Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
AU REVOIR A French class at SUNY Albany, which has suspended French as a major.
THE bad news was not unexpected: sweeping cutbacks at the State University of New York at Albany, prompted by sweeping cutbacks in state aid. The reactions, too, had a whiff of the familiar: student rallies, faculty resolutions, an online petition.
But then came an op-ed article in the French newspaper Le Monde, calling the cuts Orwellian. And an open letter from the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, sarcastically suggesting that universities give up teaching the humanities altogether.
If the cuts have struck a nerve far from this upstate campus and in more than one language, it is in large part because they involve language itself, and some cherished staples of the curriculum. The university announced this fall that it would stop letting new students major in French, Italian, Russian and the classics.
The move mirrors similar prunings around the country at other public colleges and universities that are reeling from steep drops in state aid. After a generation of expansion, academic officials are being forced to lop entire majors. More often than not, foreign languages — European ones in particular — are on the chopping block.
The reasons for their plight are many. Some languages may seem less vital in a world increasingly dominated by English. Web sites and new technologies offer instant translations. The small, interactive classes typical of foreign language instruction are costly for universities.
But the paradox, some experts in higher education say, is that many schools are eliminating language degrees and graduate programs just as they begin to embrace an international mission: opening campuses abroad, recruiting students from overseas and talking about graduating citizens of the world. The University at Albany’s motto is “The World Within Reach.”
“There’s no way on earth we should be cutting these languages,” said John M. Hamilton, executive vice chancellor and provost at Louisiana State University, where officials this year decided to phase out majors in German and Latin, as well as basic instruction in Portuguese, Russian, Swahili and Japanese, after losing $42 million in public financing over the last two years.
“We should be adding languages and urging more students to take them,” Dr. Hamilton added. “I’m being asked to prepare students for the global economy, but this is almost like asking them to use the abacus instead of computers.”
Most public colleges still teach languages, but fewer are allowing students to make them a specialty. The University of Maine’s president, Robert A. Kennedy, has recommended suspending undergraduate degree programs in German and Latin. This fall at theUniversity of Nevada, Reno, students can no longer declare majors in German Studies or minors in Italian. At Winona State University in Minnesota, officials have placed a moratorium on new majors in French and German while it challenges the faculty to make those disciplines more relevant to the contemporary world.
Other schools, public and private, have recently eliminated or diluted the foreign-language component of their core curriculums. Starting next fall at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at the George Washington University, students will no longer have to take a foreign language to graduate, although they may use language courses to help fulfill a broader humanities requirement.
Bob Peckham, a professor of French at the University of Tennessee at Martin whose own program came under threat, has made it his mission to fight the retrenchments nationwide. As chairman of the Commission on Advocacy of the American Association of Teachers of French, he monitors cutback proposals and provides research that helps campuses tailor their protests.
“There are at least 54 foreign-language majors that have been either threatened or eliminated,” Dr. Peckham said. “People don’t realize that this is happening in a lot of places.”
Still, languages are holding their own on campus. A report due Wednesday from theModern Language Association, which advocates for language programs nationwide, will show that overall enrollments in college language classes are actually up over 2006, when the last survey was conducted, and are at their highest level since 1960.
One reason is a surge of interest in languages like Arabic and Spanish, which is thriving on campus in response to the nation’s growing Latino population. China’s rising importance has prompted more college programs in Mandarin, and the Chinese government has been generous in financing them.
Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, caused a stir with a speech last month to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in which he questioned the prominence of European language instruction, given the shift of power centers and political hot spots from Europe to Asia and the Middle East.
“My argument wasn’t so much against this or that language,” Dr. Haass, a former State Department official, said in an interview. “But if we’re going to remain economically competitive and provide the skill and manpower for government, I think we need more Americans to learn Chinese or Hindi or Farsi or Portuguese or Korean or Arabic. In an ideal world, that wouldn’t mean fewer people would know Spanish, French, German and Italian. But in a real world, it might.”
Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, rejected the notion of languages as “a zero-sum game,” and said the field had become too responsive to fads.