Rutgers foreign languages deserve more respect

In his element, Robert L. Barchi, University president of Rutgers, has the cool demeanor of a business executive. He greeted me warmly, extending his hand to take mine, “Bob Barchi, and who are you?” 

I explained that I’m the chair of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies, and he responded without missing a beat, “I have no idea what you do.” While I initially assumed he was befuddled by the length of my title (I get that a lot), I discovered otherwise when I heard him responding in kind to several other chairs. Apparently there’s a lot going on at Rutgers that he really doesn’t understand.

For a brief but glorious period in 2013, our small department boasted three tenured faculty members, seven more on the track to tenure, six full-time lecturers and ten part-time lecturers. Two years later, we have four tenured faculty members, with six remaining on the tenure track, but only four full-time lecturers and five part-timers. As a consequence, Barchi abolished three of our language programs outright and eliminated any instruction beyond the second year for the surviving languages, save for one.

The aggressive downsizing we have experienced is not a reflection of declining enrollments in our classes. To the contrary, enrollments have steadily risen to the point where the number of students registered in our courses remains basically the same, despite all of the courses cancelled and faculty fired. It’s not even a reflection of the University’s financial fortunes; these layoffs don’t translate into much in the way of financial savings, even when they haven’t been invested in new hires. The median annual salary of an Arabic instructor at Rutgers is $12,920 — poverty wages for a skill that is as rare as hen’s teeth. The median annual salary for all full-time faculty in our department, including the tenured ones, is only $75,617.50. By way of comparison, Barchi pulled a cool $741,448 last year, according to DataUniverse, and 78 of his fellow administrators made over $275,000.

It probably goes without saying, but these cutbacks are not a reflection of any abstract value of these subjects to our University and our students, either. Last year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that the top-paid graduates within the liberal arts came from foreign languages and literature degree programs. Additionally, in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics identified foreign language translators and interpreters as the fifth fastest growing occupation in the country, with a similarly high median salary. Finally, each and every language offered by our department is among those identified as “Critical Need” languages by the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of State and the National Security Administration. By any standard, an investment in foreign languages represents a practical investment in our students’ futures, as well as an investment in the American economy at a time when it is becoming increasingly globalized and, more critically, an investment in our national security. If foreign languages are as critical as they appear, why do our administrators have this bloodlust for cutting them?

At this point, I can only speculate. Foreign languages can be unfamiliar and difficult subjects, and the African, Middle Eastern and South Asian languages we offer are among the most difficult languages to learn. By their very nature, languages require intense, one-on-one interaction between students and instructors and, therefore, much smaller class sizes than most other subjects. Smaller class sizes, personal interaction and practical subjects that lead directly into a rapidly growing professional track may sound like the dream of every tuition-paying student (and parent), but it is clear Barchi and company don’t particularly care for these things.

Our students routinely rank their language courses among the most meaningful courses they have taken during their time at Rutgers and our professors as among the most effective in the classroom. If I were inclined to use “corporate speak,” I might even say we are the ones who add the most value to the educational experience. But Barchi? I still have no idea what it is you do.

Charles G. Haberl is an Associate Professor and the Chair of the Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures at the School of Arts and Sciences of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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