Closures and Mergers: The Theory and Practice of Restructuring Humanities Programs in the American Academy

At institutions large and small, public or private, the rhetoric and reality of cuts, mergers, and closures have become familiar to anyone working in humanities disciplines, with the fields of classical and modern languages coming under particularly intense scrutiny in recent years. As members of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Responsibility in 2013 debated possible topics for the 2014 sessions to be sponsored at the annual convention, the reality of department and program closures and mergers quickly rose to the surface as one that deserved as broadly based a discussion as possible. The session served to exchange information about what had become a common denominator across institutional contexts: retrenchment. This group of papers expands on the session content so that MLA members might avail themselves of a set of case studies and overall considerations as they assess conditions on their own campuses.The five contributors to this discussion offer a full range of reactions to closures and mergers along with advice to those who wish to become proactive by preparing themselves with the most relevant data and the most incisive ways of querying them. In today’s data-driven institutional context, the essay by Christopher Newfield (University of California, Santa Barbara) offers a probing analysis of the flawed calculations and lack of transparency that led to closure of language and literature programs at the State University of New York, Albany, as well as the demise of the philosophy department at England’s Middlesex University, two of the most striking cases of program closures in the last few years. Newfield’s longitudinal experience with faculty governance, faculty-administration interaction, and the role of the AAUP provides an important road map for the historical perspective as well as tools for addressing present realities and framing the future. In particular, Newfield has examined how administrators often appropriate funds earned by humanities programs through enrollment, reassigning them to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. Brett Bowles (Indiana University, formerly of the State University of New York, Albany) experienced firsthand the grueling closure of the French PhD program at Albany that forced him to seek employment elsewhere. He documents one of the most egregious examples of administrative abuse and disregard for consultation, as well as the long-term effects associated with the dismantling of healthy programs that were meeting their enrollment burden and fulfilling the much-touted international mission of the university. Bowles’s essay ends on a positive note, citing how such blatant disregard not only for the lives and livelihood of faculty members and students but also of the goals of the university has come full circle with a complete replacement of the administrators who initially embarked on their misguided restructuring. Though the consequences for Albany were devastating, the case has reverberated throughout the academy, serving as a cautionary tale to those who might seek a haphazard solution to closure and merger pressures.Another well-known humanities restructuring is the one that merged seven previously independent departments and programs into the School of International Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Mary Wildner-Bassett, dean of the College of Humanities at the university and the author of the next essay, introduces us to the decision-making process that guided this successful merger and the effective, albeit at times painful, choices that had to be made. Wildner-Bassett directly addresses the need for periodic renewal in departments to avoid stagnation and to ensure currency among faculty members, the curriculum, and students. She reminds us of the responsibility that comes with our professions to create the best and most productive learning environment for our students, and she provided the leadership for one university to thrive through hard times.Philip Lewis offers a thoughtful assessment from his position as vice president of the Mellon Foundation. He voices the foundation’s concern over some of the languages that have been the hardest hit, including German, Italian, and Russian, while weighing the value of monetary infusions to enable some programs to continue. Ultimately, though, he raises for our consideration an issue that is painfully familiar—the slow, piecemeal reduction in faculty positions that allows for a semblance of presence but in reality is nothing more than a strategy for administrations to avoid the uncomfortable accusation of destroying programs. While Lewis has no solutions to offer, his framing of the question is extremely useful, prompting us to examine resource allocation that is increasingly driven by enrollment patterns and student demand and to challenge our administrations to reinstate program quality and role in the academy as valuable metrics.The last paper in this cluster is by Sandi Cooper, professor of history at City University of New York (CUNY), Staten Island. Her more than five-decade career as an engaged faculty and union member who has followed the evolution of CUNY from an entity that has grown from four colleges to twenty and that now serves 274,000 students from every sector of New York City has given her insight into the current, highly controversial restructuring of the humanities and the social sciences known as Pathways. As Cooper has clearly stated in her contribution, no one questioned the need to reorganize general education at CUNY. What she deplores is how it was done and the end result, which has had dire consequences for foreign languages, literature, history, and political science, to name only a few affected disciplines. The top-down program cuts exhibited a callous disregard for principles of shared governance, removing faculty voices from decision making over curricular matters. The example of CUNY, the largest public university system in the country, and the endorsements from the heads of several other state university systems do not bode well for the humanities, which are not even mentioned in CUNY Chancellor J. B. Millikan’s vision for a “more global, more digital, more STEM-focused City University of New York” (Chancellor’s Vision).

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s 6 February 2015 proposal to replace the following principle in the University of Wisconsin mission statement, “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth,” with language that defines the purpose as that of supplying “the state’s workforce needs,” is worrisome at best, not to mention the proposed removal as well of the goals “to educate people and improve the human condition” and “serve and stimulate society” (Strauss). Suffice it to say that what Walker sought to cut is the humanities language that has defined the purpose of universities in mission statements from coast to coast. Despite his subsequent backpedaling, his proposed statements conflating a university with a trade school should give us all pause. We need to wonder why teachers are given such short shrift in these workforce discussions. Is the goal to also trim language and literature from high schools? Such questions would have sounded far-fetched twenty-five years ago, but today, with the inexorable cutting and reductions that are taking place in languages and literature programs and their inevitable impact on the future of teachers in those disciplines, they are pressing.

We hope that the readership of Profession will take from these essays a sense of the need to be aware of the many iterations of change affecting our discipline, the knowledge required to address them in the best way possible, and an understanding that budget decisions cutting, shrinking, or merging programs are curricular matters that demand faculty engagement.

Works Cited

Chancellor’s Vision for the University. City U of New York, 30 Nov. 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2015. <>.

Strauss, Valerie. “How Gov. Walker Tried to Quietly Change the Mission of the University of Wisconsin.” Washington Post. Washington Post, 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Aug. 2015. <>.

Clorinda Donato is the George L. Graziadio Chair of Italian Studies and professor of French and Italian at California State University, Long Beach. Susan C. Anderson is senior vice provost of Academic Affairs and professor of German in the Department of German and Scandinavian at the University of Oregon. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.

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