Classics Threatened at MSU!!!

This seems to be a developing story but it doesn’t seem to be getting as much attention as these things normally get, so … let’s begin with the incipit of a news release (full of the usual bureaucrateze) from MSU:

As Michigan State University continues to shape its future and look for ways to reduce expenses while maintaining quality, efficiency and effectiveness, the MSU Board of Trustees today received a report outlining a series of recommendations that could do just that.

At its Oct. 30 meeting, the board was presented outlines from Provost Kim Wilcox and Vice President for Finance and Operations Fred Poston that are part of the university’s ongoing budget-reduction process. Wilcox told the board that he is endorsing a series of changes that have been identified at this stage of the planning process.

“We are in the early stages of a focused MSU budget reduction process,” said MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. “We have committed to making that process transparent. As we saw at today’s meeting many voices will continue to be heard as we work through the process.”

As many as 30 academic majors, specializations and other programs could be affected. It could also include the closures of two departments – the Department of Geological Sciences and the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders. While communicative sciences and disorders could be closed, graduate degree programs would continue, relocated within the Department of Communication.

Of concern to us, of course, is the threat to the Classics program, which currently resides in a department along with French and Italian . According to a powerpoint included on another page of the MSU site, the plans are to add Portuguese and Spanish to the mix to create a Romance Languages department. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing — it’s done at numerous other universities with varying degrees of success — but there are also plans to eliminate the major in Classical Studies, for reasons which seem vague and bizarre. It’s also bizarre that the only degree program in the College of Arts and Letters that IS threatened is something as seminal as Classical Studies.

Below I reproduce a letter from the faculty in Classical Studies at MSU which appeared on the Latinteach list that deserves wider dissemination on this issue:

Statement on Proposed Elimination of the Classical Studies Major at Michigan State University:

On October 30, Michigan State University Provost Kim Wilcox recommended the elimination of the Classical Studies Major as well as several other programs as part of a budget reduction plan that he presented to the Board of Trustees. The budget challenges facing the University are indeed severe, but cutting Classics will not result in any budget savings, and it is detrimental to our students, our faculty and to the reputation of the University itself.

Provost Wilcox admitted on October 30 that he did not know what, if anything, would be saved by cutting programs, and our Dean, Karin Wurst, has only referred vaguely to the “current economic climate” as justification for eliminating the program. This is disturbing given the urgency of realizing actual savings in the budget, because nothing is saved by eliminating Classical Studies. There are no administrative costs for Classical Studies, no dedicated support staff, no graduate students, no temporary instructors, no lab or material costs, and the current faculty will remain on staff.

In a recent e-mail to our current majors, the Dean claims that in the last five years we have had only a total of 11 majors. Our current major did not exist five years ago. It was first offered in January of 2006 and students did not begin enrolling in significant numbers until fall of that year. In fact, we have had an average of 24 majors enrolled each of the past three years, and we have graduated six majors in each of the past two years. These numbers are above average for other programs of comparable size in our College.

The Dean has also claimed that our courses are too specialized and that we do not reach a broad student audience. This reflects a profound misunderstanding of the nature of our program and the typical enrollments in our courses. For example, CLA 160, which is offered this semester, has 160 students with 47 different majors represented from across the University. This would seem, by any definition, to be a “broad” audience. We offer three or more civilization courses each semester and enrollments typically range from 30 to 200, with only a small minority in Classical Studies. All of the courses that support our major attract a diverse student audience and have strong enrollments, as shown by the fact that we have an average of 34 students per class (including the upper-level language) in the current academic year.

The Dean has told us that after the elimination of our program we will all be assigned full-time to general education. This means that of all the faculty in programs that may be affected by proposed cuts we will be only ones who will not be allowed to teach in our discipline.

The elimination of the Classics program along with all Greek, Latin and Classical Civilization courses not only makes no sense in budgetary terms, it also strikes at the heart of the mission of MSU as a land grant institution.

In 1855, the Michigan legislature passed Article 13, Section 11, which founded the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan. Article 13 became the model for the Morrill Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862, which established MSU and other Land Grant institutions. Section 4 of the Morrill Act authorized the sale of public land to create endowments for states to establish colleges of agriculture and the mechanic arts “without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics.”

“Classical studies” in this context can only refer to Latin and Greek and related fields, and it is the only discipline in the humanities named in the act. This wording was part of an addition to original version of the Morrill Act that had been vetoed by President Buchanan in 1859, and it shows that Lincoln and other supporters of the Act recognized that the discipline of classical studies is essential part of the educational goals the public land grant schools, and this continues to be recognized by land grant universities across the country.

Cutting Classics clearly contradicts the Morrill Act, and it would give MSU, “The Pioneer Land Grant University,” the embarrassing distinction of being the only Land Grant university in the Big Ten and in the CIC that does not offer Classics.

Michigan State University is a premier land-grant university, but it is also preeminently an AAU university, one of only a handful of public universities that have such distinction. To cut Classics is to negate our intellectual heritage and to deny generations of students training in the core discipline of liberal arts education.

