Faculty debate, students campaign over fate of Russian

By Diego Ruiz

Lindsay Daniels ’12 came to Macalester to study Russian. “If Macalester didn’t have Russian I wouldn’t be here,” Daniels said. “I planned on studying it initially, but got way more involved in it than I ever thought I would.” Daniels likely never imagined she would be involved quite as much as she is now, leading a group of students in a campaign to try to save the major. On Feb. 4, the Educational Policy and Governance committee (EPAG) released a report stating that eight of its nine voting members had reached a consensus to recommend the discontinuance of Russian Studies at Macalester. Sonita Sarker, a Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, was the only voting EPAG member to not concur with the recommendation. Provost Kathleen Murray, who has the final word in many academic decisions, said she would accept the discontinuance recommendation if it came to her, citing the lack of projected growth for the college and the need to have flexibility. “At a time of very constrained resources, we have to deploy those resources in the best way for the largest number of our students that we can,” said Murray. “I don’t think this is the best use of our resources.” “If we want to do anything new, or do a better job of some of the things we’re doing well, it’s going to have to be by redeploying resources, because we’re not going to have the funding for additional resources,” Murray added. “And I think the opportunities that those two lines could provide for us are really quite exciting.” But before the recommendation can reach the Provost’s office for her approval, it must pass through the faculty. At last Tuesday’s faculty meeting, a motion to reject the EPAG recommendation sent the issue to a faculty vote that will take place in March. Two-thirds of the faculty now must vote against the recommendation in order to preserve the Russian major, leaving just over a month for Russian Studies students like Daniels to campaign to save their major. Student campaign Ruxi Zhang ’14 does not want to be a part of the last class of Russian Studies majors at Macalester. She declared her major the week before the announcement of a discontinuance review, after being warned by a Russian Studies professor that she might not be allowed to declare for much longer. (If the major is discontinued, students who still wish to declare majors or minors in Russian Studies will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.) Zhang said she was “shocked” when she heard the news that EPAG had recommended discontinuance of Russian Studies, and felt “offended” by the lack of communication from the committee, a sentiment echoed by other Russian Studies students. “There’s been a huge lack of communication by EPAG toward us,” Daniels said. “We had that one town hall meeting, but it really wasn’t the way we envisioned it. Instead of a forum for students to address our concerns, it’s like EPAG giving a presentation on themselves.” Jeffrey Garcia ’14, who has taken Russian language classes since his first semester at Macalester, said that he “would have liked to hear which departments they’re talking about that are worth more of the investment” and “to see town halls held regularly, not just to tell us what was going to go down…I would have liked to see them [EPAG members] be out there and talking to students.” “The concept of EPAG itself – nine people making this decision – is not sound,” he added. Patrick Schmidt, the chair of EPAG, wrote in an email that EPAG members “dedicated time in our deliberations to identifying issues that were raised by the students. The issues they raised are reflected throughout the report and many of them are specifically addressed.” “I would love to know if anything, short of the opposite conclusion, could show how much I valued the student voices in the process,” Schmidt wrote. “We listened carefully and engaged all that they offered, and in many ways I was touched by their testimonials to the value of the program. I read every letter closely and responded to each, and I asked the committee to read each of them as well.” EPAG’s student representatives, Yeukai Mudzi ’12 and Kate Hamilton ’13, also said they read all of the student letters and carefully considered students’ input throughout the process. “I am sorry that students feel that their voices weren’t heard. I am disappointed that they did not voice this dissatisfaction soon after the town hall and earlier in the process,” Mudzi wrote in an email. “This was not an easy decision for me, and I think I can confidently say that it was not an easy decision for any other committee members…Each week I weighed arguments for and against discontinuance, and sometimes the volume of information was overwhelming.” Hamilton wrote in an email that the decision to sign on to the report was “one of the most difficult decisions I’ve partaken in,” and that she knows it is a “difficult realization