The reports were ominous.
Louisiana State University announced it was dropping four languages, ending two language majors and laying off 14 foreign-language instructors beginning this month. Last May the University of Maine's president recommended suspending academic majors in Latin and German. But the biggest news was at The State University of New York at Albany where it was announced in October that they were ending all admissions in French, Russian and Italian — along with programs in Classics and Theater.
Was this the canary in the humanities mine? Would Utah's language programs be next?
Scott Sprenger, associate dean in BYU's college of humanities and a professor of French, wrote a guest post recently on The Chronicle of Higher Education's website, chronicle.com, about how many are seeing SUNY at Albany's cuts as proof of a crisis in the humanities. For example, Stanley Fish wrote an article in the New York Times with the headline "The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives." Sprenger, on the other hand, was surprised to discover through his research that people have been bemoaning the decline of humanities programs for about 100 years.
So if there is a crisis, it is a long crisis.
A colleague of Sprenger's at BYU, Ray T. Clifford, director of BYU's Center for Language Studies and an associate dean in the college of humanities said: "These things come in waves, they come in cycles, driven by the economy. Then choices have to be made."
When choices are made, some administrators measure a college degree strictly by, as Sprenger wrote, "its immediate market value."
The internationally-minded have long recognized the need for language instruction. Sprenger said that language is a key to understanding other cultures. Lew Cramer, president and CEO of World Trade Center Utah said that having language training is important for today's economy: "I just quote German poet Goethe: 'He who speaks only one language sees the world with only one eye.' In today's world we need all the eyes we can possibly have."
Ironically, even as some universities are cutting languages, students nationwide are showing more interest in langages — apparently finding the market relevance on their own. The number of people studying languages other than English reached a new high in 2009, according to the Modern Language Association (MLA). The numbers of enrollments nationwide are up 6.6 percent since 2006 from 1,577,810 enrollments to 1,682,627.
Meanwhile, administrators continue to look at the humanities in general and languages in particular as places where the pain of budget cuts can implemented.
"It's not just languages," Sprenger said in an interview with the Deseret News. Other departments across the country are feeling the economic stress. The humanities are vulnerable in general because they are not tied directly to specific careers. "But languages are an easy target because some people do not think they have practical value."
Fernando Rubio, co-chair of the University of Utah's department of languages and literature and a professor of Spanish, thinks Spanish language departments shouldn't isolate themselves from the struggles that may be facing other languages in the current economy. "A lot of Spanish language faculty are saying 'That's never going to happen to us,'" Rubio said, "but we need to react and change and adapt. … We need to work together and find ways to make what we do relevant."
Rubio said the cuts at SUNY at Albany were based purely on enrollment figures. But even though the hard economy has hit Utah, such draconian cuts have not appeared in the state.
"At the U we are really exactly the opposite," Rubio said. "We are seeing across the board increases."
Rubio said the U just hired faculty for Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese and Spanish. They are currently hiring in Hebrew and South Asian languages and plan on hiring faculty for Turkish, Arabic and Spanish. The U is adding a minor in Italian and is the process of adding a minor in Portuguese next fall.
Sprenger said BYU is also doing quite well. The language departments have experienced a hiring freeze like other departments at the BYU, but "the language programs are very healthy."
Part of this foreign language health comes from the number of Utahns who go abroad — many on Mormon missions — and learn languages.
"Utah is a different place for languages," Rubio said. "We put a lot of emphasis on languages."
Part of that emphasis on language is centering more and more on Arabic and Chinese — seen by some as being more practical in the future economy. Since 1980, the number of enrollments in Utah in higher-education Chinese classes has jumped 403 percent and in Arabic classes has jumped 337 percent. The numbers of Arabic class enrollments in 2009 was 415 and for Chinese (including Mandarin) was 1,702. But Spanish is still king in Utah, with 2009 enrollment of 8,527. These figures come from the MLA's online Language Enrollment Database at www.mla.org.
But there are also strong reasons to study European languages like French and German, according to Johanna Watzinger-Tharp, associate dean of the college of humanities and an associate professor of linguistics and an associate professor of languages and literature at the U.
"For speakers of English, some languages are more accessible than others," Watzinger-Tharp said. People may feel culturally closer to Europe because their ancestors came from there. Or they might recognize the European Union's huge economy. Or it might be an interest in some sciences. Watzinger-Tharp doesn't think it has to be an either-or game. A student can choose a language in elementary school, for example, and then add another language later in college. "Adding a language at the expense of others is unwise," Watzinger-Tharp said. "In ten years it could change.
But some administrators still might look to cut language classes when faced with smaller budgets. Rubio said the U's language department recognized the potential dangers — even though the U's administration has been supportive — and began working on modifying the curriculum to make it more relevant by emphasizing skills for today's marketplace. They also strengthened collaborative ties with other centers at the U that rely on languages such as the Asia Center, the Middle East Center, the Latin American Studies program and the International Studies program.
So far it has worked well.
"Budget cuts affected everyone," Rubio said, "but somehow we managed to become even stronger."