Case Study / Higher Ed

Lessons from the State University of New York, Albany: Program Elimination, Administrative Power, and Shared Governance

Brett Bowles

On 1 October 2010, the provost and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York, Albany (known locally as the University at Albany or UA), convened faculty members in French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theater to inform them of the decision to deactivate all degree programs in their fields (on the university policy for deactivation, see Program Deactivation). In practical terms, that euphemistic bit of administrative jargon meant the de facto termination through the indefinite suspension of new enrollments. In all, there were 25 full-time faculty members, 180 undergraduate majors, 285 minors, and 21 graduate students implicated.For those of us who experienced it firsthand, that initial meeting prompted not only shock and a feeling of betrayal but also a series of personal questions—Why were we being eliminated? Would our students be allowed to finish their degrees? Would we be fired? Could we somehow have prevented the deactivations?—that highlighted a nexus of systemic issues threatening the survival of the humanities in general, and language programs in particular, at many American universities. In retrospect, the evisceration of modern languages at Albany resulted from the convergence of genuine budgetary pressures and ineffective shared governance structures that afforded administrators who were hostile or indifferent to the humanities too much power at the expense of the faculty.

Making sense of the situation requires some institutional and statistical context. With a total enrollment of about 17,000 students (13,000 undergraduates and 4,000 graduate or professional students) and as one of SUNY’s four research centers (that is, comprehensive, PhD-granting campuses) alongside Buffalo, Binghamton, and Stony Brook, Albany might seem to occupy a privileged position in the SUNY system, which also includes a dozen four-year undergraduate campuses and more than two dozen community colleges. Yet in reality UA had long been undercapitalized, with a permanent endowment of less than $40 million, proportionally lower state funding than the other research centers since the early 1980s, and ever-declining allocations from the legislature in the midst of an ongoing state budget crisis. At cash-strapped UA, that meant prioritizing revenue-producing programs, especially the College of Business, the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and two social science departments in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (one of which was the dean’s home department) that had a strong record of securing external grants.

An important concurrent development was UA’s implementation of a strategic plan responding to a set of principles established by the SUNY chancellor: a modular conception of the SUNY system in which campuses would cultivate different areas of specialization, investment of resources in existing areas of strength, the facilitation of student transfers among campuses, and curricular revision to reduce overall time to degree. To this end, a task force of faculty members and administrators was created to review and revise the general education requirements, which the final report characterized as “overly prescriptive” and “impeding student progress” (Report).

In response to the task force’s recommendation to reduce the overall number of general education credits required in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, the foreign language requirement was diluted from two semesters or its equivalent (determined by high-school course work or a passing score on a state-authorized proficiency exam) to one semester. The Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures (LLC) protested strongly against the change, which set UA’s requirement below that of Buffalo (three semesters) and of Stony Brook and Binghamton (both two semesters), but the protest came after the fact, because the department did not have any representation on the task force, which had been convened by invitation of the provost.

The general education reform and language deactivations were symptomatic of a shift in educational priorities and made possible by the vacuum of administrative leadership caused by the tragic death of Kermit Hall, UA’s dynamic president, in August 2006. In recognition of Hall’s career as a distinguished legal historian, President Clinton had requested his participation in the final vetting of the Warren Report on the Kennedy Assassination. Characteristically, during his first year in office, Hall gave back $100,000 of his salary to create an honors college at UA.

Immediately after Hall’s passing, the SUNY chancellor installed an interim president whose credentials included MA and JD degrees, as well as a long, successful tenure as manager of the New York State teachers’ pension fund, but the person had no experience at all in the administration of higher education, university teaching, or scholarly research. After two failed presidential searches, in 2009 the SUNY chancellor and UA Board of Trustees regularized his appointment, which ended with retirement only in 2013. The same circumstances applied to the appointment of both the dean, who took office on an interim basis in 2007, then secured permanent appointment the following year, and to the provost, who took office on an interim basis in 2008, then was confirmed in 2009. Unfortunately, in each case UA policies afforded faculty members only a consultative role in the hiring process.

Most of us did not take much notice, either because we were too focused on teaching and research or because we felt a detached cynicism for administration in general. Yet this installation of key policy makers essentially by default should have concerned us, for their endorsement of SUNY central’s strategic priorities and top-down model of governance constituted the framework for eliminating our degree programs.

At UA, foreign languages were housed in two administrative units: the LLC and the Department of East Asian Studies (EAS). LLC offered degrees in Spanish (BA, MA, PhD), French (BA, MA, PhD), Italian (BA), and Russian (BA), as well as a minor in Portuguese and courses in Arabic, Dutch, German, and Latin. At the time of the deactivations, 47 undergraduate majors and 80 minors were in French, with 8 full-time faculty members; 17 undergraduate majors and 37 minors were in Italian, with 2 full-time faculty members; 26 undergraduate majors and 18 minors were in Russian, with 3 full-time faculty members. Classics, an interdisciplinary program composed of courses offered by faculty members with appointments in a variety of departments, had 29 undergraduate majors and 28 minors, and the language component was supported by one full-time Latin instructor housed in LLC.

