Earlier this week I read a piece on Inside Higher Ed about the likely elimination of several language studies programs at the State University of New York at Albany. Along with the elimination of the programs of study, it seems also quite likely that several tenured faculty and long time staff positions will be eliminated as well. As in the case of many institutional and corporate restructuring efforts and corresponding staffing adjustments and downsizings that eventually follow, there are the expected calls of 'How can we eliminate these programs?', and 'These programs are unique, they can't really be modified or adapted to reflect a changing set of budgetary and practical realities.'
I certainly don't know all the details of the decision to eliminate, or potentially eliminate, programs like Italian and Russian at SUNY Albany. But at least on the surface it does seem kind of intuitive that the college student of today, staring at a ridiculously difficult job market for the foreseeable future, is not rushing to major in Italian at SUNY Albany, (at least if Mom and Dad are footing the bill). How many folks reading this post were convinced/cajoled/forced to major in Business for the very same reasons. My hand is up. Sadly, professors that have been carrying the flag of Russian and French studies to legions of undergrads in Central New York, some for over 20 years, will soon find themselves having to find a new way of making a living. That stinks.
I suppose the lesson in all this, and there has to be some kind of lesson, is that even the most secure, protected, and established occupations and positions are not immune to the inevitable shifts in markets, tastes, and organizational challenges. Ok, so that is not revelatory I know.
How about this one then?
Ask yourself if what you are doing, and what you are bringing to the organization could be seen as the equivalent of teaching Russian to a bunch of 19 year olds. At SUNY Albany it turns out that most of them are not all that interested in learning Russian, see no benefit in learning Russian, and no matter how great you are at teaching Russian, the market for your services has dried up.
I confess when I read the piece I thought to myself, 'Why are these professors so surprised? No one in their right mind would think that teaching Italian and French to SUNY students still is relevant in 2010'.
But then I thought, most people don't see their passions and their expertise in the same way the outside world sees them. In fact, I will bet many of us are safe and comfortable in what we are doing every day, and with the unique perspective and skills we offer to our employer and to society, while secretly, quietly, someone is looking at us like we are really teaching Russian.