University Cuts Humanities Departments; Students, Teachers, and Alumni Protest

Filed in Gather News Channel by on October 19, 2010 0 Comments

Parlez-vous français? If you were planning on majoring in French at the State University of New York (SUNY) Albany, your answer would be “non.” Earlier this month, SUNY Albany announced that it was dropping its degree programs in French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theater. Only Spanish remained uncut in the elimination of SUNY Albany language degree programs. George M. Philip, President of SUNY Albany, stated that the reasons for dropping the degree programs involved low enrollment and deep, repeated budget cuts. He further stated that the university needed “to move beyond across-the-board cuts or identifying one-time savings.”

Faculty of the affected departments, who did not receive advance notification of the cuts, were stunned. The type and size of the cuts are highly unusual for a larger doctoral-level university, even in a slow economy. According to Inside Higher Ed, Jean-François Brière, a professor of French studies and chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, was shocked at the scope of the cuts, “No other university of the caliber and size” of Albany has done this.”

SUNY Albany’s decision has evoked sharp criticism from students, faculty, SUNY Albany Alumni, and education experts throughout the country. On Monday, student, faculty, and alumni packed a faculty meeting to express their opinions to SUNY Albany President Philip. According to the Albany Times-Union, one alumnus, Ronald Bustin, who received undergranduate and graduate degrees in Russian from SUNY Albany, was planning on leaving a considerable portion of his estate to SUNY Albany but was changing his will. “They’re telling students humanities mean nothing,” stated Bustin.

The University has pursued a course of quieter cuts in other popular humanities programs such as journalism. According to the Albany Times-Union, the journalism course offering for next fall would be cut from 25 courses to 13.

Inside Higher Ed and author and professor Stanley Fish, in the New York Times point out the budget cuts came after a failed attempt by Philip and SUNY Albany officials to get New York state legislators to pass a bill that would give SUNY Albany more leverage over tuition rates and the revenue from tuition, as well as release SUNY Albany from some regulatory requirements. SUNY Albany President Philip referred to the failed attempt to change legislation. “Regrettably,” Philip states, “that didn’t happen.”

Stanley Fish in the New York Times continues to say that it isn’t the legislators’ job to understand or appreciate the humanities but places the responsibility on Philip and the university leaders. “…It is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often,” he states, “and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.”

SUNY faculty at Monday’s meeting expressed concern over the damage to the university’s reputation stating that SUNY Albany would be considered the “laughingstock” of the international higher education community. In the discussion of the SUNY Albany decision on Inside Higher Ed, a Physics Professor from the University of Illinois questioned whether SUNY Albany deserved the description of a university after it had eliminated the majority of its language programs. In his blog, “Arcade,” on the Stanford web site, Stanford University Professor Roland Greene comments about public perception of the cuts. “What if the cuts are taken not as a tragic choice but as a statement about priorities?,” he writes. “In that case, the dial has been reset, probably for good, and the University at Albany has not made a tough decision but changed its nature; it will never again see a reinvestment in these disciplines. In a word, it’s no longer a research university.”

Although it’s an extreme example, SUNY Albany’s programs cuts are part of the long running debate on the diminishing role of humanities in universities. The New York Times explores the pros and cons of this debate and includes opinions from many notable educators and writers.

What are your thoughts on the loss of language programs, as well as classics and theater to SUNY Albany or similar humanities cuts at other universities? Do you know of other programs—athletics, sciences, engineering, mathematics, etc.—receiving similar scrutiny at your alma mater or in your community? Share your thoughts with our Gather community.

© 2010 Anne Houghton for

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