Though the number of majors and minors was stable overall, declining and increasing from year to year in small increments, overall full-time equivalencies (FTEs) in these languages had fallen in preceding years, primarily because of a strong migration toward Spanish at the introductory and intermediate levels. Even so, in October 2010 there was a total of just under 1,900 students—14% of UA’s undergraduate population—enrolled in courses offered by the language programs that became deactivated. In sum, we considered our programs not only on solid ground quantitatively but also integral to the curriculum of Arts and Sciences and the university as a whole.

For its part, EAS offered BA degrees in East Asian studies, Chinese studies, and Japanese studies, with minors in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Overall enrollments, as well as the number of majors and minors, were trending firmly upward. The generic EAS major enrolled 44 students, with another 38 in Chinese and 61 in Japanese, and minors totaled 82. EAS included 8 full-time faculty members, 4 in Chinese, 3 in Japanese, and 1 in Korean. The growth of EAS and its comparatively favorable enrollment vis-à-vis LLC were largely the result of savvy curricular planning. Whereas the LLC programs required students to do course work entirely in the target languages (one course in English was allowed for the minor), EAS required that only half their courses for their majors be in the target language; the other half was composed of courses taught in English and on culture, history, or literature. That structure allowed EAS to effectively recruit American students who might otherwise have chosen a European language; to enroll a significant number of heritage learners and native speakers from abroad; perhaps most important, to insulate their program against the impact of the university’s diluted language requirement and the quantitative metrics that were eventually used to justify the elimination of LLC programs.

In the months preceding the deactivation announcement, there were university-wide town-hall-style meetings that addressed in general terms the ongoing budget crisis and the necessity of making cuts across the university, in addition to regular meetings between Arts and Sciences department chairs and the dean. Though the principle of eliminating degree programs was never formally approved, at a meeting held on 28 April 2010 the dean asked chairs to submit, on a confidential basis, individual recommendations to this effect. Some refused out of principle, but many complied. The results of the poll were never made public, but after the deactivations were announced, the dean would cite that meeting as proof that deactivated faculty members were properly consulted and not denied due process.

During the same period, the provost convened three ad hoc committees, known as budget advisory groups (BAGs) composed of faculty members already on various university governance committees and other individuals whose participation was personally solicited by the provost. No members of the deactivated language programs received invitations to participate in any of the BAGs. Of the 39 members who sat on the third BAG, the most influential of the groups, only 10 (26%) were from Arts and Sciences, which was by far the largest college of the university. Of those 10, only 3 were from humanities or arts departments (including 2 from East Asian Studies), and none were from the deactivated language programs. The four largest humanities departments (English, History, Philosophy, and LLC) had no representation at all. Even so, none of the BAGs recommended the elimination of specific degree programs or administrative units; they simply considered hypothetical situations in which the following year’s allocation from the state might necessitate such cuts (Budget Advisory Group).

Crucially, the power to eliminate academic programs, lying solely in the hands of the UA president, did not require any consultation with faculty members, much less formal approval through shared governance. Between the end of the spring 2010 semester and 1 October, there was no warning that our programs were to be eliminated and no consultation with the faculty members directly involved, either to find creative solutions or to provide simple notification of the decision already snaking its way through the SUNY bureaucracy at its imposing stone headquarters downtown.

After 1 October there was strong and sustained protest against the program eliminations, including several public rallies on campus covered by local television; hearings held by the faculty senate; numerous letters and op-ed pieces published in the local Albany Times-Union newspaper; national and international media attention in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Le monde, National Public Radio, and the British Broadcasting Corporation; an investigation by the American Association of University Professors; negotiations between UA administrators and representatives of the New York State Union of Teachers; group meetings between affected faculty members and the dean, provost, and president. There was also overwhelming extramural pressure to reverse the decision, as evidenced by an Internet petition signed by over 14,000 people from around the world and hand-delivered in print form to the SUNY chancellor.

However, the provost and president stuck to their position that eliminating the programs was an unfortunate but unavoidable fiscal necessity rather than “a Faustian bargain,” as Gregory Petsko, a genome researcher, put it in an especially scathing op-ed piece. The provost and president consistently claimed that the BAGs constituted “extensive, inclusive and ongoing” consultation with faculty members, while the dean justified her deactivation recommendations by citing “comparatively low enrollments” in the affected programs, her mandate to trim the college’s annual budget by $2 million (less than 1% of the university’s annual budget in 2010–11), and the need to shift resources to programs that were “more central” to the mission of the college and the university, despite the fact that the number of undergraduate majors or the ratio of faculty members to undergraduate majors was lower in eleven other college programs than those she identified for termination (Message).

The fiscal pretext was difficult to justify for two reasons. First was the recent proliferation of highly paid administrators across the university and the college—the college employed seven full-time assistant or associate deans making salaries substantially greater than the highest paid faculty member in the deactivated programs. Second, the French and Italian programs were already models of cost efficiency. To maximize enrollments, course work for the French MA and PhD programs was delivered almost entirely through shared resource courses that served upper-level undergraduates. Almost all the French MA students paid full tuition without the benefit of assistantships, since many of them were returning high school teachers complying with the state’s ongoing certification requirements. In addition, graduate students who had exhausted their funding as teaching assistants were regularly staffing introductory language courses at a paltry pay rate of $2,600 per course—exponentially less than the FTEs generated. In addition, the French and Italian programs offered coordinated credit-granting high school courses—known as “university in the high schools” and coordinated by an underpaid lecturer—that generated nearly a quarter of a million dollars of annual revenue for the university.

