Case Study / Higher Ed

From Crisis to Opportunities: How One College of Humanities Survived and Thrived from 2008 to 2014

Mary Wildner-Bassett

As we have seen so often in Profession or the Chronicle of Higher Education, and many similar publications concerning American and global postsecondary institutions and their programs, the state of the humanities in general is a topic for debate and commentary. Some might even say that the fields of humanities are under siege or, as Christopher Panza and Richard Schur begin in a Chronicle article, are to be compared with “the sky is falling” attitude from the Chicken Little story. But those authors go on to state, “Interestingly, although programs and tenure-track lines may in fact be under stress, actual data do not support the overall crisis narrative.” I couldn’t agree more. We are not in a crisis, there is no antihumanities conspiracy, and we in the humanities fields, especially in languages, literatures, and cultures, have a core place at the heart of what matters at the American university.This statement could be read with surprise by those who know me as author and the context from which I write. I took on the deanship of the College of Humanities at the University of Arizona about thirty minutes before the financial crisis hit our state and institution in 2008, and we saw some of the deepest cuts of any public R1 university in the country. During that time, my wonderful team in the dean’s office were in the unenviable position of being challenged (read “put under enormous pressures”) to accomplish huge cuts to our permanent budgets. Those cuts were differentially applied—the largest were demanded from fine arts, social sciences, and humanities. We survived and are still a strong college at a strong university, having weathered difficulties that included consolidation, the elimination of one PhD program, opportunistic more than strategic cuts, the resulting larger classes and workloads, and the anguish that comes with enormous change.

What Did We Do?

Given the demand for cuts and concomitant threats of closure, we made the decision to form the School of International Languages, Literatures, and Cultures (SILLC) from seven previously independent departments and programs. The largest language department, Spanish and Portuguese, remained separate from that school. All departments and programs retained their heads, their individual identities, and their budget lines after the cuts, whether they were included in SILLC or remained independent. Business and support staff functions for SILLC departments and programs were merged into a central team. A director for the school was hired. His tasks were to broaden the reach and collaborations of all units and work with the business team to advance collaborative initiatives and recruitment efforts. Under his excellent leadership and the unit heads’ collaborations and hard work, the number of majors in all units has grown substantially and in some cases quadrupled. Spanish and Portuguese, collaborating and making identical efforts, has continued to flourish and grow. Business and support functions of SILLC and Spanish and Portuguese are considered a model at our university, and the recruitment efforts for the college have become a model for many other universities.1

We moved from a place where our language and culture units, as separate and relatively small departments or programs, were giving the impression to those outside the college, especially in upper administration, that they “. . . were splintered, lacking a powerful unifying message or brand. [We were able to form and] articulate that larger brand, [so] we could go from defense to offense, changing and taking charge of the narrative on our campus [and beyond] by displaying why the humanities mattered” (Panza and Schur).

Spanish and Portuguese—Separate and Strong

We often receive, even six years after the reorganization, questions about the separate status of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. A brief history is in order here. In the 1970s and before, our university had a large Department of Romance Languages, consisting of French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese languages, literatures, and cultures. As interest and student numbers grew, it became an increasing challenge for the growing department to have a cohesive and unifying brand and message. There were also pockets of discontent among faculty members. The solution was reached in 1981 to divide the department in two: Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian. The Department of Spanish and Portuguese today has, in Spanish, among the highest undergraduate enrollments in the country and ranks in the top ten universities in the number of PhD students in Spanish; in Portuguese enrollments it is among the top five nationally. The cohesion of the department is remarkable. Portuguese classes are required of undergraduate and graduate students with Spanish or Latin America majors. The two languages and cultures are more tightly yoked since Latin American studies became a strategic priority, because Title VI and NDE funding sources require that Portuguese be included in Latin American studies. For these historical and practical reasons, because of its sheer size in terms of faculty members and students, and because this department is under strong and forward-looking leadership, it was closely affiliated but retained independence when the other language, literature, and culture units were consolidated into the SILLC.

What Was the Most Difficult?

One aspect of the challenges (read “enormous pressures”) we faced was that several programs were on a preliminary plan for elimination by the provost of the university in 2008–09. Forming SILLC was one response, both for recruitment, which has been so successful, and for the protection of the smaller units. Another strategy was to have straightforward discussions with leadership and senior faculty members of those programs that were identified as endangered. With one exception, all the programs responded by outlining strategies and tactical approaches to raise their profile and numbers and to do the infamous “more with less.” The exception was a group whose PhD program had been languishing for several years and whose numbers of graduates were consistently below our Board of Regents’ minimum for viable programs. This group unfortunately was not able to help me protect them: they did not offer creative suggestions for ways to change the PhD, its potential graduation rate, or the pool of candidates. At several meetings they said that they did not feel that there was anything wrong, that the university, upper administration, and dean should simply leave them alone and recognize their value as a traditional PhD program. Because that recognition was ungrounded, I closed the PhD program. No positions were lost or eliminated, though some hiring was delayed for several years. There are still hard feelings among some faculty members for these steps—understandably so. However, the MA and undergraduate programs have grown substantially, and creative new emphases are now being developed. Those innovations promise to maintain and expand the strengths of the remaining programs in the department. Some colleagues still long for the good old days and the good old PhD program, but most in the unit have changed their way of thinking and now work together and in harmony with the larger goals of the college and the university.

We celebrate this change of thinking, the willingness to join forces and to accept the learning curve it has taken to grow strong. Strategic planning, public relations, and even branding and marketing, we now understand, are not detrimental to the humanities or to language, literature, and culture departments in these times. Siege, calamity, and crisis are no longer part of our communal vocabularies, in any of our languages. Rather, we know and remind ourselves of the opportunities we continue to create, confident that our languages, literatures, and culture units—in scholarship, teaching, and community engagement—are at the heart of what matters.

Note

  1. My special thanks and recognition go to all heads and directors in the College of Humanities, especially to the efforts of Alain-Philippe Durand, director of SILLC, and Malcolm Compitello, head of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Works Cited

Panza, Christopher, and Richard Schur. “To Save the Humanities, Change the Narrative.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicle of Higher Educ., 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.

Mary Wildner-Bassett is dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Arizona, Tucson.

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Published 16 December 2015

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