At the small college in northwestern Minnesota, officials couldn’t help noticing that fewer and fewer students were majoring in foreign languages like French and German.
So last week, Concordia College in Moorhead announced plans to stop offering those majors, as well as Latin, classics and Scandinavian studies, to help balance its budget.
The decision has set off a firestorm on and off campus, with some students and alumni accusing the college of turning its back on one of the core elements of a liberal arts education.
Within days of the announcement, protesters plastered the campus with posters mocking the decision, and outrage erupted on Twitter (“#Cordmn gave up on the liberal arts … No longer my alma mater”).
“They push global engagement and global learning all the time, and then they cut their most global classes,” said Colton Dabrowski, 19, from Backus, Minn., who is majoring in French and Chinese and helped lead the protest.
He argues that the cuts are especially ironic at Concordia, which is best known for its popular Concordia Language Villages, a series of language immersion camps for kids and families.
Concordia President William Craft is quick to point out that the changes will not affect the language camps, which he described as a flourishing operation.
But he defended the cutbacks at the college itself, saying they’re needed to put Concordia back on solid footing after years of declining enrollment and a $2.7 million budget gap.
“What we’ve seen is a marked drop in students interested in electing these programs as majors,” he said. In fact, he said, only 38 students on a campus of 2,100 are in the majors slated to disappear, and 12 of them will graduate in May. He notes that classes in most of those foreign languages will still be offered, but not enough to qualify for majors.
Craft says the changes are part of a broader strategy to help stabilize enrollment at the college, which has lost some 600 students since 2010, about 20 percent of its student body.
Like many private colleges, Craft said, Concordia has been forced to rethink “our place in the market” and make some tough choices. In addition to the cutbacks, the college also has expanded some popular programs, such as science and business.
“This is the kind of work that every liberal arts college needs to undertake,” he said. “Defining our work … and securing the resources that we need to thrive.”
But the criticism has been fast and furious. A petition — “We want our majors back!” — popped up on Change.org. A group of Latin teachers, many of them Concordia grads, wrote an open letter to Craft, saying they “were stunned and deeply distraught” by the news. “Please don’t allow Concordia College to succumb to dark times,” they wrote.
Sydney Gisvold, president of Concordia’s Scandinavian Club, was equally upset. “Concordia is really known for how many languages it has offered,” said Gisvold, 22, a senior who is studying Norwegian. Perhaps there weren’t enough students majoring in foreign languages, she said, but she thinks the college bears some of that responsibility. “There could have been a lot more effort to promote that,” she said, “that learning a second language is really vital.”
Mary Rice, the chair of Concordia’s world languages and cultures department, admits that foreign languages are a tougher sell to today’s students. That’s due, in part, to the pressure to pursue more career-oriented majors, so that foreign language becomes an afterthought. “Society, advisers, everything is sort of steering them away from exploring that option,” she said.
Rice says she understands the college’s need to make cutbacks — her department is expected to lose three professors, or one-third of its tenured faculty, in the process. But she said the focus on cutting the language majors has others in the humanities worried. “So much emphasis is going toward science and business that we’re perhaps losing our identity,” she said. “That, of course, is what those of us in humanities and liberal arts worry about.”
Not everyone on campus shares those fears. “I definitely understand the frustration students have,” said Tanner Knutson, a biology major who is president of the Student Government Association. Still, he said, “it’s not like we’re completely phasing out those languages.” In the big picture, he said, the changes “make a lot of sense.”
But Dabrowski wonders how the cutbacks square with the college’s mission statement, engraved in a stone, which says Concordia’s purpose is to “influence the affairs of the world.”
“How can we influence the affairs of the world,” he asks, “when the entire world doesn’t speak English?”