George Philip deserves a prominent place in any 2010 academic hall of shame. The SUNY Albany president recently terminated the university’s French, Russian, Italian, Classics, and Theater departments, citing financial concerns. That Albany purports to be a quality university (and is, in fact, one of SUNY’s better branches) makes Philip’s move all the more unjustifiable.
At nytimes.com, Stanley Fish appropriately excoriates Philip’s decision, and astutely analyzes many of the reasons for the situation in which humanities departments currently find themselves. Among them—the decline of core curricula, which Fish notes “has happened in part because progressive academics have argued that traditional disciplinary departments were relics from the past kept artificially alive by outmoded requirements.”
Alas, Fish’s proposed solution to the crisis in the humanities at public universities requires all but ignoring the conduct of the academy over the past generation. He writes, “The only thing that might fly — and I’m hardly optimistic — is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies — legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others — that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.
“And when I say ‘explain,’ I should add aggressively explain — taking the bull by the horns, rejecting the demand (always a loser) to economically justify the liberal arts, refusing to allow myths (about lazy, pampered faculty who work two hours a week and undermine religion and the American way) to go unchallenged, and if necessary flagging the pretensions and hypocrisy of men and women who want to exercise control over higher education in the absence of any real knowledge of the matters on which they so confidently pronounce.”
Let’s leave aside Fish’s highly dubious, implied assumption that the crisis in the humanities can be blamed on “legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others.” None of these groups have been primarily responsible for the hiring or curricular decisions of humanities departments over the past two generations.
Instead, consider Fish’s demand that representatives of the academy engage (“aggressively” if necessary) politicians, trustees, alumni, and parents. That would be a reasonable response to the crisis in the humanities—except for the fact that over the past decade in particular, defenders of the academic status quo have gone out of their way to refuse to engage politicians, trustees, alumni, and parents. Indeed, from the MEALAC crisis at Columbia to the Group of 88 at Duke, we have consistently been presented with the argument that academic matters are the exclusive province of the academic majority, and that, in essence, academic freedom means the freedom of academics from outside criticism. Having chosen to wall off the academy from the outside world, the academic majority now has to face the consequences of its actions.
One other point from the Fish column: He too easily dismisses a defense that Philip offered for his decision—that the state legislature hadn’t passed Governor Paterson’s Empowerment Act, which would have provided New York public universities with greater flexibility in raising tuition, and thus opened up another revenue stream to avoid the kind of chaotic cuts that Philip has imposed at Albany.
The dysfunctional legislature rejected a rare good idea from Paterson, partly due to pressure from the state’s academic unions—the United University Professors, which represents SUNY faculty, and the Professional Staff Congress, which represents CUNY professors. That the PSC would have opposed this measure came as no surprise—PSC boss Barbara Bowen seems more interested in denouncing Israel than in promoting quality educational initiatives. But the stance of the more moderate UUP was a deep disappointment. In the end, the UUP refused to compromise on what it termed its “top priority”: “to preserve the mission of SUNY to provide New Yorkers with an accessible and affordable higher education.” That “accessible and affordable higher education,” at least at Albany, just will no longer include French or Russian.