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From the Editor

The World within Reach?

Reprinted from the Winter 2010 MLA Newsletter

In a stunning move announced on 1 October, George M. Philip, president of the University at Albany, has decided to eliminate major, minor, and graduate programs in French, Italian, Russian, and the classics (the German program was already cut), along with theater. As a Romance language faculty member on leave from the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, I know the state system well; I am painfully aware of what happens when the legislature continues to reduce its commitment to the university system and leaves institutions struggling to stay afloat. Cutbacks of all kinds are inevitable in this environment, but Albany plans astoundingly draconian measures: no languages except Spanish will be taught beyond the early semesters, and ten tenure-line faculty members will be let go.1

Throughout my career, I have been astonished that the advanced study of languages is not universally valued in the American educational system.2 In this, we are terribly out of sync with the rest of the world, where university preparation programs feature in-depth study of one or more languages. Before students enter the portals of higher education, they should have a solid basis for the pursuit of advanced language learning, which is what college can provide them. It is absurd to give students access to introductory and intermediate sequences in French (available in virtually all the high schools that send students to Albany) but not to advanced courses on linguistics, literature, culture, and media taught in French. Students who peek into the door of language yet cannot go further are being denied a key component of a university education.

When financial exigencies hit, decisions to cut services and programs (and not just academic ones) must be made. If, however, the main criterion for assessing the value of an area of learning is the number of majors or minors, then head counts or popularity contests among disciplines prevail. That metric (misguided as it is) is more complicated than it looks. Our research shows that language majors are often identified as second concentrations, but Albany does not report them.3 Quite a few international studies and business majors declare a second major in a language. Many students also choose to minor in a language, especially after a period of study abroad, and courses can show up as transfer credits. The “number of majors” metric distracts us from the real question: What is the purpose of a university (especially one that calls itself a research institution) if not to cultivate the core disciplines of a liberal arts education? If we value the advanced study of languages as central to the mission of a liberal arts curriculum, then we must ensure that programs have adequate resources, connect well to other elements of liberal learning, and provide students with the essential experiences for translingual and transnational competence to develop. (See the Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages report “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World” for details.)

Here’s the really sad part: it seems that Albany was well on track to achieve some important goals with respect to cross-cultural study. The 2010 Middle States Commission on Higher Education report notes that “[t]he University has given careful attention to developing . . . an appreciation for diversity in its many dimensions, including global citizenship. . . . The best demonstration of the university’s commitment is their choice to add to the SUNY General Education requirement additional rubrics of Global and Cross-Cultural Studies and U.S. Pluralism and Diversity, and to require a second semester of a foreign language . . .” (19). It simply makes no sense to add a second required semester of language while taking away the opportunity to explore all except one of the most commonly taught languages at the minor or major level. Such a move makes the university into a high school when it comes to a key component of the humanities. What also makes no sense is to deprive other humanities programs of the expertise that specialists in literature, linguistics, and culture can bring. To its credit, the English department at Albany offers a PhD concentration in cultural, transcultural, and global studies that examines the effects of globalization, cross-cultural exchange, class relations, and cultural identity on discourse. The English PhD program also requires students to demonstrate either reading competence in two languages other than English or advanced competence in one language (by taking a graduate course in that language or four years of undergraduate study). How will students take a graduate course conducted in another language if they don’t choose to study Spanish? And how are faculty members in English (many of whom have transcultural expertise) going to function without the benefit of colleagues with comparable scholarly expertise in French, German, Italian, Russian, Latin, and Greek?4

The MLA has been assisting its members in making the case for strong language programs. The Association of Departments of Foreign Languages has prepared a tool kit for departments facing closures, and we regularly communicate with campus administrators who are contemplating reductions to language programs. Our enrollment surveys (the next one will be released on 8 December) document the persistent strength of languages in institutions of higher education in the United States, and the MLA Language Map shows where languages other than English are spoken in the home. We also work with department chairs at our summer seminars and at the annual convention to share strategies, document trends, promote best practices, and reenvision the undergraduate major. Beyond the association’s communal efforts, I believe it is the responsibility of every faculty member in English as well as in other languages to make the case for the advanced study of languages. We must also call out university presidents who, by failing to explain the value of the advanced study of languages and literatures to the public, have been derelict in their duty. Until Americans see learning languages as an indispensable enterprise, we do have to argue, continuously and vigorously, for the centrality of this area of study.

