Academic Autonomy

Siva Vaidhyanathan's article in Slate about the oust of UVA's president, Teresa Sullivan, is being widely circulated among my academic friends. Siva says that a wealthy donor was behind the firing. Siva and many of my friends are pissed that a wealthy outsider is calling the shots at their university. 

Why was she fired? Sullivan was paid $680,000 per year. Although that is hardly the top of the ladder of college presidents, it's not too shabby. Still, her salary wasn't the cause of her departure. It seems that the governing board was annoyed with her for not making cuts in certain programs

Faculty, like Siva and my friends, are upset that wealthy donors, rather than the faculty, are calling the shots at universities. With the cutbacks in state funds, schools are increasingly reliant on philanthropy to meet their bottom line. According to Bloomberg, 

Public universities across the U.S. are adjusting to cuts in funds from taxpayers. The University of Virginia is expected to receive 5.8 percent of its revenue from state funds in the 2012-13 academic year, down from 26 percent in 1989-90, according to its website.

The university received $242.6 million in donations last year, according to its website. 

I have mixed feeling about all this. On the one hand, universities do need some insularity from market pressures. Much of what universities does is not profitable. It's hard to explain to outsiders why kids need to learn about Homer and Sophocles.

On the other hand, universities could benefit from some checks and balances. If the public pays the tab (either with tuition or taxes), then they have a right to know what goes on in the Ivory Tower. They even have the right to a certain amount of control.  Academics love internal democracy, but they hate external democracy. 

This Sullivan incident is about more than just Sullivan. It's about control over the colleges. Who should run the show? Should the faculty make decisions about their schools or should outsiders – politicians, wealthy donors, voters – have a say? 

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68 thoughts on “Academic Autonomy

  1. I think you meant to say “universities DO need some insularity from market pressures”?
    I guess part of the problem I have right now is that trying to leapfrog to ultimate questions about governance, fiscal balance etc., is one of those moves that potentially cedes too much to one kind of ‘spin’ around this particular move. I don’t think there’s any way to defend canning a university president who has only been on the job for two years if there isn’t a serious issue of malfeasance involved. That’s just mismanagement. If it is indeed over something as specific as “we think you should cut X program by Y amount and you won’t do it”, that pretty much eliminates the need for having a president and provost in the first place. If you’re going to govern at that level of specific policy, you have to govern continuously.
    And of course here the point about transparency and democracy becomes important in this *particular* case. If a board is going to micromanage, not does it have to do so continuously (rather than sporadically) it has to do so with as much presence and transparency as a president/provost have to, especially at a public university. And yet one of the few facts we have about this case so far makes clear that this isn’t what happened here. Not only is this board not explaining its actions, it didn’t even make the decision in a conventional way (e.g., at a meeting with all members present). The board rector called board members piecemeal, in a manner that really seems manipulative. Part of the problem is that the chief proponents of “corporatization” sell it to worried middle-class parents as a way to get budgets (and faculties) under control, but what they often really mean is “making our business private”, e.g., shielding management from even rudimentary transparency and accountability. That’s not just at universities–look at the NY Times series on halfway houses in New Jersey. It’s bait-and-switch, so it’s really unwise to say, “Maybe this will help get higher education under control and more responsive to the public” when in fact the UVA decision is a textbook example of universities becoming even less accountable and responsive, not just to faculties but to wider publics.

  2. I think that the reason that this story has such legs isn’t because of the particulars of this case. I mean does anyone outside of academia really care why this woman was fired? Not really. People get fired all the time in real life, and it’s hard to gather sympathy for someone making 600K per year. (Which makes her a 1 percenter.) I think that people are following this story, because of the broader governance issues.

  3. As VA residents, we have followed this closely. For me, as both a taxpayer and a parent of kids who will hopefully go to college, the problem with saying “State universities will only teach subjects with high profit margins” is that many of us are not eligible for financial aid but also cannot afford either out of state or private schools. So when you cut an entire program at a flagship university, you have basically just told my child that they will no longer be able to study that subject.
    My understanding is that SUNY Albany may have been the model for this — as last year they ended many majors, including Russian, German, etc. a few years back.
    Our university is big on these formulas which ostensibly measure productivity — and one way they measure it is using enrollments. According to this formula, a professor who teaches 13 students German is not pulling his weight, compared to the professor teaching 250 students economics. As the professor with the heavy teaching loads, I know that I definitely resent it when I see colleagues whose teaching loads are significantly lighter than my own — but I also understand that there are courses that are worthwhile (and majors) even if they don’t attract the crowds. I worry about the future of education if people who aren’t academics get to decide what courses will be offered based on profitability margins. Curse you, Univ of Phoenix, for establishing this model and forcing real universities to compete.

  4. Noting that Germany is currently the key player in the European economy, McDonald said he could not believe a university like Virginia “was going to tell people they should go to North Carolina if they want to study German.” He said that it comes down to one’s “vision for a university.” The choice for the university’s leaders is “are you just about punching numbers or are you about the liberal arts?”
    Actually, Mr. McDonald, despite what you think, your argument appears to be, “German isn’t really a liberal art. It’s really part of the business department.”
    I think when the argument turns from Kant and Hegel to Merkel and the Greek bailout, you’ve already lost.

  5. Yes, though I think this is an issue that modern language departments sometimes try to split in exactly this way–to argue both for utility and for a “liberal arts” vision of the importance of language instruction–and then sometimes to add on top the proposition that some languages also are vital to the understanding of the “Western tradition”. You can make these all work together, but I have to say that sometimes what this combination amounts to is, “We want the languages that we have now, and none of the ones that we don’t”. If you favor utility, you have to go one direction. If you favor the liberal-arts argument, then arguably ANY language will do the trick. If you favor the Western tradition argument, then it’s Latin, Greek, German, Russian, French and maybe Spanish.
    Laura, I think many high-profile firings of executives at well-known companies lead to public discussion among people with an interest in that industry or business. Often with an eye to the question of whether the firing shows good or bad governance or management. I think whatever the merits of any given department, a board that’s trying to micromanage the question of whether there should be a German department is frankly way too involved in governance. Once you think that something that specific is in your purview (and you’re entitled as a board to have your way), then you might as well get rid of the executive altogether and be involved in day-to-day governance of everything. Does anyone think that a university that was micromanaged by an absentee board of governors to that degree would be well-managed?

