When the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees eliminated five programs during its meeting May 11, administrators stressed that although the Russian bachelor’s degree was being axed, a minor in Russian would still be available.
But recent graduates, alumni, instructors and others are doubtful the Russian program will survive once the students currently enrolled finish their degrees.
With the retirement of its last fulltime faculty member this year, the Russian program will depend on two lecturers next school year — a Fulbright teaching assistant from Russia who is expected to leave after one year and a French professor who happens to be a native Russian speaker, said Joy Landeira, head of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.
“The kids who are in the minor now will get to finish their minor,” she said. “But we won’t be really encouraging a lot of new minors to declare because, again, we don’t really have the resources to have fulltime, steady professors teaching them.”
Without an adequate supply of instructors, the Department of Modern and Classical Languages will likely have to stop offering Russian either as a major or a minor, despite the assurances given by the Office of Academic Affairs in the program elimination proposal presented to the Board of Trustees before its vote.
“The Russian language will continue to be taught (and) a Russian minor will be available,” the proposal reads in text bolded and underlined.
The proposal reiterates the minor will be retained and explains the rationale for closing the major. The proposal states the program could not offer a robust, varied education with just one fulltime instructor, student demand was insufficient and — because only one high school in the state teaches Russian — there are not many students arriving at UW in search of Russian language courses.
Joe Peschio, who graduated from the Russian program in 1996 and now teaches Russian at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was one of many who wrote letters to UW in defense of the program.
Peschio said he was surprised to hear the minor could be going away.
“When I heard back from the UW administration when I wrote them a few letters over the past year, they kept saying that they were going to eliminate the major but they would retain the program so there would still be Russian instruction,” he said.
The minor could survive beyond the “teach-out” plans for current students, but administrators are less certain about the future of the Russian minor than when the review process began.
When the major was first put under review in 2016 — before senior lecturer Joseph Krafczik took a separation incentive package — the minor’s survival appeared much likelier, said Anne Alexander, associate vice president for undergraduate education.
“We didn’t know (Krafczik) was going to retire,” Alexander said. “But I don’t think shutting down the minor is at all something we need to address right now because we do have that (study-abroad) program in Saratov, we do have the opportunity to get Fulbright foreign language teaching assistants.”
Since the early 1990s, the UW Russian program has maintained close ties to — and sent students to study-abroad at — Saratov State University in Russia.
Throughout the next fiscal year, university officials will consider the vacancy left by Krafczik — along with 44 other vacancies left by faculty taking separation incentives — to determine which need to be refilled and which will be permanently eliminated.
“Now over the next few months, what we’re going to do as an institution is figure out where our strategic hiring priorities are,” she said. “That’s the next step after this.”
It is too early to tell which positions will be prioritized, Alexander said.
The top priority now is finishing out the students already declared, said Paula Lutz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“We will be able to finish people out using other faculty that we have here and we’re going to try our best to keep the minor going when current students finish the major,” Lutz said. “… We do have some ability to teach some Russian classes without (Krafczik) but it’s going to be difficult.”
UW’s Russian program dates back to the 1950s. What started as informal instruction in the time of Sputnik had grown into a minor program led by two master’s degree-holding faculty by the 1960s, said Lewis Bagby, who started teaching Russian at UW in 1970.
“In 1970, the program was upgraded to two faculty holding the Ph.D. and a major in Russian language and literature began and lasted until 2017,” he said.
The program kept expanding throughout the Cold War as Russian language studies became more important for American students, growing to five fulltime faculty.
“UW’s Coe Library now houses the most comprehensive Russian Studies holdings for undergraduates in the Front Range from New Mexico to Montana,” Bagby said. “It was built in conjunction with Soviet/Russian specialists who taught in the (Department) of History and the (Department) of Political Science.”
UW’s Russian program established partnerships with other institutions in post-Soviet Russia, beginning the long-standing exchange program with Saratov State University, Bagby said.
“Under grants won under U.S. Department of State funding, UW has sent faculty, students, staff, administrators, the governor, state Supreme Court justice, legislators and citizens to engage in exchanges,” Bagby said. “UW has sent students of Russian to Saratov since the early 1990s for home-stays and intensive language study.”
The exchange program between UW and Saratov State University in Russia has existed for more than 20 years and has served as an integral part of the Russian degree program for many of its graduates, said Landeira.
“The program has lasted for so long and we have a really good relationship with them,” she said.
When Peschio attended UW in the early 1990s, the Russian program was supported by three full-time faculty members. As these instructors left, the university did not hire replacements.
“Not replacing those two retirements sounds the death knell,” he said.
Bagby served as chair of the Modern and Classical Languages Department from 1989-1992 and as director of international programs from 1995-2006.
“As faculty positions gradually disappeared from History and Political Science, enrollment began to fall, which in turn reduced the need for three language faculty to two,” Bagby said. “Then, with the elimination of the two Ph. D.-holding faculty positions in the language department, further declines became inevitable.”
The program shrunk until Krafczik — Russian’s final fulltime faculty member — took a separation incentive package this spring after 29 years of service to the school. Separation incentives were offered to tenured faculty as part of UW President Laurie Nichol’s $10 million reduction plan for fiscal year 2018.
Bagby and others said Russian is being cut at a time when its importance is rising.
“With hard economic times, the Russian program of 60 years became low-hanging fruit and got plucked,” Bagby said. “Is the Sputnik of 2017 the Russian’s meddling in the US election of 2016?”
But, it was likely too late to save the program, said Peschio. The program deteriorated too much to bounce back.
“So, you know, you have a degree program without tenure-track faculty, which means it’s a degree program without people who are actively productive scholars, which is sort of an untenable situation in itself,” Peschio said. “And of course, that diminishes the program’s draw for students, which would naturally result in fewer majors.”
In his letter to UW President Laurie Nichols, Peschio alleges the Russian program has been “starved of resources for decades,” resulting in “no tenured faculty left in Russian to speak up for the program.”
In recent years — with just Krafczik and part time or exchange teaching assistants to teach Russian on campus — the program began to lean heavily on the Saratov study-abroad program to provide the instruction required for the major, said Megan Dudenhoeffer, who graduated from the Russian program this month.
“It wasn’t that many more credits to major in it (than minor), but the university made it very difficult. Basically, unless you went on the study-abroad trip, you couldn’t get enough credits in order to get the major because there weren’t enough classes offered.”
For some people involved in the program — presently or in the past — the death of UW’s Russian program is very disappointing, even among those making the decisions to eliminate.
“I took Russian when I was an undergraduate years ago in another state, so this was a particularly difficult decision for me,” Lutz said. “Deciding on where to invest the resources we have remaining is difficult.”