Columns » Max Brantley

UALR's decision to drop German part of broader theme on higher education's future

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The Arkansas Blog, my daily obsession, provided higher education last weekend.

It began with a tip that UALR is taking steps to end its German studies program — not enough students. Existing majors will be accommodated, but possible fallout includes potential impact on exchange programs in German-speaking countries for top scholars and the cool signal to German-owned businesses.

I also learned from the New York Times that Little Rock native Teresa Sullivan, who overcame an effort to oust her as head of the prestigious University of Virginia, came to grief with the business executives who are political overseers of Thomas Jefferson's university because she was too conventional. She wasn't moving fast enough to develop on-line courses. She also wasn't moving fast enough to get rid of unproductive courses in the classics and — there they go again — German.

Forget the umlauts. The broader theme is the sustainability of higher education. Donald Bobbitt, the new University of Arkansas president, is a champion of on-line delivery. A concerned mother has already complained to me that her daughter at Fayetteville will go through two years without contact with an instructor in her major except on-line. If that's so, she wonders, why rent a dorm room?

Legislators are pressing colleges to back away from more than Latin and the romantic poets. They also target core curriculums. Some prefer to focus on the presumptively more productive fields of business, science and technology. Others just see a way to trim courses they don't value. Who really needs Western civilization lectures anyway? Think of how many computers you could buy after RIFing the history department.

Bright lights emerged. A Mount St. Mary graduate, Kathleen Condray, who now heads the German section at UAF, reassured me that the harsh-sounding language I enjoyed for three years in college remains on offer at our flagship institution, including a master's degree. She also spoke a language pragmatic politicians should understand:

"At UAF, students routinely participate in internships abroad at institutions such as BMW, an architecture firm in Leipzig, a marketing start-up in Berlin, and a research laboratory at the University of Weimar. They can certify their language skills for future employers with the internationally recognized exams of the Goethe Institute; one of our recent graduates just started a position at Google's headquarters in California. He noted that they were especially interested in his German skills and that 78 percent of their employees speak more than one language. In spite of Eurozone woes, the European Union is still the largest trading partner of the United States, and Germany is its economic engine. Within the state, the July 2012 Arkansas International Business Report (compiled by ADED) states: "Arkansas has twenty-one (21) German-owned companies with thirty-three (33) locations that account for nearly 1,600 jobs. These companies include manufacturers of wind turbines, automotive parts, power tools, and steel among others."

UA is cultured, too. Condray wrote that an international symposium is set Oct. 11-13 on the German writer Friedrich Gerstäcker, who wrote about Arkansas as the Wild West in the mid-19th century. A colleague, Dr. Jennifer Hoyer, has received an $18,000 grant for a Jewish Studies lecture series, "Beyond the Holocaust." A student whose native language is Spanish will use a grant to study Yiddish this summer in New York. Others are fluent in several languages, including Chinese.

"Our students take preparation for a global workplace very seriously and want experience in Europe, Latin America and Asia," wrote Condray.

If that's not wunderbar enough for you, Condray also struck a downhome note. She volunteered to translate family correspondence from Arkansas's German immigrants of yore in return for permission to include the letters in a historic archive.

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