Another language department bites the dust

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu May 15 13:01:15 UTC 2008

Wie Gehts, USC?

A week ago (11 April), The Chronicle featured a story on the decision
of the dean of the University of Southern California to close its
German department. At one level, this was not surprising, since
enrollments in European language and literature departments have been
declining for some time. But at another level it is quite remarkable,
since many of these departments have been reinventing themselves as
cultural-studies programs, and in so doing have attracted considerable
student interest. Nowhere has this been more true than in the field of
German, where the traditional Germanistik (language and literature)
approach has been abandoned for German studies of one sort or another.
In my own university, for instance, the German department offers
brilliant instruction in media studies that has engaged some of our
best undergraduates.

I am on the other coast, and I know little first-hand about USC, but
there is something about the way that its German department was
terminated that makes me uncomfortable. I note that Dean Howard
Gillman (a scholar in my own field whose work I admire greatly) has
spun the decision as one to close a "stand-alone" German department.
In his 15 April memo to the faculty, he speaks of the need for a
"global perspective," and asks whether "we best serve this commitment
by organizing every great literary and cultural tradition into
separate stand-alone academic departments?" He mentions the department
of East Asian Languages and Cultures as a model, and dismisses German
as a stand-alone department "created before USC fully embraced its
mission as a truly global university." His conclusion is that it would
be better to "integrate the field of study into a broader enterprise."
Perhaps. And perhaps Dean Gillman has a clearer understanding of what
it means to be academically "global" than I do. But his decision
reminds me of the devastatingly successful attacks of the
globalist-internationalists on the conception of area studies in the
1990s. Using the excuse that external funding was not available (true
enough, I suppose), universities began to pull back on training
students in area studies and even on hiring faculty. When was the last
time your Economics department hired a Japanese or Middle Eastern
specialist? Henry Rosovsky would have a hard time if he were seeking a
first job in 2008. But everything that happens globally happens
somewhere — and in a particular language.

It is quite possible, as I have heard, that the USC department was not
up to the highest standard. If so, that is a genuine problem for any
dean, and he is right to seek a solution. But the death penalty should
not be the only option — even though I realize that "partial-life
abortion" seems to be the solution offered at USC. Non-consultation
(again, as reported) does not seem the best way to manage a
university. But, to be fair, there is another more general problem
embedded in this one. How many of our academic departments have
adequate strategies for managing their life course? How many plan
adequately for both retirements and changes in the direction of their
fields? How many tools do deans have to help departments to help
themselves? There is a lot to ponder in what has happened at USC.

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