February 7, 2012

Eleven Language Programs Face Uncertain Future

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Nearly a year after the Department of Education slashed funding for “critical language” programs, University administrators say they have not determined how to support the 11 departments affected by the cuts and warn that additional, upcoming DOE cuts could endanger additional language programs.

After the DOE cut 40 percent of funding for “critical languages” in 2011, Provost Kent Fuchs decided to provide 90 percent of the funding that was cut by the DOE, allowing these languages to be taught for one more year. Critical language programs offer students instruction in lesser-known languages that hold national importance, like Khmer and Burmese.

The additional funding was not a long-term solution, Fuchs told The Sun in 2011.

With the provost’s decision set to expire this year, there is a possibility the cuts from the DOE could be worse, according to Senior Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Prof. Walter Cohen, comparative literature.  A decision has not been made regarding which languages will be cut for the next budget cycle, Cohen said.

Prof. Tamara Loos, director of the Southeast Asia Program, said that it is unlikely that the DOE will refund these programs.

“We’re facing the potential of similar cuts for next year,” Loos said.

According to Heike Michelsen, director of programming for the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, the University needs to consider the effects of the budget cuts and potential future cuts.

“The Einaudi Center is very concerned about the languages. It’s not just the 11 Asian [languages], but many more less commonly taught languages that are ‘endangered,’” Michelsen said. “It’s not only students, but also faculty that are affected.”

Michelsen that added Cornell needs a more “systematic approach” for preserving its critical languages. She emphasized the importance of including languages in discussions about the future of Cornell.

“I’m hoping that languages are included in the discussion,” Michelsen said.

Dick Feldman, director of the University’s Language Resource Center, said additional budget cuts could hurt Cornell.

“It seems as if the reputation of Cornell as a place of language learning is threatened by these cutbacks,” Feldman said.

However, some administrators disagreed with the notion that future budget cuts would be devastating.

According to Peter Lepage, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, budget cuts will not be as painful as expected.

“[Budget cuts] won’t necessarily have a gigantic impact on Cornell but I really like the depth, I like having the options, so we’re exploring whether there are some other models that we can come up with for these less commonly taught languages,” Lepage said.

However, many languages that would otherwise be cut due to budget shortfalls will continue to be taught thanks to an agreement between Cornell and two other universities.

According to Cohen, Cornell, Columbia and Yale will enter into a distance learning consortium, where students from different universities take courses together through video conferencing, for languages starting next fall.

For the fall of 2012, Yale will offer Modern Greek and Dutch, and Columbia will offer Romanian. Cornell will offer Bengali and Yoruba. Cornell will also collaborate with Yale for advanced Indonesian, Cohen said. Under a preliminary agreement, the University began offering Dutch through Yale last fall.

Lepage said that bringing students together from different universities could help departments with limited enrollment in these language programs.

“The obvious move for institutions is trying to pool students, because it’s hard to have a financial model that only supports a handful of students taking them … so you’ve got to figure out how to attack that aspect of it,” Lepage said. “I don’t know if that’ll solve the immediate problem — this is still new territory, but I suspect it’ll be more and more a part of the future.”

According to Loos, Cornell teaches more Southeast Asian languages than any other university in the nation. Cohen said that these languages were taught out of a “national obligation,” because very few institutions offer them.

“I’m hoping to keep them all, but there’s less money in the system,” Cohen said.

Lepage said distance learning could preserve the instruction of certain languages despite budget cuts.

“Is it as good as having your own instructor? Maybe not, but is it better than not having them at all? … Yes,” Lepage said.

Cohen touted the possibilities of using distance learning to pool the resources of many different universities.

“It will be the way of having a large portfolio that supports undergraduate needs and graduate and professional research,” Cohen said, noting that the University has nearly restored the number of languages offered to the level before the financial crisis. “As of next year, we will have dropped Swedish and Quechua and gained Romanian, so we’re almost there.”

Michelsen also noted that it is difficult to reestablish a program.

“Once you cut a language program, it’s very difficult to build it back up,” Michelsen said.

Cohen said that distance learning is a cost-effective way to offer courses, noting that an on-campus course costs three times more than a distance learning course. However, Cohen also said that distance learning is not the only solution to budget cuts.

“We’re not out of the woods on that issue,” Cohen said.

Cohen said he was optimistic about distance learning and what it can offer to students.

“It is my hope and expectation that down the road we will see growth in the number of languages and the number of advanced opportunities,” Cohen said. “It’s a much more positive picture than I’ve been able to give.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Senior Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Prof. Walter Cohen, comparative literature, as saying the University has almost restored the number of languages offered to the level before cuts from the Department of Education. In fact, Cohen was referring to cuts to languages prompted by the financial crisis.

Original Author: Caroline Flax