Students, faculty support Russian at town halls

By Diego Ruiz

Olin-Rice 250, typically the scene of Biology lectures and EnviroThursdays, hosted a very different set of discussions last week – three town halls about the potential discontinuance of Russian. The student town hall had the feeling of a pep rally for Russian. Over 40 people attended, many of them wearing bright red shirts advocating keeping the Russian department. Attendees asked many questions about the intricacies of Macalester’s allocations and new discontinuance processes to the town halls’ moderator, Patrick Schmidt, an associate professor of Political Science and current chair of the Educational Policy and Governance Committee (EPAG). Several majors also made their case for keeping Russian Studies, describing their experiences with the department. Lindsay Daniels ’12, said she came to Macalester because of the Russian department and that it’s been “the foundation of my Macalester experience.” She said she has developed close relationships with her professors and credited her State Department internship in Russia last summer to their recommendations and her unique experience with the department. Nick Henderson ’13, said he came to Macalester having no idea what he would study and that he “stumbled into Russian Studies.” He said he was worried that “an entire body of knowledge or school of thought would be eliminated.” Schmidt noted in response that even if the major were discontinued and the language were no longer taught, there would still be teachers in other departments whose specialties pertained to Russia. While most of the attendees were current Macalester students, others also came. A group of five students from the University of St. Thomas who took Russian at Macalester through ACTC asked what influence they could have had on the process. An alumni who majored in Russian Studies also attended, and implied that he would be unlikely to donate if Russian were discontinued. Most at the two faculty halls also supported continuing the Russian major. A primary point for many was that they could not imagine that Macalester could have a sufficient liberal arts or internationalist curriculum without a Russian Studies major. Peter Weisensel, a professor of History, said that Russian Studies made a “unique and distinctive contribution” to the college and worried about a perception that a “college that doesn’t offer it is somehow not serious.” “Among all principles that should guide faculty, the first principle should be pedagogical, not financial,” Weisensel added. David Chioni Moore, the chair of International Studies, said that he was “quite concerned” that the Russian major is up for discontinuance. “The notion of a Macalester curriculum that doesn’t cover the Russian-Soviet sphere is a global curriculum with a massive, massive, hole in it,” said Moore. “What happens to this zone of inquiry at the college?” Ernesto Capello also noted that having all five United Nations languages be taught at Macalester was an “extraordinarily powerful statement on the part of Macalester,” and would no longer be the case if Russian were eliminated. “Certain things at the college should be protected and nurtured,” said Satoko Suzuki, a professor of Asian Languages and Cultures. “I think Russian Studies is one of those things.” However, others noted that a college of Macalester’s size inevitably cannot teach everything. Although he noted that Russian Studies, “offers an opportunity to understand…a volatile region of the world that is still important,” professor of Sociology Erik Larson noted that, “you could make a good case for many different languages.” Many professors commented that the courses offered in Russian Studies were relevant to many other areas of study. “Russian has done more than any other language to connect with other areas,” said Linda Schulte-Sasse, the chair of the German and Russian Studies department. Weisensel mentioned that he had students in his history classes who read primary sources in Russian. Frederik Green, an assistant professor of Asian Languages and Cultures, commented, “it’s very difficult to understand modern China, or modern Japan, if you don’t understand Russia.” Math and fine arts faculty also said that Russian Studies was important for their disciplines. Gitta Hammarberg, a professor of Russian Studies retiring this year, also commented that students were able to engage with and do service work for a large community of Russian-speaking immigrants in the Twin Cities. Bill Moseley, a professor of Geography, was the only faculty member to say at the town halls that he would “support the discontinuance of Russian in its current form,” citing Macalester’s “history of undervaluing student demand when making tenure-track decisions.” “The three faculty members I know in Russian Studies are very good…but in spite of that, the longer-term trend is weaker demand,” said Moseley. As an alternative, Moseley supported hiring adjunct professors to teach the Russian language, and then making use of the current courses in many different departments to offer a multi-disciplinary concentration. “Rather than hiring two tenure-track people and making essentially a 40-year commitment, it will be more flexible.” However, Dan Hornbach, chair of Environmental Studies, pointed out that concentrations don’t have the power to request new faculty searches. Therefore a concentration in Russian Studies would have no guaranteed future unless departments independently made requests for Russian specialists. “This is a big deal…if you do away with the Russian Studies major, there’s no way to guarantee that it continues in any way,” said Hornbach. “If we lose all of that, what is it that we’re going to gain?” Hornbach framed the decision in terms of resources, as did other professors who, while not explicitly saying that Russian Studies should be eliminated, noted that many departments have much higher student to faculty ratios and are not able to provide the same experience for all students that smaller departments can. At this point, EPAG will deliberate until early next semester, then make a recommendation to the faculty. If the recommedation is to keep the Russian major, then Russian would likely be first in line for new faculty. If EPAG recommends discontinuing the major, two-thirds of the faculty would have to vote to overrule EPAG. Yeukai Mudzi ‘12, a student member of EPAG, said that in future deliberations, “we will represent the voices we heard,” at the student meeting. Kate Hamilton ’13, the other student representative said she “has not made her decision at all.” Because of “an overwhelming amount of data,” the best thing for students who want their voices to be heard now, Hamilton said, would be to send emails to EPAG chair Patrick Schmidt with a “concrete example” of how Russian has affected their experience at Macalester.