What, then, really motivated the dean’s decision? Certainly, the desire to comply with pressures coming from her superiors—but there were more important factors. In previous departmental meetings she had bluntly told us that the study of language was not a worthwhile end in its own right but rather a means to some other, practical end and that foreign language courses, because of their inherently low FTE value, were not an efficient investment of resources. Her personal bias was also likely compounded by a pragmatic calculation: that three senior faculty members in French and two in Russian, all drawing relatively high salaries by SUNY standards, could be prompted to retire through a blend of incentives and coercion. Summer 2011 provided support for that theory when the vice president for academic affairs began contacting senior faculty members individually with retirement incentives. On 19 July the provost sent a letter inviting the seven tenured French faculty members to apply, through submission of their CVs, for the two full-time positions (one tenured professorship, one full-time lecturer) that she anticipated would remain at end of the deactivation process.

In addition to underscoring the administration’s use of fear, coercion, and internal discord as tools of governance, urging us to compete with one another for our own jobs seemed to confirm UA’s willingness to fire faculty members, though firing them would have entailed significant legal complications with the union and our collective bargaining agreement. In the end, no faculty members were fired. Two senior Russian professors retired without a fuss; three senior colleagues in French accepted phased retirement for the sake of their colleagues; two others in French, myself included, took the provost’s advice that we pursue our careers elsewhere. Our students were allowed to finish their degrees, albeit under duress, and many left feeling that their credentials had been devalued.

The long-term effects on UA remain to be seen, but in the first two years following the deactivations there was widespread paranoia among faculty members across the liberal arts and sciences, a higher than normal departure rate of untenured and tenured professors for jobs elsewhere, and a noticeable decline in applications from new graduate students, which prompted the dean to repeatedly contact graduate directors asking them to intensify their recruitment efforts. Today only undergraduate minors in the deactivated programs remain, and the disdain that UA has demonstrated for foreign languages stands in ironic contradiction to its branding campaign built around the image of a globe and the slogan “the world within reach.”

The UA debacle also underscores several curricular and administrative lessons for language programs, whose inherently low student-to-teacher ratios makes them easy administrative targets in times of fiscal crisis. In curricular terms, it is important to maximize FTEs by offering a certain number of larger-enrollment culture courses in English that can attract students from across the university, fulfill general education requirements, and recruit undergraduate majors and minors. Equally imperative are defending the foreign language requirement, where it already exists, as part of the national trend toward globalization and creating solid curricular links—including study-abroad programs, double-major degrees, or certificates—with professional schools in such areas as engineering, business, and public health. These initiatives require substantial faculty time and energy but are well worth the investment and benefit for all parties involved. It is not a matter of selling out or making languages into service units but of proving our practical relevance to students and administrators so that we maintain the freedom to teach linguistics, literature, and culture for their own sake as well. Two especially successful models worth consulting are at Penn State and Virginia Tech.

Administratively, the UA crisis exposed the destructive power that a small cadre of hostile or indifferent administrators can have if unchecked by strong shared governance structures that empower faculty members with not only consultative but also decision-making authority. Who has the power to eliminate degree programs and faculty positions? In many universities, as at UA, shared governance policies and procedures limit faculty members to a reactive role and entrust programmatic decisions to administrators, with no more than nominal recognition of the democratic process.

In the current climate of systemic underfunding and increasingly authoritarian administration that characterizes American higher education, it is not enough to demand proportional representation on existing governance bodies and ad hoc committees. We must collectively work to revise structures and procedures so that faculty members have the power to approve, reject, or initiate program reorganization and elimination by majority vote. Fortunately, most universities already have mechanisms in place to enact such revisions. The question is whether faculty members are willing to work proactively to secure an equal share in running their institutions and to ensure their own professional survival.

Works Cited

Budget Advisory Group III Final Campus Report. State U of New York, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <https://portal.itsli.albany.edu/myuadocs/EP-BAG3-Report-Final-Report-for-campus.pdf>.

Message from President George Philip. State U of New York, 7 Oct. 2010. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <https://portal.itsli.albany.edu/myuadocs/EP-BUDGET-100710-MessageFromPresident.pdf>.

Petsko, Gregory A. “An Open Letter to SUNY Albany.” Inside Higher Ed. Inside Higher Ed, 22 Nov. 2010. Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

Program Deactivation and Discontinuance. State U of New York, 26 Aug. 1983. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <www.suny.edu/sunypp/documents.cfm?doc_id=332>.

Report of the General Education Task Force, Fall 2010. State U of New York, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <https://portal.itsli.albany.edu/myaudocs/EP-GENED-11222010-FinalTaskForceReport.pdf>.

Brett Bowles is associate professor in the Department of French and Italian at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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Published 16 December 2015

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