St. Cloud State University has announced budget cuts in various departments, including the languages department, as a means to balance the budget. The university plans to cut $10 million out of its $235 million budget, President Earl H. Potter III said in an interview.
Cutting departments can’t be an easy task, especially when it affects the livelihood of so many individuals and limits their opportunities for the future. With that powerful idea in mind, it’s important to look carefully at which departments are being cut and how much value that department brings to the university.
Colleges and universities nationwide are facing this issue for a number of reasons. This past February, the Concordia College administration announced their decision to cut language programs to balance their budget, according to a Star Tribune article.
At Concordia, a college that has languages engrained into its campus, took heat from students, staff and alumni, because of the decision to reduce the department. The article stated there were student-led protests over the language cuts.
Like St. Cloud State, the college offered French and German, among other language programs, but has felt the pressure to cut the languages from the curriculum.
Both Concordia and St. Cloud State seem to have populations of students who are frustrated about the cuts. For some, they have to rearrange their lives, for others, they simply have to find a new route altogether.
In terms of language and culture education, these programs are engraved—sometimes literally—into the universities’ mission.
Concordia College’s mission statement reads: “The purpose of Concordia College is to influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian Life.”
Interestingly, Concordia College’s Student Government Association President was quoted in the article saying, “How can we influence the affairs of the world… when the entire world doesn’t speak English?”
St. Cloud State shares in some of Concordia’s mission with one of the four learning commitments being, “Global and cultural understanding,” and the Husky Compact includes “Engage as a member of a diverse and multicultural world.” It also has “Communicate effectively” listed.
The university’s vision states, “Our graduates are well-prepared to act as responsible global citizens and professionals who remain actively connected with our university.”
I can’t help but ask how students can become true global citizens if languages are being cut?
I have a minor in German. Through my languages courses, I’ve been able to become closer with the German culture, specifically. My cultural understanding hasn’t been limited to German culture, though. In fact, I’d say it extends much further.
Isolde Mueller, a German professor at St. Cloud State, has put a heavy emphasis on current events and cultural understanding and tolerance in her classes. Much of that has been centralized around the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Europe, which again, extends much further than just Germany and German culture. In these German classes, I’ve had opportunities to grow and learn in ways that I would’ve never imagined.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve found it so admirable when people are able to speak multiple languages. I think that notion in itself is incredibly powerful. However, being able to fluently communicate in more than one language has more benefits than just being admirable.
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), people who learn more than one language have an edge when it comes to learning and applying information. The association lists that people who learn more than one language often have an easier time coming up with solutions to problems, they have good listening skills and an easier time connecting with others.
Last year, I came to this point where I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to take a language or not, because I wasn’t sure how directly it would help me in finding a job. I wasn’t sure it’d be relevant or help me in the slightest after graduation.
While looking for jobs after graduation this year, I’ve heard professors, employers, and others talk about the importance of being able to think critically, find solutions and so on when entering the workforce. Time and time again, this has been reiterated.
The funny part about learning another language is that it often helps you understand your native language better, and like the ASHA reported, it puts you in a position where you need to think differently, giving you a different perspective on almost everything.
An ASHA survey found that the number of people over the age of 5 who are bilingual will increase, with more 21 percent of people over the age of 5 being able to speak more than one language now.
The United States is becoming increasingly more diverse as people from all over the world come looking for opportunities of all kinds, bringing their culture and their languages with them. St. Cloud sees international students from all over the world land on campus, along with communities of various backgrounds calling this town their home.
The Census Bureau compiled data from the 2009 to 2013 American Community Survey that shows there are at least 350 different languages spoken in the United States.
Naturally, some languages are spoken more than others. But, more and more the United States, as well as other countries in the world, are seeing shifts and changes in demographic. One of the most significant ways to connect cultures and people is language. Yet, the number of languages taught on campus decreases.
I think by limiting the number of languages programs could diminish the readiness of global citizenship upon graduation, and I think it could create a greater disconnect between cultures.
For students who aren’t able to study abroad or take vacations to distant countries, finding a connection to other cultures isn’t made easy.
St. Cloud State is commendable when it comes to the numerous cultural student organizations on campus that hold events to share their heritage and culture with the community. But, it’s often that there are only a few events held per semester, per organization. And these events last one night.
Courses on diversity, global studies, and other related subjects, play a significant role in a liberal arts education too, but even these classes are missing an important piece when it comes to building a connection between cultures that learning a language is able to do.
A survey prepared last spring by Ann Finan, a sociology professor at St. Cloud State, shows that 47.5 percent of SCSU students were “very interested (24.5%)” and “somewhat interested (43%)” in taking a beginning-level language class that focused on a professional field.
And, despite the university experiencing declines in enrollment, the languages department has remained fairly stable—seeing a slight increase in enrollment from 2013 to 2014.
According to institution data, the College of Liberal Arts has seen declines in nearly every department. In recent years, the only departments that saw an increase in major declarations was the communications department, the psychology department and the languages department.
But, the languages department remains in what Lisa Loftis, the chair of the department, calls the “box of doom.”
Loftis said that the reductions really came to their attention this past fall. Last year, she said the department was under review, as were others campus wide. But, what came next was unexpected.
Loftis said they were handed an outline that contained the programs under the College of Liberal Arts. The draft split programs up by those that were “strong” and those labeled under “divestment.”
“We were in what we called the ‘box of doom,’” she said.
She burst into tears after the meeting. Then, she had to deliver the news to the faculty in the department. Reactions varied, she said, because some people expected it, while others didn’t.
Some faculty took early retirement agreements that were offered to faculty who were 55 years old or older, whereas others began phased retirement agreements. This left the department with one faculty member to teach French, Masha Mikolchak, who is actually based in the English department. Mikolchak has taught English, Russian, French and more.