  6. Has Helen Dragas ever donated large sums to the university? I can’t find any trace of it online, but perhaps I’m not using the proper search terms.
    Other large donors are enraged. I’ll bet that their donations outstrip the donations from the person who defines herself as “(…)“ultraconservative” in handling finances and even uses personal credit scores as a criterion for hiring a worker. “We have a very conservative way of managing our balance sheet,” she has said in interviews.”A top donor to the University of Virginia said she plans to withhold future contributions unless members of the school’s governing board who are responsible for the ouster of President Teresa Sullivan are removed.
    Another donor said she is worried about her family’s investment – more than $170 million over the years – at the historic campus. More than a dozen other smaller donors have withdrawn pledges totaling thousands of dollars, and university officials are bracing for more.
    “It hurts me because I had two or three things I wanted to get done,” Hunter Smith of Charlottesville said Sunday. “I won’t condone what happened. It’s disgraceful.”
    Smith and her late husband, Carl W. Smith, contributed more than $60 million to the Charlottesville school founded by Thomas Jefferson and U.Va.’s College at Wise in southwest Virginia. Now she says she will not donate until changes to the governing board are made.

    http://hamptonroads.com/2012/06/uva-donors-may-withhold-funds-over-leaders-ouster

  7. OK, this is absolutely the wrong week to write 2 articles for the Atlantic (i’m working on another and the kids have nothing but half days this week), but this is a juicy topic.
    “What to Do About German?” Why should universities maintain foreign language departments, when there are so few majors? UVa has 12 students major in German and 16 faculty members. Tell me what you think.

  8. So first off, “What do Do About German?” is already a loaded way to approach the question.
    Back up a bit and think about it this way. Is there an ideal ratio or relation between faculty resources and institutional usage of those resources in a liberal arts (rather than vocational or narrowly pre-professional) university?
    What that does first of all is let you tally up the ways that faculty as resources are used: directly as teachers in classrooms; as stewards & managers of a program of study (most commonly a major); as advisors for individual and group research or other projects; as general participants in the intellectual and practical life of a university.
    It’s important to think about all these things because otherwise you can really misapprehend the role of individual faculty or groups of faculty. There are departments in many institutions with few majors but very high courseloads (because they teach classes that most students or programs see as essential or important); there are other departments or units which may have a healthy ratio of majors to faculty but be almost entirely insulated from the wider curriculum (e.g., they teach only their majors). Which one is the better deal for the institution in terms of resources, etc.? Some subjects, some individuals, some groups have all sorts of multiplier effects that are largely uncounted in conventional metrics, etc.
    Could you devise a general approach to identifying what you should have and not have in a liberal arts institution that isn’t vocationalism or pre-professionalism by another name? If it is that by another name, then don’t futz around and just argue for vocationalism or pre-professionalism. What I dislike is folks who try to split the difference and argue that what you need is basically highly circumscribed pre-professionalism with a couple of token poets and philosophers kept around like trophies or pets just in case there’s some future entrepreneur or industrial chemist who needs a spiritually-uplifiting semester with some Robin Williams type climbing up on desks and shouting Tennyson at them.
    If it’s ok to have liberal arts as something other than a vestigal organ, then figure out a general metric or way of thinking about what you should have or not have–and then apply it and see what turns up as an issue. Maybe it’ll be German–or maybe it’ll be something else.

  9. OK, I get what you’re saying. It absolutely may be the case that a lot of kids are taking a few of the lower level classes, but aren’t majoring in it. That’s a great reason to keep the department around. But if I call up the German department at UVA and ask them what their average class size is and they give a number like 5 or 6, what would you think?

  10. “Curse you, Univ of Phoenix, for establishing this model and forcing real universities to compete.”
    I’ll be waiting for a list of students that University of Phoenix has taught languages to fluency.
    By the way, languages are often better taught by either adjuncts or TAs, so we’re probably not talking about a full professor teaching a 13-student German class. (I had one very good language/literature/culture class taught by a real professor (Dr. John Bowlt of USC), but in my limited experience, real professors stink on ice as language teachers.)

  11. “”What to Do About German?” Why should universities maintain foreign language departments, when there are so few majors? UVa has 12 students major in German and 16 faculty members. ”
    My department has 28 faculty and no majors. We’re a service department that teaches 4 required gen-ed courses and has a variety of other courses that can be taken as electives.

  12. “OK, I get what you’re saying. It absolutely may be the case that a lot of kids are taking a few of the lower level classes, but aren’t majoring in it.”
    That’s right.
    “That’s a great reason to keep the department around. But if I call up the German department at UVA and ask them what their average class size is and they give a number like 5 or 6, what would you think?”
    There’s no way that at a state university there are going to be an average of 5 or 6 students across all undergraduate courses. I went to a hotsy totsy private school and majored in Russian (a much more rarefied field than German) and by the end of my major, we certainly got down to 4 person classes, but in the first couple years, the classes are substantially bigger (more like 8-12). That was a very expensive private college, and those lower level language classes were all taught by graduate students. A couple years earlier (at the peak of Russian’s popularity as a subject), I visited a beginning Russian class at University of Washington, and there were easily 30-40 students packed in like sardines. (The teacher was very good, but the size helped me decide against UW.) Around the same time, I talked to somebody who was in a UC language course with hundreds of people in a lecture.
    There’s another model for beginning language courses where you have a BIG lecture once or twice a week (perhaps taught by a real professor), with smaller recitations run by TAs several times a week.
    Oh, and all things being equal, the smaller the language class is, the more valuable it is as a learning experience. You can learn twice as much with half as many students in the class, because you get twice the practice.

