"What do we want? Language!" a group of Oregon State University students demanded in May as they carried a petition-filled coffin across campus to oppose an administrative decision to ax all entry-level Italian classes next fall and phase out all sections by fall 2009.
OSU's Italian department joins a string of struggling European-language programs. The German departments at the University of Southern California and Humboldt State University are being shut down, and the College Board's Advanced Placement tests in Italian, French literature, and Latin literature are all being eliminated because of low interest, possibly as students are attracted to Arabic and Chinese programs.
But demand for Italian has always been high at OSU, says Guy Wood, interim chairman of the foreign languages and literatures department. "Our enrollments in those classes are as good as any," he says. The courses were dropped because of budget problems. OSU's foreign languages department faces a projected $250,000 deficit for the 2009 fiscal year, prompting cuts for some introductory Spanish and literature sections, as well. Wood says something had to go. Italian was the easiest language to eliminate because it was the youngest program, and its only professor was not tenured.
University officials say the foreign languages department has been overspending for several years, and the student protest will not affect next year's cuts. But critics of the decision are pointing fingers at the OSU budget model, saying it puts departments with high demand on the chopping block in order to fund more expensive science and engineering programs. "The dollars just don't follow the students," says Brad Dennis, chief business officer for OSU's College of Liberal Arts. "If you have something that people want, you shouldn't starve them of that."