LINGUIST List 2.732

Thu 31 Oct 1991

FYI: Linguistics Department closing at Minnesota

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  1. Joe Stemberger, Linguistics Department closing at Minnesota

Message 1: Linguistics Department closing at Minnesota

Date: Thu, 31 Oct 91 12:28 CST
From: Joe Stemberger <>
Subject: Linguistics Department closing at Minnesota
We've been told that folks on LINGUIST are interested in hearing what is
happening about the possible closing of the Linguistics Department here
at Minnesota. The following is my personal opinion about what has
happened and why.
The Faculty Assembly of Liberal Arts has voted to support the Dean's plan
to close us down. They explicitly rejected a counterproposal that we merge
with another department (the one that the Dean's were trying to get us
to merge with last year). The Dean is also dead-set against a merger. She
says that only closing departments will get her what she needs for Liberal
The Dean will forward recommendation of closure to central administration.
In theory, our president could refuse to follow it. Now, President Hasselmo
is a linguist, trained by Einar Haugen, and a current member of the LSA.
But he also attempts to be squeeky-clean, and would never do anything that
could be even remotely construed as favoritism. So, I doubt that he'll
intervene on our behalf. The Regents will hear the plans at their meeting
next week, and will vote in early December.
We are still fighting for a merger. But since the Dean is so strongly
opposed to this, success is unlikely.
Many of you out there may be wondering why the Dean is doing this, since it
looks like it doesn't save much money. We heard from one linguistics
department that saved itself a few years ago by compromising, and agreeing
to give up a secretary and some TA lines. We have only one secretary and
0.8 TA lines, so that wasn't possible. You'd think that any savings would
come only from people leaving, so that this decision was a decision to
eliminate all aspects of linguistics at this university.
But the story is more complicated. Some of the things that the Dean has
said just this week have made several things clearer to me. The budget of
Liberal Arts is not, in fact, being decreased. The University of Minnesota
is undergoing a massive internal reallocation of funds. The budget of the
College of Education is being slashed, and one whole branch campus (at
Waseca) has been closed. The money from those changes is being
re-distributed to other colleges at the university, and Liberal Arts is a
designated winner. Our budget is actually being increased substantially.
However, there are strings attached. In order to get the new money, Liberal
Arts much show savings of 1.5 million dollars.
This reallocation is actually crucial to understanding the Dean's actions.
In addition to closing two departments, the Dean wants to strengthen
others, USING FUNDS FROM REALLOCATION. This allows her to do some creative
book-keeping. If she can take someone from the Linguistics Department and
transfer him/her to a department slated for strengthening, then that
person's salary can come FROM REALLOCATION FUNDS; since the source of the
salary would no longer be the Linguistics Department budget, all the money
in the salary WOULD BE SAVED --- cut from the PREVIOUS budget. So, costs
can be transferred from one category (old budget) to a new one
(reallocation funds). In actual dollars spent, there would be little
change. But the Dean can claim that so-many-dollars have been saved, and
commit new money to paying the person. If there were no money coming to us
through reallocation, or if central administration hadn't put strings on
that money, there would be little or no savings from closing us. So,
paradoxically, we have been done in because of an increase in the budget.
This also explains why the Dean is so opposed to us merging with another
department. The most likely departments to merge with are not slated for
strengthening, so no money would be "saved".
But why Linguistics? We have repeatedly told the Dean that we, as
linguists, have our fingers in many pies, that we are needed by many other
departments. Lots of you wrote letters saying that (for which we thank
you). Lots of our colleagues in other departments here at Minnesota wrote
similar letters, including our cognitive science center and cognitive
science program. I think the Dean is well aware of that. In fact, she had an
interesting response to our graduate students when they told her that. It
was something like, "That's fine. That means that there are many other
departments that we could move the faculty to." In order to get "savings"
by using reallocation money, she really needs to disperse a faculty. Most
departments are highly focused. If you close down a German Department, you
basically have to merge it with some other language department. It is
unlikely that you could put 2 faculty in French, 2 in Spanish, 1 in
Psychology, 1 in computer science, etc. But a discipline that has lots of
inter-disciplinary characteristics is suitable for dispersal. If
linguistics interacts with a lot of other disciplines, then linguists can
theroretically be found in many different types of departments. So
dispersal would work. The other department being shut down, Humanities, is
inter-disciplinary in the same way; they are being closed even though
previous Deans have ranked them as one of the best departments in
Liberal Arts.
Our Linguistics Department here at Minnesota has always prided itself on
being particularly interdisciplinary. One theoretical phonologist (me) also
specialized on psycholinguistics and language acquisition; the other
concentrates on Spanish phonology. Our syntacticians also by-and-large have
broader interests, in computational linguistics, mathematical linguistics,
the philosophy of language, ESL, translation, etc. One faculty member works
on gendered speech in young children. We don't have anyone concentrating
on, say, phonological theory with a concentration on Bantu languages; such
a person would not fit at all with any other department at the university.
But most of our faculty fit more obviously into other departments. So the
Dean thinks that she can scatter us to many departments, and we can carry
on our work in those departments.
I doubt it will work. The Dean wants to eliminate undergraduate degrees, but
doesn't have the authority to touch the graduate program. But we won't be
able to have any TA's any more. And we won't be able to attract graduate
students, since we no longer have a department. The survival of our
graduate program is uncertain. If faculty get upset and leave, there's no
guarantee that they'll be replaced with people who would have a commitment
to keep linguistics going here. But the Dean is at least trying to pretend
that things can be kept going.
So, that's how things stand. We haven't given up yet by any means, but
things look grim. And paradoxically, the whole mess came about because of
the promised reallocation money. If we had been facing REAL budget cuts,
we'd have had to tighten our belts, and that would have been all. But
because the Dean has to APPEAR to save money without actually having to
do so, we have been sacrificed towards that goal.
Most of you will not be faced with similar situations; this reallocation
business is peculiar to our situation. But you might want to think about
the centrality of our field to so many others. Whoever would have thought
that being valuable to other departments would have made us MORE likely to
be closed, simply because there would be easy places to put us.
I'd like to thank everyone for all the support that you have given us, both
in terms of letters and in terms of moral support. We will give further
updates as things procede. Maybe we'll even manage to fight some of this
off and have some good news.
---joe stemberger
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