Letter about SUNY Albany


Programs addressed: 
Classics, French, Italian, Russian, and Theater
Sent to: 
George M. Philip, President
Date of letter: 
October 18, 2010

As President of PAMLA, the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association, a professional organization for scholars and university teachers in language and literary studies, which is dedicated to the advancement and diffusion of knowledge of ancient and modern languages and literatures, it is both my duty and obligation to express grave concern about recent developments at your university. 

It is with deep dismay that we learn about your plan to discontinue the programs in Classics, French, Italian, and Russian, in addition to Theater, at the State University of New York, Albany. On behalf of PAMLA we petition you to reconsider this proposal, on academic, but also on pragmatic grounds. 

Let me speak to the pragmatic reasons first. Certainly, painful budget cuts await all institutions of higher learning and the cost to students and to society at large will be unprecedented. We applaud you in proposing bold vertical cuts. In a crisis of this magnitude it is the right way to proceed provided the savings make up for the radical nature of program elimination. However, when contemplating cuts, you should also take into account the end product: what will your university look like once these cuts are implemented, and will it still be the kind of institution that will best serve the interests of your state? Will the students graduating from SUNY Albany in the future have all the necessary skills to compete in an increasingly global market, or will a one-time savings move undermine your strategic goals and your stature in the nation as a reputable academic institution? Will future students opt to go elsewhere because your institution will offer less opportunity for foreign language proficiency development to students who are looking to work in all the countries that speak these languages? To cut just as a matter of expediency without taking into account current and future trends may result in a deeper and longer-lasting negative impact than retaining these programs would, when some creative thinking leading to teaching efficiencies and interdisciplinary synergies might be implemented instead.

We are all aware that once programs disappear from university curricula it is nearly impossible—and very expensive—to bring them back. Is it wise, from a business point of view, to cut relatively small and inexpensive programs with faculty who are extremely hard working and have an active research agenda? At many institutions, engineering represents the least cost-effective unit in terms of leveraging tuition dollars and generating student credit hours, the arts break about even, and the humanities (i.e., English and the languages) bring in a surplus because of the number of students they teach and majors they graduate. We understand that at SUNY Albany language faculty is also heavily engaged in the general education requirement curriculum and teaches a great number of non-majors. We don’t know which budget model SUNY Albany uses to allocate its funds, but if it is a model that is even remotely driven by activity measures, those faculty in the university that generate greater numbers of students should be given appropriate credit. The Delaware Study, for example, could easily demonstrate how these programs fare within your institution, but also across similar departments across the nation. In our experience, most Foreign Language programs tend to fall quite below the national ratio for direct instructional expenses.

And let us not discount advances in the field that have given way to teaching efficiencies while preserving disciplinary learning outcomes. Foreign languages, similar to expository writing, have a structural need for smaller classrooms. Indeed, our national organization recommends a 1 to15 instructor-student ratio for language courses. However, most of us have been able, thanks to modern technology, to introduce effective cost-saving measures through hybrid online models that have allowed larger enrollments while preserving quality instruction. In addition, online delivery of these courses is fast becoming an area of program development and growth that many institutions are pursuing due to several financial considerations among our population. We are sure that SUNY Albany’s ability to offer some of these courses within a distance or online delivery platform could add new enrollment and revenues to its programs. And, finally, language faculty attract large numbers of students in cross-listed courses on popular subjects for non-majors in most institutions’ general core/ requirements programs, thus contributing to the central educational mission of the university. For all these reasons, and at a time when strategic investments have to be made, it is difficult to understand how the elimination of these language programs can be construed as a substantial cost-saving measure. 

There are significant federal grant dollars to be raised through offering language study. Other universities have been able to attract Title VI Centers thanks to their excellent infrastructure with regard to language learning. There are great opportunities at the moment to collaborate with the EU on big partnerships, dual degrees, collaborative research projects, etc. Through Atlantis, the EU is making millions of dollars available to North American institutions. Without French, Russian, German, and Italian, SUNY Albany would have to forego the opportunity to attract such dollars. 

