courses financially feasible. The cut was across-the-board, so every center is facing the loss of half its federal funds.
"Many of these are in security sensitive areas, and this is exactly where we need to put resources instead of cutting," said Richard Flores, senior associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Texas at Austin's College of Liberal Arts. Many students who took the classes now at risk were on their way to careers with the military, the Defense Department or the State Department, he said. "When you're cutting resources to sensitive areas, it has an impact."
Some universities, including Cornell University and Indiana University at Bloomington, have mustered institutional funding to fill the gap for at least a year. Others, including Ohio State University, already have eliminated some language courses for the fall semester (including, at Ohio State, offerings in advanced Russian, Georgian and intermediate Hungarian), saying tight state budgets leave them with no choice. Many are pursuing outside support, either from other federal departments or private donors.
“Given the general situation, many of the universities are in a position where the departments now say, ‘As much as we’d like to offer that course in Persian, we can’t anymore,’ ” said William Brustein, vice provost for global strategies and international affairs at Ohio State. (Part of the Ohio State budget cuts included $10,000 intended for the development of a Persian, or Farsi, curriculum.) “That’s what’s happening here on this campus, and it’s going to happen on other campuses.”
There are 125 National Resource Centers  total, located at about 50 colleges and universities, that offer language and regional studies courses. Centers are initially selected, and periodically redesignated, through a process that awards competitive multiyear grants. While some focus on Western Europe, the majority teach language and culture from other regions. The national centers are beneficiaries of one of several institutional grants under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which pays for some international programs at the undergraduate and graduate level. Some colleges have found money for the languages this academic year, hoping that federal support will be restored -- but few think that will actually come to pass.
“The problem is the budget is so constrained that I’m not quite sure we’re going to have a chance,” said Miriam Kazanjian, a consultant with the Coalition for International Education.
The Coalition for International Education is conducting a survey of Title VI programs, including the 125 National Resource Centers; 15 Language Resource Centers , which focus on language pedagogy and teacher training; and 33 Centers for International Business Education and Research .
The National Language Centers estimates that the number of teachers they train this year will drop 35 percent, from just over 17,000 to 11,130. If the cuts are extended, about 9,300 teachers will be trained in 2012-13, according to the survey, Kazanjian said.
The number of federally designated "priority languages" taught to teachers will drop from 51 to 15 over two years, the centers estimate. Research on 35 priority languages will be dropped, including Pashto, Tajik, Turkish and Urdu, Kazanjian said. Capacity in Arabic, Chinese and Russian -- the most popular priority languages -- will be severely limited.
The survey of National Resource Centers isn’t complete. But many of the least commonly taught languages will probably be eliminated, Kazanjian said. “A number of them have engaged in stopgap measures for the first year of the cut,” she said. “If these cuts are going to continue into fiscal year 2012, something drastic will have to happen.”
The impacts of the cuts vary. By federal standards, the Title VI program is small: the cuts this year total $50 million, and few campuses lost as much as $1 million. But the money was a “linchpin” that drove universities and private donors to invest in language, Kazanjian said. “The money is not very much, but it’s actually had a multiplier effect,” she said. “Once you pull that plug, it starts to unravel.”
Indiana University, which lost $1.7 million in Title VI funding, has covered the gap for this year, said Maria Bucur, associate dean for faculty and academic programs in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences. For the future, the university is looking for donors and for help from elsewhere in the federal government.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta championed language training as a Congressman and recently spoke on the importance of foreign language to national defense. “I think the Department of Defense can be a wonderful partner,” Bucur said. “There are possibilities out there still in the federal government.”
Finding private donors willing to support language classes that are lucky to attract students, focusing on parts of the world few Americans visit, can be a challenge, she acknowledged. But other universities have had some success. At the University of Texas at Austin, all three resource centers -- in South Asia Studies, Middle East Studies and European Studies -- have outside support, and some have their own endowments, said Flores, of the university’s College of Liberal Arts.
Some language courses, including Tamil, Telugu and Bengali, are supported at least in part by grants outside of Title VI, Flores said. While he has not cut any language classes this year, he said some might have been canceled at the department level due to low enrollment.
Other universities may be able to streamline their programs through collaboration. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the academic arm of the Big Ten conference, has encouraged its member universities to collaborate on language programs since 2005. Students can enroll in languages offered at other universities through a video link and get credit on their home campus, said Barbara McFadden Allen, executive director of the committee.
“This whole national conversation, if not crisis, around Title VI has really created a sense of urgency to the sharing,” Allen said. The 12 Big Ten universities host about 40 percent of the National Resource Centers, and many have been hit hard by the funding cuts.
While no consensus has emerged so far, the universities have been discussing how they can expand collaboration, she said. “It just made them say, ‘How are we going to work together to preserve the languages we’ve been offering through these centers?’” Allen said. “We can’t afford to just let this drop.”
While collaboration might solve some problems, some languages were only offered by one or two universities in the first place, said Brustein, of Ohio State. While he fears the national security consequences of dropping courses in Tibet or Persian -- “Who knows where the next crisis for the United States might break out?” he said -- there are few options for public universities already facing tight budgets.
“We’re going to try to be entrepreneurial,” Brustein said. “We have to be. We’re so lean -- we’ve cut things to the bone. And when you talk about cuts between 40 and 50 percent, there’s not much flesh you can cut away.”