CAS Position Vital to Curriculum
On March 18, 2005, when the College’s faculty reduction program first went underway, an editorial in this space predicted that “the political fallout from cutting positions from departments such as African American studies or gender and women’s studies makes it highly probable that their faculties will remain at their current size.” This week’s decision by the College Faculty Council to cut a position specializing in Asian-American history, thus hamstringing the recently-established comparative American studies program, now shows that we could not have been more wrong.
The decision is strange in several ways. The Asian- American history professorship is a relatively new position, that was recommended for renewal by the Education Programs and Plans Committee. Additionally, President Nancy Dye has criticized the position cut and College Dean Harry Hirsch is supporting her recommendation that the council reconsider the decision.
Any decision to cut a faculty position is of course going to cause controversy, and due to the socially-engaged nature of much of Oberlin’s curriculum, certain positions are going to cause more uproar than others. It is hard to imagine that an equally vital cut made in a department such as chemistry or French would provoke the same level of ire from the student body or faculty outside the department in question.
It would be unfortunate if this process became a proxy battle in the larger culture wars over multiculturalism in American academia. It is quite reasonable to say that CAS and other “culture studies” departments should not be exempt from the same level of review and scrutiny as less politically-controversial subjects. Other newer, smaller departments, such as cinema studies or rhetoric and composition, should not be placed under an undue burden to defend their program simply because it deals with less controversial subject matter. It is clear that the specifics of this case, however, show the Asian-American history position to be necessary for academic as well as political reasons.
On its department website, CAS defines itself as “an interdisciplinary program that examines issues of power and identity formation in the United States through the lenses of race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality.”
It is completely unreasonable and ridiculous to expect a program to study identity in contemporary America without a specialist in one of the largest and fastest-growing ethnic groups in the country. This would be equivalent to asking the English department to forgo works by Shakespeare or expecting jazz studies to do without drums.
This decision has revealed the major flaw in the College’s plan to cut positions only after they are vacated. While this plan initially seems more humane and less likely to provoke controversy it also means that important positions may be cut simply because the professors who fill them happen to retire while other less vital positions are left filled because their occupants have long-term tenure.
The Council has been entrusted with the unenviable task of cutting nine positions from the College and three from the Conservatory within the next five years. While a certain amount of ruthlessness is to be expected from those making the cuts, if making this deadline will mean removing crucial positions from already overstretched departments, it is hard to see how it will all be worth it. Surely the College could wait a few more years before reaching its “ideal size” of faculty if it means the educational integrity of our curriculum is maintained.
In making this decision, the council showed a critical lack of insight into
the nature of CAS as well as the issues that matter to students. We urge them to
reconsider this decision and exercise more care in the future.