Russian Department not worried about cuts

By Sean Ryan

Rumors have been circulating for a while regarding the possible discontinuation of the Russian Studies department at Macalester. The Educational Policy and Governance Committee (EPAG), composed of both faculty members and students, is currently reviewing their policy for determining discontinuation of specific departments, which led many to believe Russian Studies, the department most recently threatened with discontinuance, was in danger once again. Professor James von Geldern, the chair of the department, adamantly denied such rumors, remarking that he was “aghast” when the idea was first mentioned to him last semester.

He described these comments as “wild and even dangerous because they function as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy:” students fearful that the Russian Studies department will cease to exist in the near future might decide not to major in Russian or take classes in the subject, which drives down the numbers of students associated with the department, then making it more likely that EPAG could see it as expendable at some point in the future. Currently, there are nine students who have declared majors in Russian Studies.

Current students, including those who have already declared the major as well as those who are currently considering it, should not have any anxiety about the status of Russian Studies, as Macalester policy dictates that the college will “offer resources for students to finish [any] major” even if the department is discontinued during their time at the institution, as long as they have declared the major while it was still in existence.

At the same time, von Geldern lamented any usage of such “statistics” as deciding factors in determining a department’s worth, referencing the current curriculum policy in the faculty handbook that any discussion about curriculum should be based on what is “fundamental for a liberal arts education,” rather than “numbers” that might not reflect the integral nature of a department as part of that education. Although he understood the possibility that the number of majors may seem to suggest that a department is unpopular, the rules within the handbook “express [the college’s] better selves” through the emphasis they place on what is best for a student’s education, rather than what is best for Macalester financially.

Russian-a “critical language” as denoted by the State Department-is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, and study of its culture is important for anyone interested in international relations and the former Soviet Union, as well as much of Eastern Europe. Russian culture is also important for scholars as a result of its widely celebrated literary history, much of which has, through translation, become extremely popular in English-speaking countries.

Any discussion of discontinuation will have to wait until EPAG holds a town hall meeting for faculty in two weeks to discuss any possible changes to current policy. von Geldern related a variety of possible options that the committee could eventually decide upon, including the one currently in place, whereby faculty simply vote on a motion to discontinue a specific department, similar to what happened when the Russian Studies department survived a 64 – 52 vote in late 2003.

A second option is for EPAG to make the decision after deliberation with faculty, and a third is to have the administration determine the future of a department without input from faculty, a debate that Professor von Geldern described as one of “democracy versus efficiency.” Until a new policy is put in place, it is merely “fanning the flames” to suggest that discontinuation of any department, Russian Studies or otherwise, is imminent.