The economy poses serious challenges to universities across the country, especially so in Michigan. In the case of Classical Studies, however, MSU seems to have lost sight of budgetary goals as well as educational values. The hasty and unnecessary elimination of Classical Studies undermines the University’s claim to be a center of learning and a leader in global education. There is nothing to be saved by cutting Classical Studies, but much to be lost by our students, by our faculty, and by the University itself, all for no reason.

We urge colleagues in the profession and in the liberal arts in general, as well as informed and concerned citizens across the state and county, to write letters to our chief academic officers, President Lou Anna Simon, Provost Kim Wilcox, and dean of the College of Arts and Letters Karin Wurst in support of retaining and indeed fostering the study of Classics at Michigan State.

The Faculty in Classical Studies
Michigan State University

contact information for MSU administration:

Lou Anna K. Simon, President
EAST LANSING MI 48824-1046

Kim Wilcox, Provost
EAST LANSING MI 48824-1046

Karin A. Wurst, Dean, Arts and Letters:
EAST LANSING MI 48824-1044

Just to add some fuel to the fire, there’s something ‘not quite right’ about all this in general. Back in September, the president of the university — Lou Anna K. Simon — wrote a brief letter which suggests all these challenges would be guided by some “overarching design principles”, which include, interestingly enough, under the rubric ‘research’:

As a comprehensive, international, research university built on land-grant traditions, continue to strengthen the liberal core in arts, humanities, social sciences while focusing on areas of traditional strength, opportunity, and need including …

I’m sure I’m not the only one who is confused as to how one can strengthen arts, humanities and social sciences, while hobbling the discipline which pretty much is the basis for all of them. In any event, we also note that an online petition has been set up (and as of this writing has 350+ signatures).

Please find a way to get the point across to the powers-that-be at MSU that the young (comparatively speaking) Classical Studies major is something worth saving …

9 thoughts on “Classics Threatened at MSU!!!

  1. This is the reply I got from the Dean when I wrote to protest this short-sighted decision.Dear Ms (sic] Mills,

    We are all saddened about the financial situation that forces us to make difficult choices such as eliminating the Classics major and a large number of other majors and programs across MSU. Because I feel there is value in much of the Classics subject matter, it is important to make it available to a larger number of students in a general education context rather than in a small under-enrolled major.

    I very much appreciate your thoughtful feedback but we do need to find a way to deliver classics content in more efficient, less costly way.

    As many positions across the University disappear–given the current employment situation in Michigan—possibly people’s livelihood–it would be devastating to morale to allow a set of very low enrollment major to remain untouched.
    Again, thank you for sharing your opinion.

    Karin A. Wurst

    So it would seem that it’s mere window-dressing – no, it doesn’t actually save money but let’s pretend it does to be in solidarity with the unemployed of Michigan. Perhaps the administration will vote itself pay cuts in a similar spirit.

    1. Wow, that spectacularly fails to address any of the points laid out by the Classics faculty. I wrote all three administrators and received only a form response from the President, stating that no final decisions had been reached & that the process would carry on in a duly deliberative way.

  2. MSU is another one of those big U.S. Universities which have both provosts and deans … many of the bigwigs at MSU sport both titles. The cynic in me can’t help but wonder if they get two salaries too …

  3. “Research,” of course, means “big, juicy grants.” Unless the Classics can come up with some way to train robots to walk up stairs for the Department of Defense, or otherwise finagle a Homeland Security grant, it just doesn’t bring in the cash the same way most of the sciences do. To an administrator “doesn’t make money” is probably the same as “costs too much.”

  4. I work on a number of fiscal issues in Michigan, and consult with the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan. The bottom line here is pretty easy to see: If you want to see the university keep every program alive, you should be standing up and saying you support a fairly major tax increase in the state. I see people pushing back against the university — but not standing up and taking the time to educated themselves about the fact that today Michigan citizens are sending less of every dollar they earn to state government than they did in 2000.
    If you are not willing to say you support a tax increase to pay for these programs, you are not being honest.

    1. … but it doesn’t appear that eliminating the major will, in fact, save any money … please correct us if we’re wrong on this. If there are no savings from eliminating it, how is it justified as something connected to fiscal issues?

  5. It seems ironic that in the age of “evidence based” decision making and “metrics” that decisions seem to be made without evidence or metrics. There is a role for symbolism in the actions of large organizations, and I’m sure that the University feels pressure to “do something, anything.” But in that case, I would expect some sort of symbolic criteria (“all programs with number of majors per faculty member lower than x”) and for the criteria to be applied across the board. It is the apparent randomness of the decision-making process here that is disruptive and dispiriting to everyone at MSU.

  6. Makes no sense to cripple the academic program that has such interdisciplinary apps in every major university. You are doing all your colleagues a service by publicizing this latest amputation of quality programs at a formerly well rounded state university.

  7. I want to thank you for your excellent comments about our endangered program here at MSU. We are continuing to fight this decision, and we are truly heartened to see such an outpouring of support.

    John Rauk

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