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Students Fight Proposed Cuts to the Humanities at SUNY Stony Brook

To mitigate an anticipated budget shortfall of $1.5 million, Stony Brook University has slated multiple humanities programs for consolidation, including suspending admission of new majors to the Theatre Arts department.

Students at the May 3 protest against budget cuts to humanities departments at Stony Brook University (photo by Jenifer Holden)

When Digby Baker-Porazinski received the email, a significant academic decision about which he’d been ambivalent suddenly crystalized. The Stony Brook University freshman hadn’t yet declared a major, mainly because he had a number of interests and didn’t want to close off any opportunities. But the email propelled Baker-Porazinski to make a decision: he’d declare himself a theater major as a sign of solidarity with a department that was suddenly under threat.

The email, written by Department of Theatre Arts chair John Lutterbie, was sent April 28 to students in that department. It had clearly been written at a moment when Lutterbie was reeling from just-received news that his department was among those being targeted for significant restructuring by the university, an effort to mitigate an anticipated budget shortfall of $1.5 million, the origin of which has still not been explained well and which is particularly hard to understand in light of the fact that the state approved a $8 billion allocation to SUNY schools in April. Lutterbie explained to students that he and his colleagues had just received the news that same morning, and that while many of the specifics of the plan were not yet clear to him, those that had been divulged by Sacha Kopp, Dean of Arts and Sciences, would essentially gut the department.

Students at the May 3 protest against budget cuts to humanities departments at Stony Brook University (photo by Jenifer Holden)

“[T]he administration is suspending admission of any new majors or minors to the Theatre Arts program and turning The Department of Theatre Arts into a service-only department,” thereby only offering elective courses, Lutterbie wrote, adding, “Many faculty will more than likely be let go; some will hopefully be absorbed by other departments.” While Lutterbie was measured in his words, it was clear that he was frustrated and hoped the students would join him and his colleagues in defending Theatre Arts at Stony Brook. “There are certainly many decisions the Dean and upper administration could have made to deal with their budget shortfall,” Lutterbie continued. “This is the one they decided on despite, according to the Dean, positive trends in our department.” Lutterbie concluded by encouraging students to “have your voice heard” by phoning or emailing Dean Kopp or Provost Michael Bernstein, adding, “We promise to be forthright and pass on any new information as we get it.”

Baker-Porazinski declared his major almost immediately, as Lutterbie’s email also assured students that current majors and minors would be allowed to complete their degrees — 46 students currently identify as Theatre Arts majors — but new ones would not be admitted. But that step was just one act of resistance; Baker-Porazinski felt that it was critical to understand how and why the university had gotten to this point. That sense of urgency became more acute as he learned that other departments in the humanities were being similarly targeted. Languages, cultural studies, comparative literature, and cinema studies are the other programs slated for consolidation, an action that will affect more than 200 undergraduates who have declared majors in these subjects. He organized a protest for May 3, to coincide with a campus-wide celebration called Strawberry Fest. While only about 30 students showed up, they were able to collect thousands of signatures on a petition calling for the university to reassess its plan, which had not yet been made public by the dean to students. “Hardly anyone knew what was happening at this point,” Baker-Porazinski said.

Students at the May 3 protest against budget cuts to humanities departments at Stony Brook University (photo by Jenifer Holden)

The next day Dean Kopp sent an email with the subject line “Possible changes in majors in the College of Arts and Sciences,” in which he detailed the proposal to close the budget gap. The email had at least two immediate consequences: the Graduate Student Union began to mobilize its own resistance, “March for Humanities,” which included a protest on May 10 that attracted about 200 people. Meanwhile, Baker-Porazinski, using whatever information he could find, tried to crunch the numbers so that he could identify what alternatives might have been available to the university. “It didn’t add up,” he said. With the shortfall representing less than 2% of the annual operating $2.6 billion budget of Stony Brook, why couldn’t an across-the-board budget cut of the same percentage avert the humanities crisis?

Students at the May 3 protest against budget cuts to humanities departments at Stony Brook University (photo by Jenifer Holden)

Stony Brook President Samuel Stanley, one of the highest compensated public university presidents in the United States, making $690,640 last year, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, has been silent about the humanities cuts. In past budget crises — and Stony Brook has had its fair share of them — Stanley has spoken openly about deficits and strategies for coping with them, in line with the university’s much-touted commitment to transparency, particularly as it relates to budgetary processes. He also seemed to put academics, including the humanities, as a top priority, avoiding cuts by belt-tightening in other ways, such as hiring freezes.

The problem facing the humanities at Stony Brook isn’t unique; for years, public universities, including the State University of New York (SUNY), have turned to their humanities departments to cut down on costs. More recently, in February 2016, Purdue University administrators announced the Graduate Education Initiative, which reallocated the $7.7 million the university had earmarked for graduate student support. Not surprisingly, the College of Liberal Arts was targeted, with total graduate enrollment capped at 500 (compared to its previous 750) and budget allocations generally decreased.

In an email to faculty, Dean Kopp deemed an across-the-board cuts solution unviable, though he did not explain why. Instead, he wrote, “Three principles have guided the formulation of the present proposal. First, … to maintain and enhance excellence in research, scholarship, and artistic creation in as many programs as possible, especially those for which we have a demonstrated record of excellence and/or an opportunity to excel. Second… to impact the fewest number and the programs serving small(er) numbers of students; our resources must be prioritized to those programs that ensure timely completion of degrees for the largest number of students. Third, we seek to work within our financial constraints.”

Students at the May 3 protest against budget cuts to humanities departments at Stony Brook University (photo by Jenifer Holden)

For some graduate students, the cuts represent more than a potential interruption in their studies, research, and teaching. “The consequences may be much more far-reaching,” explained Corinna Kirsch, a PhD student. “As some of the departments being affected, such as Hispanic Languages and Literature, are core to maintaining diversity, there have been worries about implicit racism as a factor determining which departments have been cut.” In a letter to Stony Brook administrators, the Modern Languages Association highlighted achievements of Stony Brook graduate students, particularly those in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature, and concluded: “The suspension of this department and its PhD program devalues the work of its scholars and students. Further, it eliminates crucial resources for cultural and linguistic study, whose relevance extends far beyond Stony Brook, at a time when Latino, Latina, and Hispanic students are being targeted across the board.”

Students at the May 3 protest against budget cuts to humanities departments at Stony Brook University (photo by Jenifer Holden)

These concerns echoed during the Graduate Student Union’s “March for Humanities,” during which protesters chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Sacha Kopp has got to go.” Shortly thereafter, Dean Kopp canceled meetings that were scheduled to discuss the cuts with students.

“We absolutely felt this was calculated in terms of timing,” Baker-Porazinski said in regard to the news of the cuts. Dean Kopp’s student email was sent out May 4, two days before the last day of classes. Neither the administration nor Stony Brook’s media department responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comments on the matter.

The students’ fight isn’t over. Last week, a contingent of them headed to Albany to lobby state legislators to not approve cuts to the humanities budget. In the meantime, students will be keeping a close watch on developments in their departments.

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