  13. So I think then the next question is still,
    “Is there an ideal resource-to-usage relationship, and can I describe it?”
    How few is too few? (And is there in parallel a many that is too many?) Do we make these decisions strictly by student choices? (Which you know very well are not always based on the most thoughtful or informed basis.) Do we risk chasing the next new thing and making a series of heedless investments in the hot subject of the moment? How do you check or limit that risk?
    Over what time span? (E.g., most departments and individual faculty have oscillating peaks-and-valleys of interest & engagement). Are there subjects which are vital for some other reason than enrollments, that perform some function or role in a university or college beyond direct instruction? Are there any covenants with the past that we have to honor in some fashion? If, for example, ALL languages had small enrollments, would you conclude that none should be taught?
    With some departments, you also need to look at what kind of resources they actually have and how proportionately large or small they are. If you’re thinking about a general relationship between resources and service, you’re thinking ratios of some kind–it might be that a really big department with a decent number of majors or enrollments is actually further off the ideal or typical ratio than a small one.
    Also Amy P.’s point is important, you have to look at exactly what resources are really being used–and whether in some cases you have an administrative or organizational problem rather than a curricular one. (For example, if you didn’t have a German Department but instead, the exact same specialists in German history, literature and culture spread across other departments, would you have a completely different use of those faculty as resources?)
    Are there ways to consider whether the subject or the pedagogical preferences of a particular discipline are the issue? (E.g., are there things that an underenrolled or underused department could teach that they don’t teach because of some idee fixe that they have?)

  14. I think another question is “are there some fields that we are willing to allow to wither away altogether?” I went to a private college where we had an early music ensemble, and several of us learned to play the viola de gamba. Clearly you’re never going to be able to argue the utility of playing a medieval stringed instrument in terms of someday making more money because you can do so. It didn’t open up any doors to any investment firms, didn’t present a great fallback position if things didn’t work out in my current field, etc.
    And I confess I also majored in Russian, fell in love with the great Russian poets and occasionally took a seminar with three people in it.
    I think another think you’d want to sort out if you were making decisions is — is Professor X’s class small because he’s a really lousy teacher and therefore people DECIDE to major in something else, even if their first love is Russian poetry — do people not go into these classes because they have heard Professor X is terrible, OR is there actually no demand for these particular subjects? (In my experience, sometimes really awful teachers whom people avoid will fall back on the argument that “my field is much too rare and highly specialized for the average dim undergraduate to commit to. It takes a special person to study this.” And because of the difficulty of gettig rid of tenured professors, I wonder if sometimes closing a small department is the only way to get rid of bad professors who refuse to retire.)

  15. As the mother of a high school senior, cutting Classics and German would lead me to drop a college from the list. Either a college offers a real liberal arts education, or it doesn’t.
    Justifying cuts in language departments by pointing to a “lack of interest” in foreign languages isn’t convincing. I Googled UVa’s foreign language requirements. I don’t think a mid-600s on the SAT II subject test, or a 5 on the AP, should exempt a student from further language study. If the university increased language requirements, the professors would be working at full capacity. It might also help answer the naggingquestion, why college? Question. No, a high school knowledge of foreign or classical languages should not suffice.

  16. Two separate issues, Cranberry.
    1. Maybe college students should have a foreign language requirement beyond high school. I don’t have a problem with that. But a requirement like that would cause mass student rebellion.
    2. State colleges cannot afford to maintain departments that have no students. If the German department is really not attracting many non-majors then it either has to figure out how to get students in those chairs pronto or they have to accept cuts. Nobody is suggesting cutting history or philosophy or English or dismantling all of liberal arts education. “First they came for the German professors…” Really, the question is about the place of foreign languages at universities.
    If there is demand for lower level classes taught by TAs or adjuncts, then you don’t need tenured faculty there. (As long as the adjuncts are paid properly.)

  17. See, this is why you have to have a general way of thinking. Why *not* cut history or philosophy or English? If it’s about underuse of resources, in theory, everything ought to be examined. Has to be. If you believe that certain subjects could never be cut, what makes them special intellectually or programmatically? There has to be an overall idea here about resources, size, intellectual value, costs and so on so that you avoid getting led by the nose. Redistributing resources in an institution (or for that matter a business) has GOT to be something other than looking for the wounded animal in the herd to pick off. Large organizations are easily manipulated by political in-fighters and can often completely misunderstand what their priorities ought to be, or where the real sources of innovation and potential might come from. There are plenty of businesses that have cut allegedly unprofitable R&D projects (for one example) that turned out to be the wave of the future, simply because the interests favoring some relatively moribund activity were able to target a smaller, less politically well-positioned group. Universities can have the same issue, especially when there are people outside of academia who buy into the script.

  18. Louisa said:
    “I think another think you’d want to sort out if you were making decisions is — is Professor X’s class small because he’s a really lousy teacher and therefore people DECIDE to major in something else, even if their first love is Russian poetry — do people not go into these classes because they have heard Professor X is terrible, OR is there actually no demand for these particular subjects?”
    That is a very good point. I cannot overemphasize how distinct a species a good language teacher is from a typical language department professor–they are completely different critters.
    Cranberry said:
    “No, a high school knowledge of foreign or classical languages should not suffice.”
    Let’s not forget that a lot of graduate programs have exams in French and German for students to demonstrate that they can translate scholarly articles from those languages. I took a French-for-reading course in the process of preparing for the French exam for my MA, and that was a very good idea, along with hauling in the biggest dictionary I could to the exam.
    Elsewhere on the internet, there’s a related discussion of the following related
    questions:
    1. Why does elementary foreign language instruction in the US stink so much?
    2. What is it with the US and fad foreign languages (Russian, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese)?
    3. How much work do you really need to put into a foreign language to make significant progress? (Quick answer: a whole bunch.)
    http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com/2012/06/in-which-glen-encounters-6th-grade.html

  19. “If there is demand for lower level classes taught by TAs or adjuncts, then you don’t need tenured faculty there.”
    I don’t know about other languages, but in Russian, a college sophomore barely knows enough Russian to talk about the weather. (Louisa, am I right?)

