Readers of Education Next may have heard the distressing news coming out of higher education about the fates of foreign language and literature departments.
At SUNY-Albany, for instance, in response to a huge budget shortfall, President George Philip announced in an email sent out to the university in late September, “As a first step in this more difficult phase of reallocation planning, I have issued a directive today to suspend all new admissions to five program areas – Classics, French, Italian, Russian, and Theatre.”
A few days later, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that LSU planned to lay off 14 foreign language instructors (that is, non-tenured teachers) at the end of Fall semester. It’s another case of cutting costs in a difficult budget year. Furthermore, LSU has decided to end its German and Latin majors.
And a few days ago, the University of Minnesota released a committee report on cuts and downsizing for the College of Liberal Arts. The report doesn’t specify in much detail precisely what will happen to foreign language departments, but one paragraph is ominous:
The only major areas of funding left to consider are graduate teaching assistants and professional teaching staff; together these make up about $34 million in FY2011. Professional (P/A) teaching staff instruct roughly 1,000 courses each year in CLA at an average cost of a bit under $8,000 per course. These dedicated professionals teach in many departments, but they are concentrated in freshman writing, foreign languages, journalism, communication, and the fine arts. Willy Sutton said that he robbed banks because, ‘That’s where the money is.’ If CLA is forced to take another large cut, much of it will be coming from these two categories, because that’s where the money is.”
Finally, I’ve heard from people working in foreign languages at the Modern Language Association that anecdotal evidence of cuts continues to trickle in. Full professors retire and are replaced by adjuncts. Graduate student lines are reduced. Administrators are planning to consolidate departments into super-departments. And so on.
This is why the news this week from College Board is heartening. Two years ago, the College Board stated that it would end AP Italian Language and Culture, claiming that it needed “external funders” to come forward if the program would survive. The program did end, but on Nov 10 the College board announced that it would bring the AP Italian test back, with the next administration to take place in May 2012.
This is a crucial development for higher education. Foreign language programs make for an easy target to cost-cutters for one reason: low undergraduate enrollments. At SUNY-Albany, the president noted, the five programs being cut claimed only 300 majors in all. Without undergraduate demand, administrators can’t keep those programs off the block. The prestige that comes with having full-scale foreign language departments simply doesn’t off-set the cost of running them. If you have six tenured professors in a department making $75,000 a year, but only 15 majors in that department, it looks like a boutique offering, and colleges just can’t afford it.
To boost enrollments, you need a pipeline, including appealing freshman courses and, precisely, an AP program that draws teenagers in before they even arrive in college. People major in foreign languages usually because they had a great experience in a foreign language class before age 20. Italian professors all across the country should salute the College Board and the advocates who pressed for reviving the course, including Dr. Margaret Cuomo, the Italian Language Foundation, and the Italian Government.