Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Faustian bargain by Gregory A Petsko

File:Rembrandt, Faust.jpg
Faust, etching by Rembrandt (Een geleerde in zijn werkkamer Dry-point, etching, and engraving. 208 × 160 mm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam ca. 1652 (1650-1652)

The Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures (LLC) at the University at Albany, State University of New York, used to be able to say that it offered 10 languages with graduate degrees in French and Spanish, undergraduate degrees and minors in French, Italian, Russian and Spanish, and a minor in Portuguese. Additional languages available for study included Arabic, Dutch, classical Greek, German and Latin. But recently announced budget cuts mean saying goodbye to French, Italian, Russian, and classics, as well as theater.
In a statement on these cuts, the university's president, George M. Philip, indicated that the five departments will be phased out in the next two years due to more than $32 million in cuts from state funding the school has faced in the past three years (along with another $12 million decline anticipated this year). Students who are currently majoring in these areas will be permitted to complete their degrees. The move has caused dismay among faculty and students, who are continuing to campaign against the move.

On October 31, Gregory A. Petsko, of Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center, Brandeis University, published an open letter to George M Philip, President of the State University of New York At Albany. A short extract from the article in the journal Genome Biology is given below, but, like Stefan Collini's remarkable essay in the London Review of Books on the UK Browne Report, Petsko voices important arguments about why Arts and Humanities subjects ought to be defended, even, indeed especially, in these times of financial austerity:
As for the argument that the humanities don't pay their own way, well, I guess that's true, but it seems to me that there's a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I'm not saying it shouldn't be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do 'old-fashioned' courses of study. But universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I'll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world's number 1 health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the USA and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs. My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern Studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern Studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn't - well, I'm sure you get the picture.
The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at:
© 2010 BioMed Central Ltd
[Thanks to AB for the link]

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