Plan to consolidate departments causes rift


Peggy Mills said it’s odd that while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is touring Asia, UI officials are considering a plan that Mills thinks could damage the Asian and Slavic languages and literatures department.

The plan would bring several UI language-related departments together under a single administration. Along with other potential leadership consolidation measures, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences officials expect the move could save the college up to $250,000.

But discussion over the proposed Division of Languages, Linguistics, Literatures, and Cultures has highlighted a divide between faculty members: some who have been outspoken in their opposition to the plan and others who support it.

Faculty members in Asian and Slavic languages said the consolidation could damage their ability to meet the growing demand for expertise in their discipline.

While outside funding for Eastern languages temporarily dried up along with the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, demand for expertise in the field is “growing exponentially,” said Mills, chairwoman of the UI Asian and Slavic languages and literatures department.

Since 2002, major grants earned by the department’s faculty have amounted to more than $2 million.

Ultimately, the consolidation of language units would threaten the department’s ability to earn a share of grant money available in the field of Asian and Slavic languages, Mills added.
However, Linda Maxson, the dean of the college, said the school will continue to support faculty’s grant-earning efforts.

“Grants are faculty-driven efforts. The college has been very supportive individually and collectively,” she said. “We’ve hired people, we’ve eased time for faculty to spend on grant activities… we’ve provided space, we’ve provided support.”

Other department heads have voiced support for the plan to consolidate leadership among academic units.

“I think there are some things that we can gain from working together,” said Richard Hurtig, the head of the UI’s American Sign Language program. “We have some common interests in general linguistic theory and there are probably ways in which we can support each other’s missions that would allow us to survive these tough financial times.”

Hurtig said the division model is a proactive approach to saving money. Proposed budget cuts across the state indicate UI officials will cut around $26 million from their fiscal 2010 budget.
“If, with the national economy, we sort of sat back and let things unravel — well, things are going to unravel,” he said. “I think that if you have a dire situation and you don’t do anything, then things are much more likely to deteriorate.”

Opponents of the division plan said they worry departments will lose their independence. However, one of the plan’s supporters said he’s confident departmental operations will continue as usual.
“The proposal preserves all the names of the different units and provides for their continuing function. It allows them to function just the way they’ve been functioning,” said Tom Lewis, the head of the Spanish/Portuguese department.

The UI is not an anomaly in its efforts to bring language departments together. Iowa State University’s undergraduate language units have operated under the Department of World Languages and Cultures for years. The department’s head, Mark Rectanus, said consolidating language departments is a national trend. And, at ISU, the department has operated well.

“We share similar approaches to pedagogy and similar approaches to research,” Rectanus said. “I can’t say it’s been a problem in our particular case.”

Still, UI Professor Philip Lutgendorf, who teaches Hindi in the Asian and Slavic department, said the proposed language division could be another example of the department being stretched too thin.

“Given what we’ve been given, we’ve achieved some amazing things,” he said. “The faculty here have tried very, very hard to put together impressive programs with limited resources.”

Roland Racevskis, the head of the French/Italian department, said he hopes department heads can engage in further discussion about the proposed languages division.

“There are differences of opinion. It’s really important that everyone gets heard,” he said. “We’ve tried to communicate with everyone. I think my colleagues and I really look forward to hearing everyone.”

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