that Russian Studies may not exist in its current form at Macalester. It is important to know that we gave every piece of information and data we received incredible thought.” While both Hamilton and Mudzi said they hoped Macalester could continue to offer Russian Studies courses in English, Russian Studies students said that would not be a satisfactory outcome. “The biggest loss is the loss of the language program,” said Daniels. Now, Daniels is trying to organize students to “tell the professors who they’re close to why it’s important to us, and that we would feel appreciate it if they would consider voting in favor of the Russian Studies department.” Zhang said students were going to campaign among “Carnegie and Olin-Rice faculty,” who she said might be more removed from the issue and not as predisposed to overturn the recommendation. Faculty meeting It was a Carnegie faculty member who brought up the motion to overturn EPAG’s report. In a passionate speech, Political Science professor Paul Dosh offered a motion to reject EPAG’s recommendation. “When I look at the Russian statistics in the EPAG report, I think ‘what a bargain!'” said Dosh. “Here’s a program that for years has lived under a guillotine, repeatedly denied that precious commodity of energetic full-of-fresh-ideas tenure-track faculty. And in the face of that threat, this resilient program has rebounded and appears self-sustaining.” (The full text of Dosh’s remarks is printed in the Opinions section on page 15.) Support also came from an unlikely Olin-Rice faculty member – Dan Hornbach, the chair of Environmental Studies, who was provost in 2003 when EPAG tried to shut Russian Studies down the first time. Hornbach said he was “more sympathetic” to supporting Russian this time around, as he did not find EPAG’s arguments “very convincing.” “I think that the report does not give us a slam dunk on why we should discontinue Russian Studies,” said Hornbach. “There’s no argument about where these resources can be used. Unless someone tells me that there’s a place where we can get a better return on their investment in these resources, I’m probably going to disagree.” Many other faculty members spoke out against EPAG’s recommendation. Mark Mazullo, the chair of the Music department, connected Macalester’s commitment to internationalism to his opposition to the Russian program’s discontinuance. “It is inconceivable to me that an institution claiming, and indeed flaunting, such a global perspective, would discontinue a program covering such a vast part of our world,” Mazullo said. “As a narrative, one not incidentally with a good deal of power behind it, this report does not represent the truth, but rather only one version of a complex story, a story that many of us who have been at Macalester…would tell differently,” Mazullo added. Some faculty said they supported EPAG’s recommendation, but under different conditions. Erik Larson, a professor of Sociology, said he believed that the Russian Studies major should be discontinued, but under the condition that the language continue being taught. And, if previous history is any indication, many faculty members are likely to vote to discontinue the majo
r. In 2003-04, the first time EPAG tried to discontinue Russian about 45 percent of the faculty voted to discontinue the major. Schmidt said at the meeting that the arguments brought up by the faculty during the meeting had already come up during the discontinuance process. He wrote in an email that the discussion at the faculty meeting was “every bit as challenging as I expected. This question was already very difficult when I was sitting alone and arguing with myself, much less when I was listening to speeches by people I respect.” While James von Geldern, chair of the Russian Studies department, said at the meeting that he “appreciated the thoroughness” of the report and the work Schmidt and the rest of EPAG had done. But von Geldern said he believed that the facts were more favorable to keeping the Russian Studies major. “Some significant part of the faculty wants either to prove that we can do it [cut a department] and also wants access to those extra [faculty positions] which they think might come to their programs,” said Von Geldern. “They’re not asking themselves, is it Russian we need to close?” “We’ve had an administration telling the college for four years, I think, that Russian does not deserve to continue,” he added. Provost Murray said that it was “absolutely not the case” that the administration was targeting Russian Studies. “This was a faculty-driven process,” Murray said. “I sit ex oficio [without voting] on [EPAG]. I think we followed the process very well.” “I think the report shows the very thoughtful process, and the care with which they undertook this discussion,” Murray added. “I think the committee did its work…very responsibly and thoroughly.” Whether that report becomes college policy will depend on how the faculty vote on March 20.