If there is one thing that the current political climate can show us, it is that there is a lack of unity between nations that could be solved through mutual understanding. Bridging this gap starts with language; the barriers we build around ourselves stem from a lack of communication and cultural understanding.

It really makes you wonder if cutting language programs and assistance in language departments helps in the grand scheme of things.

Greatness in Difference

Within the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) at RIT, the Modern Languages and Cultures department is fighting for better working conditions as budget and resource cuts continue to knock them down.

The department teaches ten languages, from Italian to American Sign Language (ASL) to character-based languages like Chinese and Japanese. It offers 24 different immersion and minor options and four majors.

These numbers seem impressive, but they pale in comparison to nearby schools like Syracuse University and the University of Buffalo, which both host 17 languages, 9 majors and a plethora of minors. In reality, doesn’t this make sense? RIT is a technical university, not a liberal arts college – so why is it such a big deal that the cuts are happening here?

RIT prides itself on its global campuses – with locations in Croatia, Dubai, China and Kosovo – and the main campus welcomes over 2,400 international students from over 100 countries each year. The opportunities to learn about other cultures should be abundant here, and students should be able to bridge that gap through language. 

RIT also hosts extensive study abroad programs. The difficulty with these programs is the flexibility in course scheduling. An engineer, for example, might only be able to study abroad a semester in their second year due to the class availability and graduation requirements. If they needed to take engineering courses abroad, their country selection decreases significantly.

 “It’s always the students who are the victims.”

This leaves students only a year to study language before embarking on this journey. This isn’t the only time restriction, as most advisors discourage students from taking language courses until later on in their college career.

Diane Forbes, an associate professor of Spanish and Spanish Language Coordinator at RIT, discussed how tricky adding language skills to a semester can be.

“It is kind of ironic here, that liberal arts courses are taken as juniors and seniors,” she said. “It inhibits a lot of completion of minors, or becoming a double major.”

Part of this issue is the linear nature of language courses; a student wanting an immersion or minor in a language would have to take them in progressive semesters instead of multiple at once, so waiting until later semesters is not much of an option.

The Issue of the Adjunct

RIT has moved away from the use of adjunct professors and part time work in favor of a full time model. This model seems to work well in many of the university’s colleges, such as in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, where most full time professors can teach multiple courses. Where this model fails is in specialty cases such as languages, where a professor can only instruct one subject.

In cases such as these, adjuncts are crucial in allowing students the same resources and opportunities to learn, and the university saves money by paying for part time work instead of full time faculty. Ideally, as the university moves towards a full time environment, these adjunct professors would be brought on as full time lecturers. In reality, it means letting them go and losing those language learning resources.

“Those students are paying tuition dollars, just like anybody else for any other course,” Forbes said. “It’s always the students who are the victims.”

Anna Stenport, the Dean of COLA, made it clear that the permanent staff and faculty budget remained intact despite the 33 percent budget cut during COVID-19. 

This sentiment was echoed by Sara Armengot, the Modern Languages and Culture (MLC) Department Chair.

“We haven’t had any reductions in the faculty lines or the staff lines,” Armengot said. “[It is true] that we are not offering as many sections taught by adjunct professors.”

The amount of adjuncts in the MLC department has decreased significantly over the past few years. This means that the amount of courses offered in each language has in turn decreased. For example, the Italian program used to hold one principal lecturer and three adjunct professors; all three adjuncts have been lost and only a quarter of the original opportunities are still available in the program.

Fewer adjunct professors leads to fewer opportunities for advanced languages. Advanced language courses hold less students on average due to many factors such as late initiation of language learning, course offering timelines and degree requirements. Since these courses have less students, they are canceled when the minimum is not met, leaving many with incomplete degrees or minors.

“I strongly support the offering of advanced level classes regardless of class sizes wherever that is feasible,” Armengot said.

The back and forth between class offerings can make consistent learning difficult for students. Having an intermediate level class available one year and not another can cause limitations and hesitancy for students to even start learning a language.

“It’s had a ripple effect.”

“It’s had a ripple effect,” Armengot said.

Faculty and staff are feeling the pressure of these losses as well. Though they wished to remain anonymous in their complaints, sources who spoke about the issue have mentioned a large increase in workload. Most professors are being asked to take on additional responsibilities in addition to teaching. Some are even being asked to create courses which could be linked back to engineering to generate more of a profit from the program and appease the administration.

To What Extent

Language is the key to cultural understanding and communication. Before RIT can present itself as an open and international university, we must tend to the areas that promote that awareness and connection.

“There is a long history of lack of awareness,” Forbes started. “But not in 2022, we are a nation of immigrants, we know that people come from other places.”

It seems that the university's allocation of resources needs to be called into question as well. Some of these concerns circle around the construction of two new performing arts centers. It is evident that funds are being funneled into COLA, but not evenly and not into degree granting programs, which raises questions about the school's motivations.

It seems increasingly difficult to brand ourselves as an international campus without promoting the knowledge needed to harbor international learners.