The University of Montana Wants to Gut English and Foreign Language Programs— Here’s My Response

In early April, 2018, President Seth Bodnar of the University of Montana released his “Strategy of Distinction.” In it, he recommends firing 13.5 combined staff members in the English and Foreign Language departments while leaving most of the rest of the university unscathed. As an English and German major, this is my response.

Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash

The mood was heavy in German 202. The usually jovial atmosphere had instead been infiltrated by a mixture of exasperation and a fair bit of doom-and-gloom. Even before our professor entered to give her own side of the bad news, the fate of the language departments and the German major program had rippled across the room. We’d heard about the proposal from President Seth Bodnar to tear apart the department and cobble it back together like some crude version of Frankenstein’s monster. Gone would be the German, Japanese, Spanish majors, to name a few, being replaced by the nebulous, inferior, and poorly named “Asian Studies” and “European Studies.” We’d seen the numbers of how many of the teaching staff — people who have a direct impact on the quality of our education — would be unceremoniously ripped from the university if this “Strategy for Distinction” goes through.

These decisions, particularly of the gutting of English and foreign languages, are currently buried underneath a field of contradictory rhetoric. President Bodnar, in the intro to his extensive recommendations for university improvement, talks about how the University of Montana gives “students a well-rounded educational foundation to navigate our complex and quickly changing world” (1). He praises the school for allowing students to “gain important career skills such as written and oral communication [and] cross-cultural understanding” (1). Yet, the primary departments bearing the brunt of the hammer-fall are the very subjects that teach and promote these skills. As an English major, I’ve learned to read between the lines of these recommendations and see how the intro doesn’t match the proposed 6 cuts to English department faculty and 7.5 cuts to Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures department faculty (11).

Almost none of us in the Intermediate German class are required to take it. Instead, each one of us finds value in our attendance. We have a business major, STEM grad student, a history major, and a handful of English majors such as myself, to name a few. When the idea that there’s no value in learning German came up, most of us had a visceral reaction. Our practical uses for learning a foreign language are varied. Most wish to interact with the world outside of Montana once we’ve worn that cap and gown. After all, how can you be a part of the world if you’re insular? When President Bodnar says he wants to “celebrate another 125 years of excellent service to students, the State of Montana, and the world” (2), how can we do that if we’re cut off from the world? If we can see the value in an education in a foreign language and the histories and cultures of other countries, why can’t the administration?

Later in the day, the mood in my Literary Criticism class was much the same. As several of my fellow students waited outside of the classroom, our usual talk of literature was set aside to anguish about President Bodnar’s recommendation to cut 6 faculty in the English department. We chose to come to this school and pursue English degrees because of the fantastic reputation of the program. After I had been accepted at the University of Montana, my mom told a woman she’d helped change a tire on the side of a Montana road that I was going to be attending UMT in the Fall, 2016. A great smile broke across the woman’s face, and so started a long conversation on that hot roadside of how amazing the creative writing department is — how accomplished the literature professors are and what kind of value they add to students’ education. Sure enough, finishing my second year here now, I know that the mystery woman in love with the English department was on to something. The University of Montana is nestled amid a vibrant literary community. It would be a shame to have the gutting of the English department stain that reputation.

When tasked with defending the English department, professors often talk about the soft skills gained from a major in the field. They speak of passion, critical thinking skills, communication, excellence in writing. While these are indeed immensely important traits that are severely lacking in other areas of the global and American community, not everyone responds to these kinds of lists. They find action in the concrete. Did you know that English majors are the top fourth undergraduate major for those applying to law schools across the US? And of those English major applicants, 81.37% were admitted in the 2017–2018 academic year (LSAC). With a prominent law school at the University of Montana, you’d think that gutting the English program would be the last thing the administration would want to do.

Not everyone wants to go to law school, though. Instead, think about the value in a career as a writer. Without writers, we wouldn’t have the textbooks currently teaching Accounting majors about fundamental accounting principles. Without writers, who would update the world on current events? Entertain us with bingeable Netflix shows? Write the manuals that help doctors diagnose patients with rare forms of disease? And can these skills be taught without also learning about literature? The two go hand-in-hand.

Of course, it all comes down to enrollment. By effectively exsanguinating the language department and getting rid of yet more English professors, you’re telling prospective students to go elsewhere. You’re showing students who want to be a part of the world that what they’ll get at the University of Montana is not a well-rounded liberal arts education, but a vocational degree that they could just as easily get at their local trade school. Most of all, you’re limiting the kind of out-of-state money you’d get from students across the country who want to learn real-world skills surrounded by beautiful mountains. That could only hurt the University, not save it. It doesn’t make sense to attack the English and language departments so thoroughly while leaving the rest of the university unscathed. What message does that send?

On the bright side, if the proposal itself gets gutted, torn apart and sewn back together in a way to finally reflect the core values listed at the beginning of Seth Bodnar’s recommendations, this would show potential and incoming students that those who attend and work at the University do have a voice, and that the administration listens.

Ich liebe die University of Montana und möchte sie wachsen sehen. Das kann nicht gemacht werden, wenn Sie die Englisch- und die Fremdsprachen-Abteilungen verletzen. Bitte finden Sie einen anderen Weg Geld zu sparen.

Works Cited

Office of the President. “University of Montana Strategy for Distinction.” Web. Apr 25, 2018 <http://www.umt.edu/president/default.php>.

“Undergraduate Majors of Applicants to ABA-Approved Law Schools — 2017–2018 Academic Year.” Law School Admission Council Web.

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