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Budget Cuts, Fee Increases, Language Courses and You

Written By: seo on March 4, 2011 No Comment

Like Jonathan, I found the recent announcement of an increase of half a million dollars to certain language course offerings at Berkeley to be heartening news. But I also find myself reacting with quite a bit of uncertainty to the announcement. Since my focus is in East Asian languages, my response to the news necessarily reflects that view, however, I want to note that don’t see this as just an East Asian languages issue.

Three years ago, in the spring of 2008, already oversubscribed Korean, Chinese, and Japanese language courses faced drastic cuts that would have devastated the programs. The arguments for it that we heard at the time were that language courses were considered “service” courses, and that only a small number of students were actually majors who actually needed them. While student organizing, fundraising and other factors led to a two year reversal of the potential cuts, this past academic year has seen a marked decrease in the number of language courses offered. And not just in East Asian languages- last semester there were no introductory Spanish courses.

So while I welcome the news that my home department will see an increase in funding for its language course offerings, and I feel a certain amount of relief that past and present student voices advocating for languages have been heard, I’m left wondering about the timing. Perhaps I’m being cynical. But even before the crisis moment of spring 2008, East Asian language courses were consistently turning away hundreds of students each semester. And the fact that there was this demand from the student body for these courses, with over 3000 students taking courses each academic year, and students being turned away, seemed to have next to no bearing on the decision to slash course offerings three years ago and again this past year. So the fact that student demand is being cited as the driving force behind an increase in funding now when it previously held no weight… it strikes me as odd.

That the money for this increase comes from the increase in student fees also does not sit well with me. The increase in student fees (really, let’s call it tuition) runs counter to the stated mission of the California Master Plan for Higher Education, and leads us further and further down the path of privatization of a public university system. Tying the funding of language courses to what feels like an ill-gotten, not to mention unstable pot of money is far from reassuring. And after all, by what criteria should we determine which courses are more important, more in-demand, more part of a “common good”, and thus, more deserving of the money?

It also seems to me that implicit framing of these languages as being part of the “common good” curriculum are reasons of economy and security. I welcome the recognition of the Asian-Pacific Rim as important, but to frame questions and interactions in the region in either starkly economic or security terms is deeply troubling. I’m not going to pretend to know all of the reasons that students take languages — but for many, it has nothing to do with an economic or political calculus and has, instead, everything to do with interest, and the recognition of these languages as lived languages, important to that student’s life or future goals.

All of this is simply to say, if student over-enrollment, organizing and advocating weren’t enough in the past to increase funding to or sections of these languages and others, and if it was only enough to barely reverse the 2008 cuts for two years, it begs the question: why now? Economics? Good press? Or finally listening?

I’ve gone back and forth between cynicism and hope, pessimism and optimism over the past few weeks since the announcement, and come to no better conclusion than this: I find the budget cuts and subsequent fee increases largely unconscionable and I will continue to oppose them. I also find a measure of hope that in the face of such cuts, and with news of language programs across the country being cut or entirely done away with, the voices of the students in regards to access to language courses at Berkeley appear to have been heard in some small way. The administration may be slow to respond, and student and staff and faculty voices may seem to fall on deaf ears, but we must keep speaking out for ourselves and for our languages.

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