It’s a plight that academic departments at universities and community colleges in California are facing with each new academic year: budget cuts. And the College of San Mateo (CSM) has been a prime example.
The San Mateo Community College District approved the discontinuation of American Sign Language, Italian, Japanese, Humanities, Meteorology and Horticulture July. The district has sustained an 18.5 percent budget reduction in the last four years while making budget cuts, President Michael Claire said.
Students in the language departments and , citing adequate enrollment and sufficient student interest.
“The department felt blindsided by this decision,” said Beth Covey, a student in the horticulture department.
“Wait lists fill up at my college,” said American Sign Language Professor Tim Riker. “We could easily double the number of classes we offer.”
He added that American Sign Language is the fourth most popular language taken by college students, according to the Modern Language Association.
Daniel J. Girard, president of the California Association of the Deaf, wrote citing growing national interest in American Sign Language and called it “uncouth” that the college was eliminating such a popular department.
“Targeting American Sign Language in spite of the evidence is sending out the wrong message to society that Deaf people and their language are inferior,” Girard wrote.
How the Cuts Were Made
Adding more classes is not an option for the college, Carranza said. The state provides a set amount of money for a specific number of students, a number that the college has already exceeded.
“If we add more classes, we won’t be getting revenue for those classes from the state,” he explained. “The state chancellor sets the cap and it’s a convenient tool to reduce their budget.”
To reduce its own budget, the district had to examine where to make the most financially significant cuts. And the board explained that such decisions are never made lightly.
The college’s Academic Senate, or all of the 350 faculty members, appoints a 20-member governing council that is comprised of representatives from various academic divisions like math/science and creative arts/social science and language arts. This council is responsible for examining all departments and ultimately making recommendations about which departments should be eliminated, a process that began in the fall.
The board ultimately made its decision on which departments to eliminate based on a “reaffirmation of core values and principles."
The council must abide by the college’s bylaws and serve the entire student body while focusing on three priorities:
1. Transfer curriculum
2. Career-technical education
3. Basic skills courses
Professor James Carranza, the President of the Academic Senate, explained why languages in particular were hit the hardest. The Cal State Universities (CSU) do not have a foreign language requirement, though the University of California (UC) schools do. Though CSM language credits are transferrable, most students have already satisfied their language requirements in high school.
“Enrollments in the American Sign Language and Italian enrollments are fine,” Carranza said. “But foreign languages are not a priority transfer.”
He said the college has a primary focus on getting students transfer credits in subjects like math, history and science.
Perhaps some of the department changes came as a surprise to Riker and others because there was less “negotiation” going on this year, Carranza said.
In 2009, departments were allowed to bargain and negotiate specific classes with other departments to preserve what they believed were the most essential to their department.
“But this created in-house division and pointing fingers amongst departments,” Carranza said. “People were criticizing other departments to save their own.”
Carranza lamented this process, which he said should have been an administrative decision and not resulted in divisive negotiating amongst departments. This year he said the cuts were much more direct and complete, though still painful for many departments.
In addition to enrollment figures and transfer credits, the governing council gave consideration to departments that had more full-time employees. Cutting a department with more full-time professors would be a larger burden on the college to screen and re-hire. This was just one example of the myriad factors that the council analyzed, Carranza said.
A Sound Recommendation Process?
But not all were happy with the recommendation making process, including the student Trustee to the board. Barry Jointer voted against the department eliminations because of concerns over how students were involved in the process. The Associated Students is the official voice of the student body, but the designated representative was not at the meeting.
The school board members all agreed that such representation was important, but there were several other students who lent their opinions at the meetings.
“Summer is tricky, so whoever comes, comes,” Carranza said.
He also explained that these students are not voting members anyway, more just “observers.”
Students who are currently enrolled in the programs could complete their degree or certificate requirements, assured Claire, but new students would not be accepted into the programs. Students who want to take courses would be advised that the courses would only be available for one year.
“I’m optimistic that we can work out kinks in the system,” Carranza said. “We have to keep focused on the good things. If we start dwelling on the bad stuff we’ll lose focus.”