Last year, I heard this story from a couple of very reliable sources: Provost Patrick Farrell of the University of Wisconsin, the de facto chief operating officer, came to a meeting with a group of arts and humanities department chairs. They were very direct about their concern that the current leadership of the UW fails to understand the value of arts and humanities in the university today. Farrell's response? "Could you give me a sentence or two summarizing why these areas matter?" My god, the man becomes the COO of one of the greatest research universities in the United States and he needs that? Strike one.
Now, an anonymous commenter on this post, reports as follows:
Sandefur said … at the opening of the Language Institute in Van Hise, much to the dismay of the entire assembled audience … "before becoming dean I didn't realize we had all these great language departments", which was equally dismaying. And guess what? Now UW DOESN'T have all those great language departments.Of course, anybody who takes over as dean really needs to understand the strengths of their college, and UW is among the national leaders in the range of languages it offers. What did he know? Strike two.
But it's Chancellor John Wiley himself who gets strike three, again drawing from the last comment (I can confirm that this was said, and will report back if it's not confirmed):
The Chancellor … has been quoted by the Dean of Letters & Science as wondering out loud why UW needs to offer "all these languages".Why? Ever hear of the war in Afghanistan, where we suffer for the lack of people who know languages like Dari and Pashto? Or Iraq? We don't even have a fraction of the number of speakers and teachers we need for Arabic, clearly one of the world's strategic languages. Or the global war on terror? Even the US government realizes the need for a broad base of speakers and teachers of many languages — Monterey and the Center for the Advanced Study of Language show that. They are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the area and they are not making much of a dent. This is surely a central part of the mission of major universities, directly in the national interest.
This came up in the context of how UW teaches "obscure African dialects" spoken by "dwindling numbers of speakers". (Oh, is that a whiff of racism I smell in the gentle late summer breeze?) Now, the strategic importance of languages doesn't come simply from their numbers of speakers and Africa is surely a crucial part of the world in every way, whether Wiley understands that or not. But let's consider the numbers of speakers for the African languages I'm pretty sure are regularly taught here (using Ethnologue's online numbers and leaving aside Arabic, as being of obvious importance):
- Swahili 30 million second-language speakers, 800,000 L1 speakers
- Hausa 24.2 million
- Yoruba 19.3 million
- Xhosa 7.2 million
- Zulu 9.6 million
Image from here, with an article about "embracing your ignorance". (I don't know this chalkboard scene from the Simpsons and wonder if it's an altered one.)