  20. I think the concept of the public paying for a “liberal arts” education is premised on the notion that some people learning to play the viola de gamba enriches the world. I think it does, and I don’t care, specifically about music or medieval history or even Europe very much.
    (and, I want to cite to this value without bringing up Steve Jobs and ink calligraphy classes and how the changed the world, but I can’t resist).
    I’m a stem person, but I know that a fair amount of stem has no more practical justification than much of the other culture. And I think the other culture yields both practical and impractical benefits to the world, worth paying for as a society.
    Also, though Louisa might not be able to make the connection, I bet that there’s someone, somewhere, whose life has been changed, substantially, by the study of medieval instruments.
    As some others are arguing, if you accept the utilitarian/bottom line business argument, you kill UVA, oh, and let’s go ahead and go further, you kill the ideas of Jeffersons of the future, nurturing them and their ideas , building the tomorrows those rebels built for us. That’s why this firing is striking a chord in the academic elite.

  21. re: “First they came for the German professors…” When I was teaching my liberal arts classes, I saw no evidence that there was a decline in interest in my major or history or English. In fact, my classes were packed to the brim every time. 35 kids learning about Aristotle and Plato and not just in my practical classes in Media and Politics and Public Policy. But if kids did stop signing up for Philosophy 101, I do think a public college would have to come up with some justification for keeping it. One person may have the world rocked by a music class, but is that one student worth $1 million per year just in salaries. (UVA’s 16 member German faculty must cost the university $2 mill per year.)
    re: the business analogy. If a business insisted on making tofu pizzas when everyone wanted pepperoni pizzas, it would not exist for long. I don’t think universities should solely be in the business of making pepperoni pizzas, but it has to be very careful about how many tofu pizzas that it makes. The tofu pizza that is made for one customer means that 30 customers go hungry, because they don’t have a pepperoni one for sale.
    Innovation is important. I don’t see a lot of innovative thought coming from refusing to change or to be flexible in changing times.

  22. The justification for keeping it is that is an important part of a liberal arts education and human knowledge in general. We don’t measure importance just by how popular something is with 18 year olds. There are non-utilitarian justifications for the liberal arts. Colleges and universities are in the knowledge preserving, discovering, and maintaining businesses, as well as in teaching (I would say they are all integral to teaching as well). Young people in general may be less interested in the classics and foreign languages–that is a good reason to use public resources to make sure they are maintained. Aside from the utilitarian point that we just may need them after all someday, why shouldn’t we use public resources to preserve and maintain valuable stores of knowledge that are used by a significant minority of people? Don’t let university offerings be determined by the tyranny of the majority, or the lowest common denominator.

  23. So now you’re getting closer to my own “general principle”: what a liberal arts institution needs is a sufficient variety of ways of thinking, methodologies for engaging problems, subject matter. Think of it as a well stocked workshop, or a great toy box. That’s what makes the liberal arts possible. Now note that this is not a blank check for every existing program or department, nor is it an argument against change. Indeed, I’d argue that a lot of liberal arts institutions have rather dull toyboxes at the moment, overstocked with a limited range of playthings. But what it resists is the utilitarian argument being first, last and center. The moment you make that the main logic of your own general rule, the less able you are to explain why anything but narrowly preprofessional subjects should be taught. If you start to argue that vocation or profession requires a richer, wider, less predictable range of subjects, you’ve circled back around to the liberal arts, but in a way that will have you hopelessly second-guessed on everything you claim to value–because you got there by saying that the reason to have it is that it’s *useful*. Don’t get me wrong–a lot of what people study is useful, but important for that to be an emergent or implicit property rather than the main attribute being selected for.

  24. Laura said:
    “UVA’s 16 member German faculty must cost the university $2 mill per year.”
    That’s a big department. (I see UT Austin German has 17 faculty (professors and lecturers) plus emeriti, but UT Austin is gargantuan with 50,000 students and 16,500 faculty and staff–UVA has under 21,000 students. They’ve got somewhat different profiles as institutions, of course.)
    Miranda said:
    “Aside from the utilitarian point that we just may need them after all someday, why shouldn’t we use public resources to preserve and maintain valuable stores of knowledge that are used by a significant minority of people?”
    With the languages, there’s a long history of suddenly panicking and realizing “Oh my goodness, we need more people who know Russian!” or “We need more people who know Arabic–right this minute!” or “We need Mandarin speakers–now!” Some of those panics have probably been overblown, but part of the reason for panic is that we were so terribly unprepared. (I once talked to somebody after 9/11 who was applying to some hush-hush intelligence organization to do Spanish work, and they wanted to re-train her for Arabic.)

  25. Some public institutions are wonderful. I compare UVA: http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?q=university+of+Virginia&s=all&id=234076#netprc
    to West Point: http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?s=all&p=52&l=5&ct=1&ic=1&an=5&ax=40&pg=3&id=197036#programs. I have to tell you, West Point’s education strikes me as superior to UVa’s, just in the majors offered, and the popularity of the academic subjects of foreign languages, math, Computer and Information Systems, Engineering and History.
    Touring campuses this year, I notice all tour guides praise their institutions’ study abroad programs. This means it’s high on the list of items the Admissions Departments think sell well.
    Indeed, I see that the University of Virginia has an International Studies Office.http://www.studyabroad.virginia.edu/
    In support of the University of Virginia’s 2020 mission plan to promote study abroad, the International Studies Office offers a full spectrum of academic opportunities worldwide.
    ISO Study Abroad team’s mission is:
    To increase student participation in study abroad
    To guide and advise students, scholars and faculty
    To provide information about study abroad opportunities and promote cross-cultural and safety awareness.
    To facilitate and ensure access to study abroad to all students
    To assist faculty and administrators in setting up study abroad programs
    To abide by NAFSA Code of Ethics

