In Other Ivory Towers: Mt. Holyoke moves to phase out German, Russian

David Wignall

On May 9, faculty at Mount Holyoke College will vote on a motion to discontinue all programs of study in German and Russian, according to the Mount Holyoke News.

If passed, the proposal would phase out two of Mount Holyoke’s smallest departments over the next four years. Students majoring in German and Russian would be permitted to complete their degrees, but no new students would be eligible to major in either language program.

The proposal cites low course enrollment and a lack of faculty as the primary reasons for the programs’ dissolution, according to The Amherst Student. Since 2018, 11 students have majored in German and 12 students have majored in Russian at Mount Holyoke — an average of three students in each department per year. Each department currently employs two professors, though one German professor will retire at the end of this year. Mount Holyoke has not hired a replacement.

Katy McNally, currently a visiting lecturer in Mount Holyoke’s two-person German department, will become the college’s lone professor of German next year. In an interview with the Mount Holyoke News, she advocated for the importance of language education. “The German studies department offers cross-curricular, interdisciplinary courses … which teach students essential critical thinking skills and indeed are the cornerstones of a liberal arts education,” she said.

Students majoring in Russian and German also spoke out against the proposal. “This is supposed to be a liberal arts institution, and we are supposed to be coming out of this [as] well-rounded individuals,” said Phoebe Grabowski, a sophomore Russian minor, in an interview with the Mount Holyoke News. “And I don’t understand how Mount Holyoke can call itself a global institution and cut its languages, especially Russian, during the political climate we’re in.”

Mount Holyoke has discontinued and restructured academic programs before. In 2021, the college consolidated its geology, geography, and environmental studies programs into a single department. In 2019, it combined its film studies and theater programs. And last year, Mount Holyoke eliminated its Arabic studies courses, requiring students to complete their studies in Arabic at other institutions in the Five College Consortium.

In the wake of Mount Holyoke’s decision to eliminate Arabic studies last year, Peter Scotto, chair of Russian and Eurasian Studies, said the changes were the result of changing financial priorities. “I simply know that the college has felt that they were spending too much on language instruction,” he said in a 2022 interview with the Mount Holyoke News. “That doesn’t mean [eliminating] language instruction, but the question is always how much, and where.”

“I know … that the college wants to continue instruction in Russian and German,” he added.

The proposal comes at a time of increased uncertainty among American colleges and universities, as endowments shrink, revenues and enrollments decline, and student enrollment swings away from the humanities and language arts. Between 2013 and 2016, total enrollments in foreign language courses across higher education fell by 9.2 percent, according to the Modern Language Association. 651 language programs were discontinued by American colleges and universities over the same period.