You might have heard about the recent firing of Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia. It turns out that the firing was, in part, due to Sullivan’s unwillingness to eliminate certain departments, including classics and German:
Besides broad philosophical differences, they had at least one specific quibble: They felt Sullivan lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.
If this weren’t so harmful to UVA, this would be funny. For those unfamiliar with UVA, it was founded by Thomas Jefferson (yes, that Thomas Jefferson). Students and faculty often refer to Jefferson as “Mr. Jefferson”, as if he were a colleague (Virginians are not exactly a humble people). Jefferson designed the campus to look like an idealized Greco-Roman landscape. The original curriculum he developed emphasized languages and ‘moral philosophy.’
So, remaining true to that tradition, the lunkheads on the UVA board….want to eliminate the classics department. Is it possible that a complete lack of self-awareness approaching dangerous levels of irony is a psychological disease? And if so, can it be treated?
The other department the board in its infinite wisdom would like to cut is German. German departments are in an unfortunate position, largely because few countries other than Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and part of Italy, routinely speak German. There is no ‘Germanophone’ zone. There aren’t a billion Germans either. I can’t imagine enrollment is especially high. But we do need people who have studied German. Why?
E. coli. No, seriously. One of the problems during the E. coli O104:H4 outbreak was that the initial press releases, public health notifications, and so on were in German–which is completely understandable (the outbreak was centered in Germany, after all). However, this presented a real problem in terms of getting information out to the larger scientific community and the press. I would argue public universities have an obligation to meet public needs, and one of those public needs is to train people in foreign languages, even when those languages aren’t ‘popular’ based on enrollments (twenty-five years ago, few were studying Arabic. Just saying).
In case, you’re wondering, study of German was part of Mr. Jefferson’s original curriculum.
Related: Why UVA is firing Sullivan?