Sunday, September 27, 2020

Statement of Concern Regarding Firing of Faculty without Due Process and Loss of Programs

Published on September 27, 2020

We all recognize that this is an extraordinarily difficult time for everyone in higher education.  The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased costs, yet state support is being cut back and enrollments are falling along with the revenue they generate. No one doubts that this is a time of crisis.

Nonetheless, we believe it is woefully short-sighted to address these financial concerns by eliminating the teaching and study of Eurasian and East European languages, history, society, and politics. At every turn one encounters the importance of that part of the world, be it because of Vladimir Putin’s attempts to undermine our country’s political system, the Polish and Hungarian challenges to European cohesion, the dramatic democracy movement in Belarus, the economic opportunities in one of the world’s most rapidly growing regions, or Eastern Europe’s outsized influence in literature, film, and the arts. We need Americans fluent in the languages of the region and familiar with the complexities of local politics more than at any time since the end of the Cold War; yet across America, at institutions large and small, we see programs being reduced or cut altogether. 

This is particularly disturbing at smaller institutions, where one or two individuals represent the entire field. To eliminate a college’s one Russian language teacher, or its lone specialist in Balkan history, or its only anthropologist with expertise in Central Asia – such cuts make it impossible for any students at that institution to be inspired to learn more about this part of the world.  At first glance it may seem that there is limited student demand for these subjects, yet even if there are relatively few majors in the departments concerned, there is a demonstrable interest in Eastern Europe and Eurasia among those who major in other disciplines. Many universities and colleges associated with our organization have enjoyed robust enrollments in courses on Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia, and ASEEES is happy to offer assistance to any institution attempting to boost student interest in the languages, history, literature, culture, or society of that region.  The alternative is to leave our country without expertise in fields of vital importance.  We cannot rely on a handful of large research institutions to fulfill this need.  First, they do not have the means to do so.  Second, only by recruiting from America’s vast network of liberal arts colleges and regional public universities can we hope to maintain the diversity that any field requires.                          

Finally, we are gravely concerned to note that recent cutbacks in our field have taken place outside the norms of shared governance, and often in defiance of strong faculty and student opposition. The recent firing of Dr. Steven Maddox of Canisius College eliminated Eastern Europe altogether from the college’s curriculum.  This would be a concern in any case, but it is all the more disturbing because Dr. Maddox, a tenured professor, was allegedly removed without due process as part of a wave of firings that sparked a protest petition, a faculty vote of no-confidence and an investigation by the American Association of University Professors. AAUP in fact has launched a national investigation into the crisis in academic governance, with a focus on seven institutions, including Canisius College, Illinois Wesleyan University, and Wittenberg University, which involve faculty in Eastern European and Eurasian studies. Earlier this summer, ASEEES also protested the planned closure of the Russian program at Ohio University and joined the American Council of Learned Societies in issuing a statement calling on US institutions of higher education to sustain the centrality of humanities and social sciences at this critical time.

The cases mentioned above range from serious violations of academic rights (such as in the case of Canisius College) to short-sighted curricular decision, but they are united from our perspective by a failure to recognize the need for a strong representation for the field of Eastern European and Eurasian studies at American colleges and universities, regardless of institutional size, mission, or profile.

Founded in 1948, our Association, with 3,500 members, represents an intellectually vibrant and politically relevant set of regional fields in North America.  It was the politics of the 20th century that inspired the creation of many positions held by our members. However, the rationale for sustaining teaching and scholarship in this field has always been linked to a more basic need. In order to understand the world in its entirety and feel more secure in it, Americans must have access to the region’s complex cultures and be able to grasp its strategic significance. Given the growing turmoil in that part of the world, this country can ill afford downsizing the study of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia. The time to support the students who will be tomorrow’s experts is now.

Jan Kubik
President, ASEEES
Professor of Political Science, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Professor of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Sibelan Forrester
President Elect / Vice President, ASEEES
Susan W. Lippincott Professor of Modern and Classical Languages and Russian, Swarthmore College

Brian Porter-Szucs
Chair, ASEEES Committee for Academic Freedom and Advocacy
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History, University of Michigan

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