COMMENTARY: Classroom enrichment program must be saved

This fall I am teaching an American Studies course on the role of museums and monuments in American culture and history. I planned a three-week unit around the history of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and the controversies that surrounded the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and WWII Memorial. We are also examining the National Museum of the American Indian and the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the struggle that went into seeing these institutions realized as part of the landscape that is referred to as “America’s front yard.” All of this was to be accompanied by a two-day trip to the capital to engage these sites in person. 

On Thursday, Sept. 13, I sent an email to Cara Macaluso in the Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs asking when the fall deadlines to submit applications for classroom enrichment funds would be posted. The response I received was disheartening. Macaluso explained that she had been laid off and the program terminated. 

Since 2007, thousands of Rutgers students have been the beneficiaries of classroom enrichment funds. The grants that the program distributed allowed for site visits, guest speakers and attendance at performances, from movies to operas. Along with encouraging instructors to implement creative approaches to teaching that broadened students’ experiences, the program was also intended to ensure that students were not asked to bear the cost of paying for these activities out of pocket — on top of everything else. 

The decision to end this program was made by Rutgers administrators who did not consult with instructors who utilized this program. Predictably, students were not asked to assess the value of the program either.  

Had feedback been requested, Rutgers administrators would have found that the classroom enrichment program was considered vital and essential by teachers and students alike. I know this because when I began to inform colleagues and students of the program’s end, I was flooded with correspondence expressing shock and dismay.

Kyla Schuller, a professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, used enrichment funds to bring writer and activist Ted Kerr to her Introduction to Critical Sexualities class for World AIDS day, where he spoke about his research into the origins of the AIDS epidemic. Leah DeVun, a professor in the Department of History, used funds to take students to The Cloisters in New York City, where students got to experience firsthand the sculptures, stained glass, manuscripts and other artwork they were studying in their Medieval history courses. As DeVun explained, “Walking around The Cloisters transported students into the architecture and spatial experience of another time and place.” She said, “These trips and guest speakers open up new kinds of adventures for students in ways that we can’t really predict.” Erin Weinman, a History alumna who now works as a Manuscripts Reference Librarian at the New-York Historical Society, is testament to DeVun’s point. Weinman described how “the speakers who came to (her) classes allowed (her) to learn about the career opportunities a History major could have.” Weinman puts it bluntly: “I am basically doing things that I may not have otherwise considered doing if it weren’t for the professionals I met during my undergraduate studies.”

Our class trip to the National Mall will still happen — I will scramble for money and my chair, Lou Masur, will generously find ways to come to the financial rescue. But this is not how it should work. Teachers’ ability to call on personal relationships and limited departmental resources is no substitute for an open application process that gives all instructors — whether they are tenured professors or part-time lecturers — an opportunity to compete fairly for funds. 

When I asked the vice chancellor of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui, about why the program was cut, he responded that, “Given the increasing financial pressures to maintain the operation of UAA’s units (Learning Centers, access programs, Career Services and others) that provide direct academic support to students, we have had to cancel the classroom enrichment program.” 

This does not address why faculty were not engaged in the decision-making process. Nor does it provide any specifics on how the money was reallocated, which speaks to the larger point that the administration at Rutgers is rarely transparent when it comes to the details of budgets. I am confident, based on numerous conversations I have had, that last year the classroom enrichment program gave out less than $80,000 in grants – a tiny sum given the University’s overall budget. Keep in mind that Rutgers will spend more than $11 million this year alone on various coaches and athletics’ administrators who are no longer University employees. In addition, the Office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs is currently conducting a job search to hire a marketing and public relations person whose responsibilities will include the “development and execution of the division core brand vision and marketing campaigns to communicate its values to the Rutgers community.” Let us breakdown this corporate speak and appreciate its irony for a second. The University is hiring someone to communicate its educational values while cutting a program that was beloved by students and faculty as a tool that helped better classroom education.    

As the headline of this article indicates, I and many of my colleagues do not plan on accepting the end of the classroom enrichment program as an irreversible, done deal. This is not a lament but a call to action. Write to University President Robert L. Barchi – information on how to do so can be found here – and express your concern that this program has been cut with no assurances that other funds to support classroom enrichment activities will be made available. We were not given a chance to weigh in when this decision was made, so I guess we will have to force our way to the table.

Andrew Urban is an associate professor of American Studies and History. 

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