Purdue must restore its English program (opinion)

The assault on funding and faculty hiring in Purdue University’s English department needs to stop. Now more than ever, a strong grounding in writing and speaking skills, in storytelling and poetry, in culture, should remain strong for a future that depends increasingly on sophisticated technology.

Ace Inside Higher Ed has reported, recent moves to cut graduate student spots threaten the publication of the highly respected Sycamore Review, a student-run literary journal at Purdue. The department is facing a moratorium on graduate student admissions for the 2022–23 academic year. In recent years, about 20 faculty positions in English have been lost through attrition, and the number of graduate programs has been reduced from six to three.

On March 28, the American Association of University Professors chapter at Purdue called for an investigation of the budget cuts. In its announcement, the AAUP chapter noted that “the administration of the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) and the administration of the Department of English have engaged in extended public disputes about the English Department’s graduate student budget, with the English Department claiming dishonesty by the CLA and the CLA claiming financial mismanagement by the English Department.” The AAUP chapter requested that the university administration appoint an independent meditator for the investigation. It also requested that the English department administrators and CLA administrators answer questions in writing regarding the history of the budget cuts and that, in a meeting agreed by the University Senate, the administrators of the department, the CLA and other university officials answer questions face- to face for purposes of such investigation.

Hooray for the AAUP chapter. Public accountability at a public university in this nation is the threshold not only of basic trust but of common decency.

Purdue is well-known for its engineering programs—the 153-year-old land-grant university is, after all, the home of the Boilermakers. But in a letter to the Purdue Exponentelectrical and computer engineering professor Avi Kak wrote that cuts to Purdue’s English department will impact the entire university, preventing the growth of writing and thinking skills so important to students in all disciplines.

One of Purdue’s great accomplishments is the number of engineering graduates, 27 to date, who have become astronauts and the thousands of graduates who work in the space industry. The writing and reflective thinking skills that those alumni gathered through Purdue’s English department are essential in all jobs with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The space agency’s emphasis on the liberal arts is absolute. Its core values—safety, integrity, teamwork, excellence and inclusion—require the ability to communicate with humanity at the forefront. Space exploration is still about dreams and human potential. Purdue alumnus Neil Armstrong’s declaration—“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—is a poem, not an equation, and is anchored in the nation’s collective conscience.

While Purdue’s College of Liberal Arts has the so-called Cornerstone program, a 15-credit undergraduate certificate program in the liberal arts, the Army, Air Force and Naval Academies have transformed into high-ranking liberal arts colleges in the last decade. The service academies emphasize engineering and the sciences, and NASA recruits heavily from them. But to be effective at meeting changing global needs, the service academies decided that their graduates need a strong grounding in the liberal arts—to help the greater good. Most public universities such as Purdue—until recently—have long valued the greater good through a broad liberal arts grounding.

Purdue’s English department offered me, an Indiana native daughter from a small farm, equal jogging in the world of ideas. The highly accomplished faculty opened the doors for me with enthusiasm and compassion. With a doctorate in literature, I entered a profession, teaching and journalism, that I have loved for many years. I found jobs, even in the 1982 recession, because I could write, and eventually I taught as an assistant professor of journalism and English at Stillman College, a historically Black college in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Administrators of large public universities such as Purdue who are tempted to cut costs by cheap means of dismantling English department faculty lines need to stop and think. They will not strengthen student knowledge or culture by taking shortcuts. They will risk eroding basic skills in writing and an appreciation for the importance of sharing culture through poetry and stories. They cannot predict the future of every student’s profession or the direction it will take. But a liberal arts grounding—take my word for it, from a life’s many challenges including the death of my husband from COVID-19 and Parkinson’s disease—can bear us up on eagles’ wings.

The English departments at Purdue and other universities nationwide must be restored.

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