[UPDATED below fold with addresses of SUNY administrators to write to in protest and links to further news.]
I received an email yesterday telling how the entire French program at SUNY Albany has been cancelled. I'll reprint the email below the fold. But I want to frame the news by examining the stated criterion for the decision: the ratio of undergrad majors to faculty.
As Harry Brighouse, whom I had the pleasure of meeting the other day while I was visiting Wisconsin-Madison to give a talk to the Geography Department, writes in this highly recommended Crooked Timber post, making the production of majors the criterion for justifying a program severely distorts clear thinking on the role of the humanities in higher education.
The problem with using the number of majors as the criterion for the existence of departments is that it atomizes the university, pitting departments against each other in a competition for students, and thereby sacrificing a synthetic [JP: I think this should be "synoptic"] vision of the curriculum, based on an evaluation of the needs of students for varied study in a range of subjects (the "general education" or "breadth" requirements in place at most American universities). And that evaluation of the breadth of student experience needs to take both the ecnomic (vocational training) and political (critical citizenship) dimensions of higher education into account, as I argue in this post.
As Brighouse notes in this recent Crooked Timber post, the new book by Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit, which defends the importance of the critical citizenship dimension (expressed in terms of refining sympathy and respect for others via humanities study), is discussed at length at the philosophy teaching blog In Socrates' Wake.
I think calling attention to the close connection of the affective and the cognitive is the way to go, as I try to do in my scholarly work as well as in this course on "Evolution and Biology of Morality," so let's call the defense of the political dimension of higher education the "critical and sympathetic citizenship" argument. I take it that the arguments for philosophy expressed above hold, mutatis mutandis, for the study of French and Francophone language, literature, and culture. But the details to support that claim are perhaps better left for another post.
Text of the SUNY Albany email:
Today the seven members of the French faculty at SUNY--Albany (all tenured) were informed that by presidential decision, ostensibly for budgetary reasons, the French program has been "deactivated" at all levels (BA, MA, PhD), as have BA programs in Russian and Italian. The only foreign language program unaffected is Spanish. The primary criterion used in making the decision was undergrad majors-to-faculty ratio. We were told that tenured faculty in French, Russian, and Italian will be kept on long enough for our students to finish their degrees--meaning three years at the outside. Senoir faculty are being encouraged to take early retirement. The rest of us are being urged to "pursue our careers elsewhere," as our Provost put it.
Needless to say, the decision is personally devastating to those of us affected, but it is also symptomatic of the ongoing devaluation of foreign-language and other humanities program in universities across the United States. I'm writing to ask for your help in spreading the word about this decision as widely as possible and in generating as much negative media publicity as possible against SUNY--Albany and the SUNY system in its entirety.
There is much background to add about how this decision was reached and implemented, too much for me to explain fully here. Suffice it to say that the disappearance of French, Italian, and Russian has resulted from an almost complete lack of leadership at the Albany campus and in the SUNY system. Our president, a former state pension fund manager, holds an MBA as his highest degree, has never held a college or university teaching position, and has never engaged in any kind of scholarship.
More disturbing still, due process was not followed in the decision-making process. The affected programs were not consulted or given the opportunity to propose money-saving reforms. Our Dean and Provost simply hand-selected an advisory committee to rubber stamp the president's decision. The legalities of the situation remain to be discussed with our union, UUP, but in the meantime I welcome any advice you may have.
Brook Bowles firstname.lastname@example.org
[UPDATE: Monday 4 October]: Addresses for protest eamails:
George Philip, President: email@example.com
Catherine Herman, Vice-President: firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Phillips, Provost: email@example.com
Edelgard Wulfert, Dean of Arts & Sciences: firstname.lastname@example.org
For paper mail:
Office of the President (or Vice-President, or Provost)
University Administration Building
State University of New York
Albany, NY 12222
This comment from the IHE story deserves reprinting in full:
I teach at SUNY Albany ("UAlbany" as our press folks keep trying to get us to call it, because our actual name is the odd sounding University at Albany.)
To begin, bit of background: Over the past year, the SUNY Central administrators (overseeing all 64 campuses) tried to ram through the legislature a "reform" package that would have made major steps toward privatizing the schools. It would have let each campus set its own tuition, forced them to compete against each other, wrecked the collective strength of our unions, and neglected to force the government to guarantee even a basic level of monetary support. It was put forward by a new Chancellor and backed by the weakest governor in memory. It was dead on arrival and a sign to many that SUNY Central was out of step with the political process (as fucked up as it is in NY State).
The response by SUNY Albany's administration is a form of revenge and unilateral action by upper management in the wake of the "reform" package's failure. For the past year, committees have been formed at the University that have been guided to reach a conclusion that was decided upon at the outset. In short, the fix was in. 4 of the 5 programs slated for termination are "underperforming" in terms of the numbers of majors only—not in terms of how many students they serve nor in terms of the role they play in the graduate programs in other Departments. Graduate students in English and History are required to learn foreign languages but now will have nowhere to go within the University. German was eliminated years ago.
To answer the question as to what should have happened? A) there should have been a fair process at the outset, where all standards of evaluation could have been employed. B) Much better retirement packages could have been offered (they were paltry and unattractive to older faculty who saw their 401Ks take a beating in recent years. C) Cuts could have spread evenly across departments, forcing everyone to teach slightly larger classes. D) Departments with faculty who have very cushy teaching loads, (such as older staff who have finagled 1-1 or 1-2 teaching loads and who don't publish at all) could have been made to take on greater obligations. E) Calls could have gone out to see how much faculty would have been willing to sacrifice—pay-wise—to save those Departments. I've spoken to many colleagues and all of us would give up some of our wages to save those jobs.
UAlbany is going to be a laughingstock. The President set the tone for this at the recent meeting when he announced this decision. For a couple of years, the school's motto has been "The World Within Reach." When it was pointed out to him that he was consigning us to reaching only the English-speaking world, he told us that what the slogan *actually* meant was that the "world of opportunity was within reach". The double-speak has begun.