    The University has 2 undergraduate German majors, 4 u.g. Italian majors, 8 Slavic Language majors, 35 French majors, and 71 Spanish majors. It doesn’t offer Chinese.
    And yet, U.Va. sent 1,255 students abroad in the 2007-08 year for two- to eight-week stints, such as January Term and summer programs. Of course, the number of American students studying abroad isn’t necessarily that high: “The total numbers of U.Va. undergraduates who studied abroad rose from 1,418 to 1,465 in 2007-2008, compared to the previous year,” she said. “However, our total includes international students, whereas the Open Doors number includes only American students. We at U.Va. make no distinction, and we encourage our Chinese students to study in Morocco or Russian students to study in England.”http://www.virginia.edu/uvatoday/newsRelease.php?id=10357
    How valuable is time spent in a foreign country if you don’t speak the language? I’ll stipulate that a 5 on an AP exam means you don’t speak the language.
    It’s quite possible that many students take foreign language courses to prepare for graduate school or study abroad, but don’t major in the language. The university president probably understood that, while the university rector (house builder) didn’t. Given the totally unnecessary furore the rector singlehandedly caused, I think she’s a dolt.

  26. Cranberry said:
    “The University has 2 undergraduate German majors, 4 u.g. Italian majors, 8 Slavic Language majors, 35 French majors, and 71 Spanish majors. It doesn’t offer Chinese.”
    That does sound like German is underperforming. Given the relative prevalence of German and Slavic instruction in US high schools, it blows my mind that UVA German has only a quarter as many majors.
    “How valuable is time spent in a foreign country if you don’t speak the language?”
    I’ve always had trouble with the take-English-courses-and-drink-beer type study abroad programs. Lame!
    “It’s quite possible that many students take foreign language courses to prepare for graduate school or study abroad, but don’t major in the language.”
    My sister did a Rotary exchange in Germany in high school, majored in business, probably took some college German, married into a German family, and has been pingponging back and forth between the US and Germany since the 90s. She didn’t want to do a German major because she wasn’t a lit person. She speaks very fluent German.

  27. It seems fairly off base to assume that the popularity of political science or English v German is the result of intrinsic interest in Plato as opposed to reading German poetry. I’m guessing the general popularity of classes (and, yes, in a major) is probably based more on the perceived ease of the class and the requirements it fulfills than on the love of the class or major (or its utility for their future career plans) (and, for many students). Foreign language departments are being wounded not by a sophisticated belief that foreign languages aren’t important but ’cause the classes are hard and the general language requirements that used to support them are disappearing.
    I think my vision of a flagship state university (like UVA is supposed to be, or Berkeley, or U M) means that it should have a broad array of offerings that aren’t subject to the immediate vicissitudes of undergraduate desires (and requirements). That’s ’cause I see the flagships as providing a place for poorly populated but potentially important fields of study (both for the student who might avail themselves and to keep those bodies of knowledge alive). I think states should pay for that function (and not students, with their tuition dollars).
    If the flagships aren’t providing those opportunities, lots of educational elites won’t send their kids there — and they’ll become vocational pre-professional students by default.
    Well, and in the case of UVA, vocational, pre-professional schools micromanaged by people who have no understanding of even that educational enterprise. My reading of the “UVA reputation gap” is that UVA is underperforming in the currently “hot” fields (STEM, for example) with its reputation being bolstered by a general belief that it is a good liberal arts school. So I see the micromanagement as being along the lines of asking community college professors to attract NIH dollars (i.e. stupid).

  28. Cranberry:
    You may be being a bit unfair to the people who get 5s on AP language exams. I was just looking at the Wikipedia article on the German AP exam. Although about a quarter of students get 5s on the exam,
    “In the 2006 administration 5,139 students took the exam from 1,320 schools. The mean score was a 3.25. Statistics include native German speakers and students who hear German spoken regularly at home. The percent of students who received a 5 last year not including this group was around 8%.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Placement_German_Language
    It sounds like the non-native speakers who get 5s are a very select group.

  29. 1,547 students nationwide took SATII subject tests in German last year. On the other hand, 53,337 claim they’ve taken some courses or had some experience. http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/cbs2011_total_group_report.pdf
    On AP exams, note the difference in exam performance between “standard group,” i.e., students who rely upon the schools for preparation, and “total group,” i.e., including students who have learned the language from other sources, whether family or (perhaps?) private language instruction. http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/AP-Student-Score-Distributions.pdf
    Innovation is important. I don’t see a lot of innovative thought coming from refusing to change or to be flexible in changing times.
    Why should change entail dropping the cognitively demanding subjects?
    Sure, drop the tofu pizza, but at some point it’d be more honest to stop claiming to be a university. “Certificates-R-Us–nothing you don’t want to learn” would be more accurate.
    As Germany, Japan, and Russia are significant countries for trade and diplomacy, it beggars belief that it would be in the public’s interest to decrease the number of US students who can read and speak foreign languages.

  30. I’ve taught at 7 universities, and they all had foreign language requirements that varied from 2 to 4 semesters. No mass student rebellion.
    The trend in foreign language instruction is minors. Students are afraid to major in a foreign language (either their parents are making them do premed, accounting, etc. OR they want a major where they can skip lectures, not read, not do homework and then cram during finals week and get a B), but they love the “value added” concept of a second language for their CV. Some departments have huge numbers at intro and intermediate levels, a competitive number of minors but few majors. So the number of majors is not a good way to measure productivity.
    Also, at a number of schools, Those with smaller class size must teach more courses. A faculty member with large sections may teach 3 sections and have only 1 or 2 preps while another with small classes may teach 5 different classes. The workload is spread out another way.

  31. I just think its funny that this Rector wants to cut German when the Germans, as usual, are basically the center of the Western world right now, with their hands on the steering wheel of the European economy. Obviously, they all speak English. But if you think you get respect by going to Germany and speaking English, you’ve never been condescended to in three different German cities in 10 days.
    Whatever you think about the balance between academics and oversight, I think we can all agree this was handled by a bunch of rich amateurs who are total narcissists. Beware…this will spread. Considering they are millionaires they showed less maturity and honor than a second semester freshman at UVA what with that honor code.
    I think the answer is that language study could be done on a consortial level. For instance, I don’t think they teach Danish at UCLA, but they teach it at Berkeley (or maybe its Norwegian…you get my drift). UVA could teach German and UNC (or Virginia Tech or whatever) could teach Italian and Romanian. Just a thought. That’s what will happen in 10 years. Same with a lot of subjects. Not sure this is so terrible.

