Russian Studies back on track post-vote

By Joe Klein

After facing near elimination last spring, the Russian Studies department is looking to rebuild and develop a strong foundation that will allow its programs to grow. Despite a temporary drop-off in enrollment in Russian classes, the department is hoping to drum up student support and hire a new tenure-track professor in the near future. Last spring, the Educational Policy and Governance Committee (EPAG) recommended that the department be eliminated and its resources allocated elsewhere. A debate regarding the place of Russian Studies in the college’s future continued throughout the year, and in March the faculty voted 100-47 to reject EPAG’s recommendation and preserve the department, barely meeting the two-thirds majority required to pass. If EPAG’s recommendation had been approved, the department would have been dissolved over two years to allow current students declared as Russian Studies majors to complete their academic plans. No additional students would have been accepted into the program. Language classes would have been completely eliminated, although some classes in Russian history and culture would have been integrated into other departments. For at least one student, however, learning to speak and read Russian is a crucial part of studying the culture. “If you’re looking to profess any sort of deep knowledge of Russia, you really need to know the language,” said Tabbey Walquist, ’13, a Russian Studies major who also works in the department. Discussions about eliminating the department began before class registration last year and seem to have impacted students’ class choices. The department has not fully recovered from the substantial drop in enrollment numbers between semesters last year. In Fall 2011, 89 students were enrolled in Russian Studies classes, but that number dropped to 54 in the spring as fears arose that the department would be eliminated. “Everyone who would’ve gone [into the Russian program] left in September when it was announced that we were under review. Back then, everyone assumed it was a done deal,” said James von Geldern, the chair of the department who also has a joint appointment in International Studies. This semester, only 59 students are enrolled in Russian classes, including five students who are taking Russian 203, the third-semester language course usually taken by sophomores. According to von Geldern, that graduating class will produce a much smaller group of Russian Studies majors than usual. Currently, 11 upperclassmen have declared majors, a healthy number for a typical year, said von Geldern. The long-term health of the program appears strong, however. Twenty-one students are enrolled in introductory Russian 101, a positive sign for the department and an indication that interest in Russian remains high. “We have the opportunity to rebuild. It’s not like the vultures are circling over our head,” said von Geldern. “The last thing I’m thinking about right now is keeping the department alive.” Russian Studies is also in the process of expanding its faculty presence on campus. Following survival of the vote, the Allocations Committee recommended that one new tenure-track position be granted to the department. The search for the tenure-track professor is underway and will take place throughout the year. After that search is completed, the department will include von Geldern on a part-time basis, the new tenure-track professor, and one visiting assistant professor. Provost Kathleen Murray declined to comment on the department’s current resources on campus, saying that although she supported EPAG’s recommendation to eliminate the department, she approved the Allocations Committee’s recommendation to grant a tenure-track position to Russian Studies. The administration’s support for hiring a new professor and expanding the department is a significant shift from last spring, when Murray, along with President Brian Rosenberg, endorsed EPAG’s efforts to eliminate the department. Rosenberg and Murray serve on EPAG in an ex officio, nonvoting capacity, and were therefore involved in discussions about the future of the department. Both said they accepted the final faculty vote. “The Provost didn’t agree with the decision, but has accepted it and has been very helpful [with the professor search],” said von Geldern. The Russian House has remained operational since the proposed elimination was defeated, but residents have found it difficult to contact the school regarding ongoing maintenance issues. Von Geldern perceived this lack of dialogue is a result of lasting tensions over the school’s wavering support for the program. According to resident Jacob Rath ‘13, many windows in the house will not open or only do so with extreme difficulty. The problem was first identified last year and has not been addressed. Another major issue faced by residents include dysfunctional keys that do not consistently unlock doors. Rath has submitted several work orders, but the problems have not been fixed. “The Russian House hasn’t gotten taken care of since last year, and I know they needed repairs,” Walquist said. “It was already kind of shabby before, and if we’re going to stay as a department, we need a little more work on that.” However, in the last few weeks the school has supplied new living room furniture, as well as a picnic table that Liza Kundas, the native speaker in the Russian House, requested last May. Despite all the obstacles it has had to overcome, the Russian Studies department is optimistic about the future of the program. “I’ve learned to try not to prognosticate far into the future,” said von Geldern. “[But] I think we’re looking very positive.” refresh –>