“Educationally and culturally, the University at Albany-SUNY puts ‘The World Within Reach,’” the institution proudly proclaims at its Web site. Yet if the president’s plans go unchallenged, one of the four flagship research universities of New York State is about to put a good part of the world out of the reach of its students by denying them advanced learning in all languages except Spanish. In lamenting the cuts, the administration paradoxically declares the impossible: that “[t]he University at Albany fully values the critically important role the Humanities play in the intellectual life of a university community” (“UAlbany Budget Updates”). Let us hold all universities to this statement of values. If I have spent so much time discussing what is going on at one particular institution, it is because we have seen similar actions carried out or contemplated elsewhere—Louisiana State University; the University of Maine; the University of Nevada, Reno; Florida State University; and the University of Iowa, to name a few. I urge all MLA members to stand up for advanced study and research in languages other than English, without which the humanities truly are incomplete—and the mission of higher education is seriously compromised.

Rosemary G. Feal signature


Correction to the print edition: Although the University at Albany will teach no European languages except Spanish beyond the language acquisition stage at the undergraduate level, it will continue to offer three minors and two majors in Asian languages.

A version of this column appears in the 12 November 2010 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

1. Many prominent scholars have already commented on the Albany situation. Stanley Fish devoted a New York Times column to it, chiding Philip’s actions and concluding that it “is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.” Also debating the topic in the New York Times were Martha Nussbaum, Louis Menand, and others (“Do Colleges?”). Recent articles by Jack Chen, Roland Greene, and Joshua Landy are also important.

2. For a lucid treatment of the topic, see Catherine Porter’s 2009 Presidential Address.

3. The MLA report “Data on Second Majors in Language and Literature, 2001–08” presents the information on second majors that the US Department of Education collects as part of the Degree Completions component of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). From 2001 to 2008 the number of second majors that institutions reported averaged about 5% of the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded as first majors. In foreign languages, the figure is much larger, increasing from 28% of the number of first majors in 2001 to 36.8% in 2008. These data seriously understate the reality, however. Of the 2,378 degree-granting postsecondary institutions that reported awarding at least one bachelor’s degree on the 2008 IPEDS, only 1,056 provided any information about second majors. From a department’s viewpoint, students who earn bachelor’s degrees as second majors are no different from those who earn degrees as first majors. That no SUNY campus, including the University at Albany, reports data on second majors for any field of study means that conclusions about upper-division undergraduate study based on IPEDS degree completions data will be incomplete at best and in all likelihood especially distorted for foreign languages.

4. Anne E. McCall, dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and a professor of French at the University of Denver, makes an important point: “Many institutions are experiencing painful budgetary constrictions, and sometimes there is little choice but to eliminate academic programs. However, it would be a grievous mistake to say that nothing is lost in the process. Given a choice, I would much rather work with faculty to adapt courses in lesser-enrolled subjects than entirely deprive students of educational opportunities” (“Do Colleges?”).

Works Cited

“ADFL Tool Kit for Formulating Arguments in Defense of Departments Facing Closure of Language Programs.” Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. ADFL, 2009. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages. “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World.” Profession (2007): 234–45. Modern Language Association. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

Chen, Jack. “Stanley Fish and the Question of Earning One’s Keep.” Arcade. Arcade, 15 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

“Data on Second Majors in Language and Literature, 2001–08.” Modern Language Association. MLA, Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

“Do Colleges Need French Departments?” New York Times. New York Times, 17 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

Fish, Stanley. “The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives.” New York Times. New York Times, 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

Greene, Roland. “Self-Mutilation at Albany.” Arcade. Arcade, 6 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

Landy, Joshua. “SUNY Albany, Stanley Fish, and the Enemy Within.” Arcade. Arcade, 14 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

Middle States Commission on Higher Education. “Report to the Faculty, Administration, Trustees, and Students of the University at Albany.” Wikis@UAlbany. Wikis@UAlbany, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

Porter, Catherine. “Presidential Address: English Is Not Enough.” PMLA 125.3 (2010): 546–55. Print.

“UAlbany Budget Updates.” University at Albany. U at Albany, 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010. <>.
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Rosemary Feal
MLA Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal
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© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.