  32. Jen,
    I’m curious: what does a student at UCLA do who wants to take Danish along with other classes at UCLA? Berkeley is a 10 hour car trip away. I think consortiums are great for small schools clustered together, like Pomona, Scripps, Claremont-McKenna, etc. or Swarthmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Penn, etc. But…if you have to travel across a state the size of CA, or interstate, then it seems the consortium idea kind of falls apart.
    I also find it kind of funny to compare Danish or Norwegian to German and Italian. As much as it pains the daughter of a former Norwegian teacher to admit, the first two are ’boutique’ languages mostly of interest to heritage speakers or a few others with specific interests in the region. The other two are pretty central to both European history and culture as well as the modern business world. Maybe I’m just an idealist, but I find it surprising that people are even floating the idea that a flagship university of a populous state (we’re not talking U Wyoming, or SW Virginia Tech, or whatever) shouldn’t offer languages like German or Italian. If you don’t or can’t offer those, then you are neither a good liberal arts school nor a school capable of training people to compete in the global workforce.

  33. I really have no idea what foreign languages are popular in colleges right now, so I’m just asking questions here…
    Are there enough students taking advanced German classes to justify a 16 member department? Is there more demand for other languages like Arabic or Chinese? Could a 5 person department suffice? Could they hire 11 people to teach other languages, if the German department was smaller? Why aren’t kids taking German classes? Is it because most international business with European countries is conducted in English? Is it because most high schools no longer teach German? Should a school respond to student demand for classes in certain subjects? If the students want to take classes in biology or chemistry or business or Arabic, should a school provide faculty that meets those demands?

  34. My understanding is that German is (relatively speaking) suffering a decline in interest, but is still a big deal.
    http://saveourforeignlanguages.wordpress.com/2012/04/14/the-german-language-in-decline-but-is-a-revival-in-the-works/
    That blog post says that it is still the #3 language studied in the US, but Chinese is nipping at its heels.
    Language study in the US is terribly trend-driven. The problem is that the trendy language changes roughly every 10 years. This year, Chinese is big. 10 years ago, Arabic was huge. 20 years ago, Russian and Japanese were the big thing. Given how long the academic pipeline is, it may be unwise to enter a doctoral program for the latest thing, given that by the time you get out, your language will be old hat. That happened to a number of Russian graduate students I knew–their field dried up while they were in school. Even for non-academics, given that mastering a language and culture are a 10-year process (particularly for the “hard” languages that populate the trendy list), it’s a real gamble making that investment.

  35. I don’t know about Arabic, but learning only Mandarin at the expense of all other languages is very shortsighted, since Chinese (and European) corporations prefer to hire multilingual Europeans over bilingual Americans. A Chinese CEO once said to me, “if I wanted someone who spoke English and Mandarin, I’d hire a Chinese employee at 1/2 the cost.” (He hired an Austrian who knew English, Chinese, German, and Italian.) As of now, American companies don’t seem to particularly care knowing other languages, so knowing Mandarin can help in getting a job stateside, but I imagine that will change as Chinese and European corporations increasingly dominate the Chinese business world. The EU overtook the US as China’s biggest trading partner, with Germany dominating. The Chinese are learning German in droves, and a forward-thinking person who wanted to work in the business world in China would probably also learn German.
    Also, after 4 years of high school French I was pretty fluent in reading skills and proficient in speaking. After 4 years of college Mandarin, I could barely read parts of the newspaper and knew just the basics in communication. I’m now proficient in reading and speaking, but it’s only because I worked extraordinarily hard studying the language for 6 years, lived in China for awhile, and am naturally pretty good with languages. In terms of pay-off, two years of college German would be a better ‘investment’ than two years of college Mandarin, because chances are much higher that you would have acquired meaningful communication skills in that time frame.

  36. My husband has a PhD in German history and is fluent in German. He now works at a multi-national company and regularly talks with business people in Japan, Hong Kong, and European countries. You know how many times that he’s been asked to speak German in 10 years? Zero.

  37. But pragmatic arguments aside, learning a foreign language – any one – is an excellent activity and am pushing my kid to memorize irregular French verbs. I think foreign language requirements in colleges is a fine thing.

  38. But if you think you get respect by going to Germany and speaking English, you’ve never been condescended to in three different German cities in 10 days.
    Speak to me about this–I’m going to Berlin in August. 🙂 E-mail is fine. 🙂

  39. I think we have to be careful of assuming demand for the critical languages. At the schools at which I’ve taught, faculty from outside the language departments wonder why there aren’t more tenured Arabic and Chinese faculty, but when introductory-level courses in Arabic and Mandarin have been offered with adjuncts, very few students want to take them (course size ranges from 6-10 students) and even fewer continue on. It’s not an “If you build it, they will come” scenario.
    Course size is tricky for languages. The American Council of Teaching of Foreign Languages recommends a course cap of 15 students due to the role of repetition in second language pedagogy. At many universities, the course cap ranges from 20-35. If a department is protecting the integrity of the second-language acquisition experience for its students, it would need more faculty than a department whose pedagogy is primarily based on lectures.
    On another note, the flouting of faculty governance by the Board of Visitors and in regard to cutting of academic programs awakens my inner Norma Rae; union(ize) now, American professors.