Businesses want to hire people who know languages. Earlier this month the Language Flagship Program, an initiative of the Department of Defense’s National Security Education Program, released a report titled “What Business Wants: Language Needs in the 21st Century.” The report reflects the input of over 100 business leaders who were asked to “identify the role and value of languages and cultural skills to business’ bottom line” and identify ways in which leaders from business, K-12 and higher education, and government can work together to “bring significant change to language education in the United States.” 

At research universities, graduate students from a variety of fields need to study these languages and work with scholars in these fields. For many students pursuing careers in other fields, a working knowledge of French, German, Russian, or Italian is a must. Your students who would like to pursue a career in, for example, engineering, the arts, or international law, will be at a disadvantage without the opportunity to study these languages. According to Iowa State University, as recently as three years ago 10,000 engineering jobs could not be filled because of a shortage of qualified candidates. Employers wanted to hire bilingual engineers. In answer to this demand, ISU has developed a complementary language program for its engineering and business students. Your students pursuing careers in the sciences and environmental technologies will also be at a disadvantage. In corporate law, for that matter, knowledge of languages propels one’s application to the top of the list. 

As for your plans to cut the Classics and Theater program, we believe that these too appear to be short-sighted decisions.  A university with no connection to Greek or Latin literatures cannot offer its students the opportunity to explore the important roots of Western culture.  Likewise, a theater program provides students with a cultural background lacking in their other, non-Humanities courses.  Acting in or helping to produce theater opens up entire new worlds of understanding.  And the group activities of writing and producing a play can teach students important leadership skills such as cooperation, tolerance, and a solid work ethic.  These are the very interpersonal skills needed for a successful engagement in a global society.

Finally, let me add just a few words about the substantive issue at hand. From an academic perspective, the plan to close down the French, Russian, and Italian language programs, as well as Classics and Theater, strikes us as ill considered and seems to represent a misunderstanding of what globalization and internationalization could be at its very best. The academy should not react to globalization by repeating the mistakes of the past, which led to the exclusion of many non-Western literatures from academic study, but should instead react by being inclusive. To eliminate Classics, French, Russian, Italian, and Theater would cut off many students from the study of their own intellectual, cultural, and social histories.  And such a closing would clearly also impoverish the study of the writings of many non-Western postcolonial, economic, literary, and political theorists whose texts are in frequent dialogue with the French, Russian, and Italian traditions of the last 250 years, and with the Classical and Theatrical traditions of the more distant past.

At a time when budgets are being slashed, it is necessary to recognize strategically what will best serve our students’ futures. If your university truly wants its students to be competitive in the job market of the future, we urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to reconsider your decision to eliminate French, Russian, Italian, Classics, and Theater. If the State University of New York at Albany aims to preserve academic and research quality, it cannot thrive without strong language programs. 


Thierry Boucquey
Associate Dean of Faculty and Professor of French
Scripps College, Claremont University Consortium
President, PAMLA 

Sabine Wilke
Professor and Chair, Department of Germanics
University of Washington
Vice President, PAMLA 

Ana María Rodríguez-Vivaldi
Associate Professor of Spanish and Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Washington State University
Second Vice President, PAMLA

Beverly Voloshin
Professor and Chair, Department of English Language and Literature
San Francisco State University
Past President, PAMLA 

Imke Meyer
Professor and Co-Chair of German
Bryn Mawr College
Former PAMLA President 

Kathleen Lundeen
Professor of English
Western Washington University
Former PAMLA President 

Craig Svonkin
Assistant Professor, Department of English
Metropolitan State College of Denver
Executive Director, PAMLA 

And members of the PAMLA Executive Committee: 

Roswitha Burwick, Professor of German, Scripps College
Lorely French, Professor of German, Pacific University
Jeffrey Gray, Professor of English, Seton Hall University
Pauline Beard, Professor of English, Pacific University
Catherine Montfort, Professor of French, Santa Clara University
Stanley Orr, Associate Professor of English, University of Hawai’i, West Oahu
Sophie Delahaye, Assistant Professor of Modern Languages, Washburn University
Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod, Adjunct Assistant Professor of History, Occidental College
Lorenzo Giachetti, Graduate student representative, Stanford University