Russian Studies to stay

By Diego Ruiz

Last September, Russian Studies chair James von Geldern said that persuading two-thirds of the faculty to overturn an EPAG recommendation discontinuing the Russian Studies major and minor would be “impossible.” With two votes to spare, the faculty proved him wrong. In a 100 – 47 vote at the March faculty meeting last Tuesday, a motion to overturn the Educational Policy and Governance Committee (EPAG) recommendation to discontinue the Russian Studies major and minor was passed by a narrow two-thirds supermajority. If three faculty had changed their votes from yes to no, the Russian Studies program would have been gradually phased out over the next two years. Instead, Russian Studies will likely receive an Allocations Committee recommendation for a new tenured-track faculty position to replace the position of retiring Russian Studies professor Gitta Hammarberg. “EPAG was very open all year that a decision to retain the major would at minimum mean that they should receive an allocation to maintain the status quo,” wrote Patrick Schmidt, associate professor of Political Science and chair of EPAG, in an email after the meeting. When the vote total was announced, the crowd assembled in the Weyerhauser Boardroom gasped. After a brief silence, many burst into applause and cheers. Some of the group of fifteen students gathered in the back of the boardroom teared up in emotion. However, not everyone applauded the faculty’s final decision. Before the final vote, more faculty expressed views at the March meeting in favor of discontinuance than in previous forums. Adrienne Christiansen, an associate professor of Political Science, noted that “Macalester’s history is full of courses and departments that we once had, and once prized very highly, that we changed or reconfigured or dissolved.” Christiansen noted that the school used to offer programs such as Nursing, Aviation, Secretarial Studies and Communications and Media — the department she was a part of until it was dissolved eight years ago. Christiansen said that although the decision was painful at the time, it opened up new opportunities in other areas of the college. “Change happens.” Christiansen said. “I worry that if we retain the Russian major, we will be in essence locking in our curricular structure and we will be making it seemingly difficult in the future to make structural changes in our department configuration.” Several of those who spoke for discontinuance were members of EPAG. Holly Barcus, an associate professor of Geography said the decision to endorse discontinuing the Russian Studies program was “immeasurably challenging.” However, Barcus said that Macalester’s Urban Studies program, which successfully converted from a major to a concentration in 2005, would be a good model for Russian Studies to follow. “The question is whether a strong Russian Studies curriculum absolutely must be offered in the form of a major, or whether there are other, innovative curricular formats that might be equally effective and offer greater flexibility within a broader college curriculum,” Barcus said. Provost Kathleen Murray, who said she would accept the EPAG discontinuance recommendation if it passed through the faculty, said at the meeting that the question presented an “opportunity cost.” “The more time we spend saying no to new ideas, I think the less creative this faculty is about trying to generate new ideas,” Murray said. “They are simply going to stop thinking about what we might do if only we had the opportunity to do it. “For me the question is not whether Russian is worthy of study; of course it is. The question is at what cost to other things we might be able to do?” said Murray. After the meeting, Murray wrote in an email that she “thought EPAG conducted a thorough review and reached the appropriate conclusion,” and was “disappointed with the decision of the faculty.” Nevertheless, many faculty spoke in support of Russian Studies at the meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, a professor of German Studies, David Martyn presented what he called “an alternative view on the question of future of Russian at Macalester.” Martyn said that the EPAG report was an “extraordinary accomplishment” and that the committee “went out of its way to gather as much data as it possible could.” But Martyn said the report “offers no compelling evidence…for shutting down the Russian program.” Martyn said that Russian’s student to faculty ratio was “fully in line with other departments,” and better than those of peer institutions. Martyn also noted that Macalester would be the only one of the top 38 liberal arts colleges, as ranked by US News and World Report, to not have a Russian program. (Macalester is ranked 24th.) “If you have a very successful program that all our competitors have, that is firmly in line with our mission, you better have very good reasons to cut it,” Martyn said. “We don’t find those reasons in the report.” Ultimately, just enough of the faculty agreed with him to keep the program, surprising many of the students and faculty that campaigned for the major. In 2003-2004—the last time the Russian Studies program was up for discontinuance—the faculty voted 64 – 52 to keep the major. That majority was enough to keep the major then, but would have fallen short of the new two-thirds supermajority overrule requirement put in place by EPAG’s new discontinuance process. Russian major Lindsay Daniels ’12 said she came to the meeting “prepared for the worst.” When she heard that Russian Studies had enough votes to avoid elimination, Daniels said she felt “a little bit of disbelief, and a lot of shock.” “It was a really, really, nice suprise,” she added. Von Geldern said after the meeting that he thought the vote was “going to be close the other way.” “I think this is probably the most substantial and well-grounded faculty debate I’ve ever seen,” von Geldern said. “I’m really happy our colleagues came out on our side.” Asked about his reaction right after the vote, von Geldern said he had only one word: “Miracle.” refresh –>