Beating the bottom line: Is language instruction doomed to fail at rural universities?

Integrating language study into business, science, health and technology programs may offer one viable path for sustaining at least some presence for this vital field at rural universities.
Richard Utz
Richard Utz
Richard Utz is the interim dean in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech.

All around the world, people know John Denver’s 1971 blockbuster, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The hit’s popularity persuaded West Virginians to make it an official state song, and its first two words, “Almost Heaven,” became the state’s PR slogan. West Virginia University, the state’s flagship institution, performs the song at many of its events.

The state, and its flagship institution, experienced a rude awakening in 2023, when the slow-paced, “timeless” way of life in their favorite song was confronted with the volatile reality of contemporary higher education, specifically lower enrollment and a $45 million budget shortfall. The institution’s board responded by dropping 28 of its majors and laying off 143 of its faculty. Most drastically, it eliminated the entire World Languages department.

The reason WVU’s decision sent shock waves around the country was that flagship institutions are expected to sustain a full range of educational opportunities. To many observers, WVU’s cuts were symbolic of the fate of language instruction nationwide. Appeals were launched, including an open letter in the Washington Post to WVU president Gordon Gee. Paula Krebs, the executive director of the Modern Language Association of America, stated that “[s]cience, technology and business courses and majors are not enough for WVU to offer if it wants to produce fully informed and thinking citizens for West Virginia.”

I agree that the cuts to language study at WVU deprive all its students of a seminal educational opportunity, such as highly marketable skills in intercultural competency and communicative competency. However, neither these negative consequences nor the World Languages department’s praiseworthy productivity could avoid their demise. How is this possible?

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While cuts to language education have been reported throughout the country, most have happened at rural and less selective institutions. Decreased enrollment has obliged such institutions to reduce programs and staff, with the pandemic and politics acting as recent accelerants of already difficult budgetary situations. Thus, the list of universities and colleges eliminating some or all their language education over the last decade includes the likes of Missouri Western State University, SUNY Potsdam and Eastern Carolina University. WVU fits the same category because most of the state’s population lives in relatively poor rural communities of fewer than 2,500 inhabitants.

Cultural competency, the top outcome of learning an additional language and culture, remains a priority for students attending selective liberal arts colleges or research universities. But at institutions where students’ family income is under $70,000, it is considered a luxury. Leaders at rural universities often defend their cuts by the need to appease its taxpayers, who may consider learning foreign languages a costly imposition by liberal elites.

It would be easy for me to vilify leaders like Gordon Gee from the perspective of someone working at a top-ranked research university situated in a booming and globally oriented metropolitan area. While I would wish that language education be extended to every student everywhere, I can understand that the conditions for rural institutions necessitate making choices and that moving resources from the humanities to the health professions, sustainability or cybersecurity may feel like a reasonable thing to do. What irks me is that rural populations already are “twice as likely to feel powerless and marginalized as those in cities and suburbs.” That they think of their states and universities as only “Almost Heaven” may indicate an awareness of the limits imposed on their career choices.

Access to language education in human-centered classrooms, which engender a sense of belonging and provide an empowering economic and intellectual window to the world, should remain part of everyone’s educational experience. Perhaps integrating language study into business, science, health and technology programs can offer one viable path for sustaining at least some presence of this vital field at rural institutions.


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