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The Beginning of the Budget-Cut Avalanche: SUNY-Albany

I’d like to conclude this thread of posts about the effects of budget cuts on state universities by returning to its beginning. SUNY-Albany is the canary in the mine shaft.

Before institutions such as the University of Washington and the University of Nevada announced cuts that would radically alter the shape of their universities, SUNY-Albany initiated what many in the world of the humanities considered a shocking set of developments. The university had already experienced tremendous financial hardship: Between 2007 and 2010, it had cumulatively experienced more than $33.5-million in cuts to its base state tax-dollar allocation, a more than 30-percent decline. In the current fiscal year, the university will be forced to absorb an additional $12-million decline in state assistance.

In response, SUNY-Albany’s president, George M. Philip, announced that the university would eliminate five academic programs, all of them in the humanities: French, Italian, Russian, the classics, and theater. The cuts were obviously devastating, since they essentially did away with many faculty positions (leaving professors in an extremely precarious employment situation), and they represented a diminished role for the liberal arts in the university’s general curriculum.

Most alarming to me, though, was President Philip’s rhetoric in explaining the rationale for the eliminations. He said, “Given the University at Albany’s reduced revenue base … it is critically important for the University to rethink, balance and reallocate resources to support its core academic and research mission. Non-strategic and opportunistic short-term measures are simply not compatible with operating an organization on a sustainable basis.”

So what exactly is the “core academic and research mission” of the university if it doesn’t include French, Italian, Russian, the classics, or theater? In other words, is SUNY-Albany emblematic in its transition to a new and different curriculum, one presumably more practical and occupationally-oriented?

In any case, the announcement was met, not surprisingly, by disbelief and outrage from faculty and alumni alike. And the university’s response was, so far as I can tell, bizarre. In late March of this year, President Philip announced that “the University at Albany would seek to preserve the University’s programs in French, Russian and Theatre by creating a plan to transition them from academic majors to academic minors. Although new students will not be able to major or pursue a degree in these program areas, they will be able to study them as focused secondary subjects.”

The reincarnation of these departments as minors rather than majors strikes me as a disingenuous temporizing move. For the time being, it retains them as shadow disciplines, but who knows what the future holds for faculty and students who teach and study these subjects? I don’t see how the transition from majors to minors saves the university any money. And, finally, the claim about preserving the “core academic and research mission” strikes me as pablum. I challenge President Philip to articulate that mission, and to explain why it entails a drastically reduced role for the humanities. (My sources and quotations all come from www.albany.edu/news).

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