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Friday, April 11, 2008


The University of Southern California's decision (paywall; less detail but free here) to close its undergraduate program in German has generated a substantial amount of criticism among the students and faculty at USC:

"We were given absolutely no prior warning," said Eve Lee, a lecturer in the German department, who learned about the proposed dissolution last week from the department's secretary. The university's faculty and lecturers, she said, had developed several strong programs to introduce undergraduates to German language and culture. "We can't do this without a department," she said.

Students have registered outrage at a Facebook group called "Save the USC German department," in letters to university administrators, and in calls to news-media outlets.

"I'm just appalled that a university of this size and caliber would even think of eliminating the department," said a junior German major, Jennifer E. Appleby. German departments, she observes, are standard features of most research and liberal-arts institutions, even ones much smaller than Southern California.

I look at this as an economist. Why should all or almost all research and liberal arts institutions have programs in German? For any academic program to achieve a sufficient level of quality, it needs both a critical mass of faculty and of students. The program needs enough faculty to cover, in enough depth, the critical areas of the field and to provide in-depth study and research opportunities for students. With only three faculty members, I don't see how the USC German department could manage that. The program needs enough students to allow for interactions among students, to create opportunities for students to learn from each other. With only 5 undergraduate degrees granted in 2007 (down from 9 in 2003--9--at a school with 16,500 undergraduates, granting 4,676 undergraduate degrees in 2007), the existence of a critical mass of students is also not something one could take for granted.

In 2006, US colleges and universities granted 1,106 undergraduate degrees in German, down, fairly steadily, from a peak of 2,600 in the late 1960s. With more than 2000 schools granting undergraduate degrees, this makes it faily clear that not every institution can, should, or will have a program in German. My own guess would be that a school needs to graduate 15 - 20 students a year in a program for it to have sufficient enrollments to support enough student interaction and enough faculty to be viable.

So institutions will inevitably have to consider how to specialize, and what to specialize in. This will be painful, especially for programs, like German, that are declining nationwide. But that does not mean the decisions can be avoided.


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