USF cuts ancient Greek, Arabic, and Portuguese programs

Imani Im practices writing in Arabic. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY NIA RATLIFF/SF FOGHORN

Portuguese language professor Tatiana Dutra e Mello was checking her email after class one day when she saw a message from the Dean’s Office stating that the Portuguese program will be cut from USF’s budget, along with ancient Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew. “It was a sad moment,” she told the Foghorn. “I really like teaching at USF.”

Dutra e Mello is an adjunct professor in USF’s language department, which houses American Sign Language, Mandarin, Filipino, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, and Spanish classes. Portuguese and Arabic run on a three-semester schedule and the third semester course for each will be offered for the last time in fall 2023 — after that, the programs will no longer be offered. Portuguese is the only subject Dutra e Mello teaches at USF, so starting in the spring of 2024, she will no longer be employed here.  

According to Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities Jeffrey Paris, he and Dean Eileen Fung of the College of Arts and Sciences made the decision to cut four languages in consultation with Languages, Literature, and Cultures Department Chair Zhiqiang Li. The collaborating parties “reviewed both options and budgetary considerations with the full faculty of the Department.” They originally decided to also cut Hebrew, but have since re-added the program due to efforts from the Swig program in Jewish studies and social justice (JSSJ). The program’s director, Aaron Hahn Tapper, said in a statement to the Foghorn that JSSJ faculty thought it “essential” to continue to offer Hebrew in the program. “The administration’s decision seems to be entirely predicated on our continued ability to raise money from philanthropic foundations and individuals,” he said. “Our faculty and staff have committed ourselves to raise financial support to ensure these Hebrew language course offerings.”

According to an email sent to faculty in early March, the Dean’s office listed low enrollment as a main reason for cutting ancient Greek, Arabic, and Portuguese courses. “Program funding in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures is dedicated toward student success across multiple languages and could not be redirected to support language programs with few current students,” Paris said in a statement to the Foghorn.

In another email sent to faculty in February, the University disclosed a $39.5 million gap in the 2024 fiscal year budget. They cited decreased enrollment for both graduate and undergraduate students as the reason for the monetary discrepancy, and asked for University schools to “submit budget cuts totalling $26.5 million at this time.”

The trend to cut languages exists at other universities. According to the Modern Language Association (MLA), “Colleges closed more than 650 foreign-language programs” across the U.S. from 2013 to 2016. In a 2022 newsletter, MLA reported a 15.4% decline in student enrollment in languages other than English between 2016 and 2020, the “largest drop since it began its survey in 1958.” In late March, the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, two Roman Catholic schools in Minnesota, cut several language programs including ancient Greek due to low enrollment.

Unlike Portuguese and Arabic, ancient Greek runs on a two-semester schedule, so it will not be offered in the fall. Jessica Blum-Sorensen, chair of the classics program, said she is considering giving some of her classics courses to ancient Greek professor Ian Tewksbury. “Like many of our part time faculty, [Tewksbury] is cobbling together different teaching positions at different places.” she said. “I’m hoping that I can make it as feasible as possible for him because he’s a wonderful teacher.”

In late March, Blum Sorensen published an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed, in which she argued that the decision to cut these four languages contradicts USF’s Jesuit mission. She wrote, “The great irony of this situation is that USF is a Jesuit institution, a university built on the premise of shepherding the Ignatian tradition of social justice and intellectual inquiry in an evolving world.”  In her interview with the Foghorn, Blum Sorensen added, “These are the texts on which the Jesuit intellectual tradition was founded. It seems like an important symbolic departure from that as well as a very real one.”

Gaye Walton-Price, an Arabic professor at USF, attended the Day of Refusal alongside her students in protest of the cut. “Arabic is the official or one of the official languages in a large number of non-Western countries in the world,” she said. “Arabic contributes to the global and international dimension for student growth and learning and it encourages students to develop the tools to change society and the world for the better.”

One student currently taking Arabic, second-year critical diversity studies major Imani Im, said that the University gave her and her classmates “no warning at all,” before cutting the program. Im learned about the cuts when her study abroad advisor warned her she would need to take her last semester of Arabic in her semester abroad, as it would not be offered at USF when she returned in spring 2024. “Another peer heard about it through a CASA advisor because she attended a drop-in session. We then asked the professor, and the rest of our class had to hear it through word of mouth,” she said. “I hope the University does a better job of being straightforward and making big changes like these clear to students, especially those most impacted.”

Im also countered the decision to make language cuts due to low enrollment. “They say Arabic is one of the hardest languages to learn, so when I feel comfortable around my peers and with my professor in an almost more casual environment, it makes the learning process feel less daunting,” she said.

Hannah Clemenson, a fourth-year international studies major, said that the cut is affecting her graduation plan and leaving her “at a loss.” The specific Arabic course Clemenson needs to complete her language requirement is not regularly offered in fall, and the program ends in the spring, leaving Clemenson and other students without a clear path to complete their language requirements.

Paris said that the deans keep an “eye to alternatives” when making decisions to discontinue course offerings. “We continue to look at future options for enhancing student opportunities for language instruction, including by engaging in discussions with other Jesuit Colleges and Universities about a possible language “consortium” whereby students from other universities can enroll in language courses taught by our faculty, and vice-versa,” he said. “If successful, it will also enhance collaboration to strengthen shared liberal arts vision and mission among the Jesuit schools.”

Zhiqiang Li, chair of the department of languages, literatures, and cultures, recommends concerned parties reach out to Associate Dean of Arts & Humanities Jeffrey Paris at paris@usfca.edu.

One thought on “USF cuts ancient Greek, Arabic, and Portuguese programs

  1. É muito triste ouvir que o programa de linguagem do português vai ser removida de USF. Enquanto eu não sou um falante nativo do português e meu português não é fluente, fui um dos últimos alunos aprender de Professora Dutra e Mello de 2020 a 2021 durante a pandemia (desde então, ela teve outra rodada de alunos nos últimos três semestres, tornando-os os verdadeiros “últimos” alunos na USF). Enquanto as aulas fossem pequenas e tivessam poucos alunos, nós tivemos muitas oportunidades para praticar nossas habilidades de fala é escrita com falantes fluentes e nativos do português de partes diferentes do mundo. Desculpe se meu português não é gramaticalmente preciso, eu só queria compartilhar.

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