  40. One thing no one has noted is that those “underemployed” German professors (classics also came up in the discussion, I believe) may be teaching other things besides German. At my university, professors in all the languages, in history, and actually in all the liberal arts departments also teach first-year seminars, for example. These need not be in the professor’s area of specialization, but they are often closely related. They are service courses, but they are very important as they introduce students to college-level work, to a professor, possibly to a major or minor, etc. So even departments with small numbers of majors can contribute greatly to the general education curriculum as a whole. (Full disclosure: I’m in VA, in a private univ. about an hour from Charlottesville, where we are watching this with dismay…)

  41. Are there enough students taking advanced German classes to justify a 16 member department?
    This gets to the insanity of looking at faculty-to-major ratios for subjects like foreign languages which have huge non-major enrolment at the first and second year levels. Would anyone claim that Math faculty were underemployed based on the number of math majors? Would that be the yardstick used when deciding whether or not to eliminate first-year Calculus? It just doesn’t make sense to expect more vertical disciplines like Linguistics or Mechanical Engineering to have the same ratio as Math or German.
    I’d also suspect that the majority of those 16 positions aren’t spending most of their time in 3-person classes.

  42. We have an electrical engineering program. That’s a useful major, right? People get jobs with EE majors. I was observing faculty as part of my work on the promotion committee and sat in on one EE faculty’s class. 2 students were enrolled. 1 came in late. As an English prof with overstuffed classes where I have to assign 6 papers, I was pretty resentful. 🙂
    If you go to the UVA site, you see Libby is correct and many of the faculty in Germanic Languages and Literatures teach classes that are cross-listed. This department also seems to be less about teaching German and more about teaching topics related to German lit and history. I also just popped in on the Classics profs. A lot of them teach courses not only on Latin and Greek but also on stuff like mythology. If you look at their RMP ratings, there’s also reference to lecture courses as opposed to seminar courses, which suggests that the classes are big enough to warrant lectures (i.e., not 3-student classes).

  43. In regards to how the UCs handle joint language instruction I found this on the UCLA Scandinavian studies page: “NOTE: In AY 2011-2012, we will offer second year Swedish, and will receive first and second year Danish via highspeed video-conferencing from Berkeley. We are hoping to add first year Norwegian for AY 2011-2012 as well.”
    Obviously I haven’t tried this but technology can really change the game.
    I’m also not saying this is the best way to take a language but most people may not have tried it. I definitely agree that the flagships should have the major languages of the world (plus many of the minor languages)and have departments in Classics, Germanic languages, and Slavic languages (another area where people say ridiculous things like “why would anyone want to learn Russian?”). I think its scary that TJ’s university would close a Classics department. I personally think German is incredibly important which is why I started taking it twice. And studies of German culture and history are arguably more crucial and should be part of everyone’s general education requirement if only so the kids actually really understand the 19th-20th century. But if the reality of the situation is that the majors have low numbers and there are consortial, technological means to handle this, why not try it? This can open up classes to others at smaller schools.

  44. That’s interesting.
    “Also, after 4 years of high school French I was pretty fluent in reading skills and proficient in speaking. After 4 years of college Mandarin, I could barely read parts of the newspaper and knew just the basics in communication. I’m now proficient in reading and speaking, but it’s only because I worked extraordinarily hard studying the language for 6 years, lived in China for awhile, and am naturally pretty good with languages. In terms of pay-off, two years of college German would be a better ‘investment’ than two years of college Mandarin, because chances are much higher that you would have acquired meaningful communication skills in that time frame.”
    That’s my impression, too–as an American, if you’re only doing two years of college language, you get a bigger bang for your study from one of the conventional Western European languages.
    Regarding the whole everybody-speaks-English-thing, I have a few points.
    1. No, they don’t.
    2. Making that assumption limits the number of people you can talk directly to and ensures that you will only talk to a particular sort of person, thus warping your view of what the average person in that society is like. (It doesn’t matter if you are just doing something in the sciences, but if you are trying to figure out, “What are Chinese people really like?”, just talking to the fluent English speakers will probably be misleading. I suspect our understanding of the Middle East suffers a lot from this problem.)
    3. The more repressive a society is, the more crucial it is to be able to gather information independently, without being dependent on officially-provided minders and translators.

  45. But really this fight has nothing to do with the value of German or the Classics, does it? Let’s just be honest. This is about tenured faculty protecting their friends who have put in roots in the community and really have no chance of finding another job. There’s also the fear that this could happen to them. So, all this talk is smoke and mirrors. Wish tenured faculty showed this level of concern for all the non-tenured faculty on campus. How about a rally in the rotunda to get health care coverage for the adjuncts? It’s hard for me to feel too sad for the German department at UVA when I know legions of unemployed PhDs.

  46. But really this fight has nothing to do with the value of German or the Classics, does it?
    You’re trolling here, no? I think a lot of us here are clearly fans of liberal art education. We believe in it.
    You’re comparing apples and oranges on one level, yet on another, you’re pitting the victims of corporatism against each other. Re the first: questions about what constitutes a liberal arts and/or a college education in general are totally separate from the issue of how the faculty who provide this education are paid. Re the second, the true answer is that everyone is being victimized by the idea that educaiton should be run like a corporation. I’m reminded of the joke:
    “A unionized public employee, a member of the Tea Party, and a CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle of the table there is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches across and takes 11 cookies looks at the Tea Partier and says,”look out for that union guy, he wants a piece of your cookie.”

  47. “It’s hard for me to feel too sad for the German department at UVA when I know legions of unemployed PhDs.”
    Some of those unemployed PhDs have doctorates in German. You better believe they care that there are going to be fewer available jobs in German.
    Pitt just suspended admissions to its classics graduate program, sending shock waves through the larger community. There was previously a very strong symbiotic relationship between Pitt philosophy (a very highly ranked graduate program) and Pitt classics, for obvious reasons.
    “This “suspension” will have significant effects beyond the Classics Department itself. Until this decision, The University of Pittsburgh had a highly-regarded interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Classics, Philosophy, and Ancient Science (CPAS) that allowed students to participate in classes and research across the three relevant graduate departments: Classics, Philosophy and History & Philosophy of Science (for the program’s web page, see http://www.classics.pitt.edu/classics-philosophy). At present there exists a community of graduate students with similar interests across the three departments. The Classics Department has contributed a significant proportion of the students in this program; without these students, the CPAS community, and thus the experience of the relevant students in the other two departments, would be significantly impoverished. In addition, students from various graduate programs throughout Arts and Sciences regularly find their way into classics courses as they discover that Latin or Greek are essential to their own course of study.”
    http://www.change.org/petitions/dean-of-graduate-studies-the-university-of-pittsburgh-reinstate-the-department-of-classics-graduate-program

