To the dismay of administrators, faculty and students, Cornell’s 11 “critical language” programs — which offer students instruction in lesser-known languages that hold national importance, like Khmer and Burmese — are facing significant budget reductions and potential elimination after federal lawmakers agreed to a $1.3 billion reduction to the Department of Education on April 15.
Although the DOE has until May 15 to determine how the cuts will be distributed across various programs for the fiscal year 2011, federal lawmakers recommended a 40 percent cut — approximately $50 million — to Title VI programs nationwide as part of the federal budget agreement. The programs support government efforts to improve the U.S.’s capacity in foreign affairs.
Through Title VI, Cornell had expected to receive $2.5 million in National Resource Center grants over the next three years. The NRC grants are used in large part to fund Cornell’s Southeast Asia, South Asia and East Asia programs, which only receive between four and 23 percent of their annual funding from Cornell, according to Prof. Tamara Loos, history, director of the Southeast Asia Program.
Given a 40 percent cut, Cornell would have to eliminate four of the 11 languages, Loos said. Additionally, Cornell receives $1.5 million from the federal government to pay salaries and benefits for program staff, money that may also be in jeopardy, she said.
University administrators, faculty and students decried the cuts, arguing that the lack of funding would discourage students from learning about foreign cultures and would hamper the U.S.’s ability to conduct global affairs.
“What these grants do is allow us to offer languages that may not have huge numbers of students learning them, but are very important ... If you cut these programs, it becomes very difficult for the University to offer them,” Alice Pell, vice provost for international relations, said.
Within the language programs, the funds are used to strengthen language instruction, provide greater cultural understanding at Cornell and provide cultural outreach to local schools, Pell said. Programs with higher demand, such as Mandarin, are funded through the College of Arts and Sciences and are less likely to be affected by the cuts, she said.
In addition to jeopardizing Cornell’s ability to offer critical languages, the cuts could also inhibit graduate students’ studies. Through federal support, Cornell’s National Resource Centers provide fellowships for 22 graduate students every year, as well as 15 students every summer, Loos said.
“Cuts to such fellowships will sharply reduce the number of young Americans trained to support their nation’s international interests and concerns,” Loos said.
Prof. Jolanda Pandin, Asian studies, echoed Loos’ remark, saying language study is becoming increasingly important today.
“Language is a gateway to different world perspectives. Until you can really be in a society and interact with people, especially as an academic, you cannot have a full understanding of their society,” Pandin said.
Prof. Maria Theresa Savella, Asian studies, said she was concerned about how the cuts would affect decades of work spent building the Southeast Asia Program. In addition to supporting the professional development of foreign language faculty, the federal grants have facilitated collaborative work with professors at peer institutions, she said.
“We have invested so much in the language programs. If they’re going to stop that now, all that work will go down the drain,” Savella said. “When they decide at some point in the future that they want to start funding us again, they’ll have to start from zero.”
Additionally, students expressed concern about how the cuts would impact their own language studies.
Lawrence Chua grad, a Mellon graduate fellow, said that the funding he received to study Thai, Chinese and Khmer was vital to “accessing and articulating world views and systems of logic that are often overlooked by scholars working exclusively in the English language.”
Raj Kannappan ’13, who studies Bahasa Indonesia, said that the government should be promoting the study of these languages instead of discouraging it.
“A lot of people come here to study these languages because they aren’t offered in many colleges,” Kannappan said.
Irene Vrinte grad, who is also studying Bahasa Indonesia, said that while the critical language programs seem very small, the cuts should be viewed from a broader perspective.
“In an increasingly interconnected world and at a leading institution like Cornell, cutting funding for these languages would be devastating,” Vrinte said.
Fred Logevall, director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, expressed “extreme concern” about the situation and its global implications.
“Cornell seeks to produce graduates who have cross-cultural understanding and who are really prepared for the internationally-oriented careers that many of them will have after they leave here,” Logevall said. “Foreign language training has to be a key part of that endeavor.”