This process also consolidated classes, which put more students in fewer classrooms, and limited the number of faculty members. The workload increased and some faculty members were spread thin, Loftis said. For the programs that are getting phased out, faculty members are to work with students on a more individual basis until they’ve made their way through as one of the last in the program.
Initially, Loftis said the German majors and minor were going, but Isolde Mueller made a proposal to professionalize the minor. This would offer German classes that were geared around the STEM field, helping students focus on getting a job. With this proposal, the German minor was spared.
Programs in the “divestment” box:
- English BES English Studies
- BA French
- BS French Teaching
- BES French
- BA German
- BS German Teaching
- BES German
- BA Music (Jazz)
- BES Music
- BM Music (Piano Pedagogy)
- BA Sociology
- BES Spanish
- BES Women’s Studies
- AFST-Minor (BES)
- EAST-Minor (BES)
- ENGL-Minor (BES-English studies)
- ENGL-Minor (BES-Creative writing)
- ETHS-Minor (BES-Ethnic studies)
- ETHS-Minor (BES-African American studies)
- ETHS-Minor (BES-American Indian studies)
- ETHS-Minor (BES-Asian Pacific American studies)
- ETHS-Minor (BES-Chicano/a studies)
- FREN-Minor (BES)
- GER-Minor (BES)
- PHIL-Minor (BA-Math majors)
- PYS-Minor (BES)
- REL-Minor (BES)
- SPAN-Minor (BES)
“What was kind of disappointing is that I had hoped that there would be more support from outside the department,” Loftis said, adding that some people simply don’t see the benefits learning a language has for students.
“It has tremendous cognitive benefit,” she said. “There are social benefits too, and it gives you skills that not every major will.”
Learning a language takes time and can be difficult at points. Loftis said this could be why there is a disconnection between other departments because there isn’t a strong sense of what goes into learning a language.
“People either don’t know that, or they don’t care,” she said. “They’re ever narrowing the choices that students have.”
It can’t be easy cutting programs, and not all programs are being affected. Budget cuts are happening to balance the budget, President Potter explained. Nearly 200 academic programs will continue, along with graduate programs. Some of those will continue to thrive and bring recognition to the university.
“It surprises me that that’s not where our focus is,” Potter said.
Potter said, “One of the things that people need to remember is that as we cut budgets and make changes, we have over a $235 million budget, and we’ve cut $10 million out of our budget this year. That is a tiny fraction out of our budget.”
Of the $10 million that’s been cut from the budget, $3 million is going back to the university’s reserves. There was a point the university needed to draw on its reserves, which is set at 20 percent of the total budget. The remaining $7 million is a structural deficit that St. Cloud State is working to close, Potter said.
“So, what will St. Cloud look like going forward?” Potter said. “Pretty much like it looks right now.”
Potter explained that language programs in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) are under pressure, as they are nationwide.
“We don’t have the demand among our student body for those things,” he said. “We’ll continue to look at the demand and offer courses based on demand.”
Potter said that Provost of Academic Affairs Ashish Vaidya is finding other ways to offer languages, explaining that there are shared programs between colleges, preparation for studying abroad and others ways to offer the programs. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to demand.
“We cannot afford to hire tenure-track faculty to teach languages with minimal demand,” Potter said. “If you can offer a program that meets student needs and pays for itself, then we can do that.”
The university hires full-time, tenure-track faculty for the languages department, which is the way the union contracts are set, Potter explained. “That is a model that is too expensive to have for a broader range of languages.”
Potter seems to recognize the loss of the departments. He studied German. He’s traveled all over the world, having stepped foot on each continent.
“I’ve benefited from the study of the culture,” he said, even though it’s “not necessary” for him to use his German while he’s visiting the country.
“Now, would it deepen and be a plus?” he said. “Of course, but does it undermine the commitment and cause people to lose touch with the culture? No.”
Potter said that St. Cloud State is “unusual” as a university, because of the first-year programs that teach students about different cultures and focus on diversity, along with the partnerships with universities around the world. “We’ve made a strong commitment to supporting the sustainability of cultural identity,” he said.
As it is stated in the university’s mission statement, Potter said the programs offered at St. Cloud State will reflect the demand in the workforce.
The cuts and the need to balance the budget, among other aspects, are experiences that state universities nationwide are experiencing. Potter meets with presidents from state universities regularly. What it’s come down to is that state legislatures have divested from higher education, he said.
“They are all in the same boat we are,” he said. The demand for a diverse faculty and technology updates have come on faster than universities’ budgets have been able to take on, Potter explained. “This is not something we have done wrong, this is going on in the United States.”
And again, it can’t be easy to cut academic programs, especially when it seems like the odds are against higher education. But, I think it’s absolutely crucial to keep a strong liberal arts education alive and well at the university level. It seems the demand for STEM-based jobs has continued to rise rapidly, but without professionals who are able to communicate effectively and connect people around the world—not to mention professionals in numerous other non-STEM fields—how far can we really go?
It’s absolutely important to prepare students for what the workforce will be like, but it’s also important to remember that we’re humans first. Each individual retains a cultural identity and communicates in some form. By limiting those teachings, I think it could limit everything else that goes on.
For St. Cloud State specifically, I think it would be incredibly beneficial to look at the changing demographic in the area and in Minnesota and see which languages are most prevalent. It would help students connect with others in their communities to learn the languages.
Not only would this help build a connection between people, but it would give learning a language a more practical angle, similar to Isolde Mueller’s proposal of professionalizing the German minor.
All in all, I think there are many ways to incentivize learning a language to engage students, but more importantly, I think it’s necessary for students to learn another language for all of the benefits that come along with it. At the end of the day, I hope that the program can thrive again and St. Cloud State is able to retain its language programs.
This article was originally published in the University Chronicle.