13.4.08

DOWNSIZING FOLLIES. I have long objected to the faddish downsizing of academic functions in the university, which leads to the same loss of institutional memory that plague businesses that overdid their downsizings. Sometimes, universities mimic the private-sector practice of reducing the misery by relying on separations and retirements to reduce staff. And thus the attrition trap springs.

Given that German enrollments are healthy, should German programs be on the chopping block?

Not surprisingly, language faculty members answer that question No, and generally German departments have avoided elimination in recent years, even without the benefits of the the booms of Arabic or the large total numbers of Spanish. So proponents of German study were outraged this week as some learned that the University of Southern California — a large university that boasts of its international emphasis — is eliminating its German department and not allowing any new majors or minors in the field.

The department is a small one — three tenured faculty members and three full-time adjuncts — with relatively few majors in recent years, although most of its enrollments are from non-majors. But the reason the department is small is that the university last approved a faculty search in German in 1991, and simply let positions go unfilled as professors retired. Now, with two professors nearing retirement, the university has announced — with no advance warning, according to faculty members — that the department is simply being shut down. While German departments have not been shut down in recent years, some have reported having difficulty replacing retiring faculty members, so the pattern at Southern California is one that is viewed with distress.

A dean attempts to put the best possible face on the change, but not convincingly. Southern Cal administrators did discover, the hard way, that there are market tests.

Gerhard Clausing, chair of German at USC, said he was told of the decision on March 27, and that university officials told him the decision was final and that they would not consider alternatives. He said he spent about a week trying to figure out if there was anything that could be done, and that largely failing to get information, he felt he had to share the news with students and faculty members.

Clausing said he regularly proposed additional hiring — frequently in conjunction with other departments, such as comparative literature — but was turned down by the administration every time. So while he said it was true that enrollments could be higher (about 125-140 students a semester are in German now), he said it was hard to attract more students when permanent positions disappeared.

The administration “told me that the department wasn’t sustainable, but they caused that to happen,” he said.

I am pleased to report that internal research at Northern Illinois has discovered "inability to find upper division courses" as a reason for students completing their degrees elsewhere, and that some resources have been released to increase, at least temporarily, upper level course offerings. We have, however, the same history of retrenchment by attrition, although no departments have yet been closed by retirement.

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