  48. (Ouch!)
    Amy P, this year Chinese is big, but there don’t seem to be any students majoring in East Asian languages, nor in East Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. The University does offer courses in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and there’s a Director of Tibetan language studies.
    The kids who get 5s on AP language exams are a select group. Out of about 3.2 million US high school seniors, 1,224 earned a 5 on the AP German exam. 292 of those students belonged to the “standard group,” i.e., they received most of their foreign language training in US schools.
    In comparison, 27,229 students earned a 5 on the Spanish exam, but only 5,660 of those students belonged to the standard group. For Chinese, 5,762 earned a 5, but only 445 belonged to the standard group.
    I don’t know if the 5s on each exam translate to the same degree of language fluency. I suspect not. So, .038% of our high school graduates received a 5 on the German AP. In comparison, a whole 0.85% of our high school graduates received a 5 on the Spanish AP.
    Are we really preparing our children for the 21st century?
    I know a number of Europeans who’ve emigrated to the US. They’re university educated. They work for American firms, or international firms. In order to attend university, the Germans had to study two foreign languages through high school. American companies know the Europeans will be able to speak English. I’d wager the European companies don’t know if the Americans will “really” be able to speak anything other than English. Do people read their applications?
    Our national purblind refusal to commit to foreign language fluency for our university graduates limits their ability to compete for employment with non-US companies overseas. What do people in other countries expect of a college graduate?

  49. Understandable, Laura. I’m getting ready for vacation with help from exactly zero children, so my crankiness level is at Defcon 4, myself.

  50. I’m with Laura. I majored in German in college and still come close to speaking it fluently. I have colleagues who likewise studied it and speak it fluently. None of us has used it even once in the workplace – not once.
    But studying any foreign language is a helpful thing, and good for general education. IMO in this day and age the foreign language we default to should be Spanish.

  51. That’s why knowledge economy workers need to unionize across levels: grad students, contingent faculty and tenured.

  52. Cranberry said:
    “I’d wager the European companies don’t know if the Americans will “really” be able to speak anything other than English. Do people read their applications?”
    That is a question. Personally, I think it’s pretty safe if an American applicant has 3 years of college language, plus either a study abroad or prior work experience in the relevant country. You’d still need to check, though, to make sure they can write literate emails–lots of people sound good orally, but look illiterate in print.
    (By the way, remember the Harvard fraud Adam Wheeler’s resume? He claimed to know French, Old English, Classical Armenian and Old Persian.)
    http://www.tnr.com/blog/jonathan-chait/75025/adam-wheelers-resume

  53. See, I worry that this is one of the elements of (what I consider) a good education that is slipping out of the reach of the middle class.
    I know high school aged kids who’ve already spent serious time in foreign countries (France, China), mastering the languages at their parents’ expense. None of the language expertise is directed by their schools. By the time they’re college freshmen, they will be ready for upper-level college language courses. They will be able to compete for competitive programs abroad.
    The arguments on the utility of foreign language study are similar to the arguments on the utility of algebra or trigonometry. If one excludes the areas of study which adults never notice using, we’re left with what? Some history, basic arithmetic, typing, and a driver’s license.
    Indeed, if math and foreign languages aren’t “useful,” if one isn’t looking to attend a graduate or professional program, why attend a college at all? I believe in the value of a liberal arts education, but I’m not excited by a degree which consists of satisfying requirements set at a high school level. Tuition is much too high to justify spending four years attending football games, hanging out with friends, and receiving a credential at the end.
    I have found this discussion helpful, though, as I hadn’t really caught on to the extent to which even reputable schools and colleges may be hollowing out their academic offerings.

  54. I think it’s the flagship publics. There used to be a number of gems and a number of solid options. The gems are loosing the state support that used allow them to be contenders in general education, being forced to do short term bean-counting. The short term bean-counting then makes them unattractive to those who have other options.

  55. I’m reading this discussion on Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2012/06/public-vs-private-universities-reply-trenches.
    I will point out, though, that one should not assume the public universities are the most affordable option. Parents should investigate institutions’ “net cost.” The Department of Education’s College Navigator site includes estimates of institutions’ net cost, by family income level.
    For most colleges, cost rises with family income level.

  56. “See, I worry that this is one of the elements of (what I consider) a good education that is slipping out of the reach of the middle class.”
    The easiest way for middle class kids to get that experience is to be born into a US family that speaks the language. (I had a lot of Russian classmates from Russian-speaking immigrant families. And it wasn’t really a piece of cake for them, either. Sure they were fluent, but they didn’t necessarily have an educated person’s oral or written Russian, and would occasionally come up with a piece of baby-talk or illiteracy that would make our teachers wince. If you leave the old country at 10, you have to work pretty hard not to sound like a 10-year-old for the rest of your life. But it’s not a bad place to start.)
    For those whom the advice above comes too late, there’s the Peace Corps or overseas English teaching or Rotary or doing your LDS mission abroad.

  57. “See, I worry that this is one of the elements of (what I consider) a good education that is slipping out of the reach of the middle class.”
    Cranberry, I agree with this. But I also believe it’s beyond the worrying stage. That ship has sailed. We need to move on to adjusting.
    This entire conversation is about facing reality: American families below the upper classes can no longer afford a liberal arts education for their children. We’re back to where we were in the 1920s – college for rich kids, trade school/family business/straight to work for the rest of us. When we borrow exhorbitant amounts trying to keep up with prior generations’ standards on education, we do nothing but bankrupt ourselves.
    The housing bubble ended with entire generations of Americans who never want to own a home. They view it as an albatross, something that constrains their flexibility. I wonder if we’re headed for an education bubble that will teach the same generation that college is for suckers? (Talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater!)

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