Yesterday, we excerpted Gregory Petsko‘s rather scalding letter to George Philip, the president of the SUNY Albany, who recently announced that the university was cutting its French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts departments. Then we discovered Stanford’s own letter. Not as much fun, alas; nothing beats sarcasm — but still worth a look.
At a school whose motto is “The world within reach,” the elimination of modern languages other than Spanish indicates a confusion of purpose. The study of modern languages at a high level offers a gateway to international business, diplomacy, and research in all fields. The study of literature in foreign languages challenges students to cross cultural boundaries and teaches them how to do so effectively. By rejecting these programs, SUNY Albany is reducing its students’ intellectual breadth and their competitiveness for a range of professions. It is moving the world out of reach.
This decision is especially disturbing at a school that trains so many of New York State’s teachers. Three of the programs cut – French, Italian, and Russian – are significant New York heritage languages, and a large French-speaking population lives right over the border in Quebec. These are languages that New York K-12 students have motivation to study, and even to master. By making it impossible for future Albany graduates to teach them, SUNY is reducing not only the education and competitiveness of its own students, but those of the state’s high school students as well. In the case of Russian, where Albany houses the only major program in the SUNY system, this danger is especially real.
The elimination of modern language programs at Albany appears to be part of a larger reallocation of state funding. Even while the university saves some $12 million by cutting these departments, $435 million in state funding is going toward a new Institute for Nanoelectronics Discovery and Exploration, which has the stated goal of transforming the Albany region into a high-tech hub like California’s Silicon Valley. Here at Stanford, located in the real Silicon Valley, it appears especially short-sighted to imagine that the way to foster innovation, investment, and job growth in our increasingly global economy is by rejecting the study of modern languages and cultures. Rather than firing faculty who are experts in foreign languages, the university should turn to them for help in training students who are able to understand international consumers and investors. Stanford has engaged its foreign language and literature faculty in creating new administrative structures that can respond effectively to the needs of students at all levels. We challenge you at SUNY Albany to follow the example of Silicon Valley in deed, not just in words.
Signed by: Gabriella Safran, Director, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages; David Palumbo-Liu, Director, Department of Comparative Literature; Carolyn Springer, Director, Department of French and Italian Literatures; Russell Berman, Director, German Studies Department; Jorge Ruffinelli, Director, Iberian and Latin American Cultures Department; Elizabeth Bernhardt, Director, Language Center; Amir Eshel, Graduate Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages; Dan Edelstein, Undergraduate Chair, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.
By the by, if you missed Stanley Fish’s column on this subject in the New York Times, it’s here.