Volker Langbehn joined SF State’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures as an assistant professor in 2002, at a time when the German program was booming.
In the fall of 2004, Langbehn taught a combined undergraduate and graduate seminar, The Holocaust and Postwar Germany Taught in English, in which he recalls enrolling about 30 students – a full class .
Much has changed since then. He now runs the German program, one of the smallest at the university.
“The modern languages department is an exotic bird, and I’m not sure that many students actually know about it,” Langbehn said.
SF State’s MLL department has seen a decline in majors over the past seven years, including its most popular programs such as Japanese and Spanish. SF State’s Institutional Research Unit reported that 190 students majored in an MLL program last fall, a decrease of more than 37% from fall 2014, when there were 302 students. .
Last fall, the German and Italian master’s programs were discontinued. Langbehn predicts that the German or Italian major will be discontinued after retirement in two years, as the programs lack student demand.
“Student interest – the number of majors there is quite low; I would say both programs are vulnerable,” said Andrew Harris, dean of the College of Liberal & Creative Arts.
Demand-based tenure-track lines
The German program currently has two full-time faculty members – Professor Ilona Vandergriff and Langbehn. The Italian program has a lecturer and an assistant professor, Carlo Padula and Olivia Albiero, respectively. Alberio, who was hired as an assistant professor in 2016, teaches in German and Italian.
There are three ranks for tenure-track positions, from lowest to highest: assistant professor, associate professor, and professor. Faculty move up the tenure ladder through demonstrated achievement and promotion. Professors must be tenured in order to keep their job at SF State, while lecturers are classified as part-time, temporary, or adjunct.
Langbehn expects Albiero to transition full-time with the German program when he retires, leaving the Italian program with just one speaker. He said that for a program to be sustainable, it must have at least two full-time faculty.
“Italian will struggle because given the number, we can’t offer the number of courses for students to graduate on time,” Langbehn said.
According to MLL department chair Charles Egan, it’s easy to maintain a program as long as there are tenured faculty. When the full professors of the small programs leave, the Academic Senate does not replace them.
Two permanent professors in the Russian program retired in 2005. As a result, Russian minor, bachelor’s and master’s degree offerings were discontinued.
The last time tenure-track faculty were hired into the MLL department was during the 2016-17 academic year for the French and German programs.
Harris said the college has advocated for permanent positions for the MLL program since then, but has not been approved; tenure-track lines are assigned based on student demand, and student demand is higher elsewhere in the university.
MLL majors have declined more than the university’s total enrollment, which saw a 9.6% drop from fall 2014 to fall 2021. Students majoring in German fell from 11 in 2014 to six in 2021. Students majoring in Italian declined further, from eight students in 2014 to two students last semester.
Since German and Italian majors aren’t in high demand, according to Harris, tenure lines for the programs aren’t a priority.
Efforts to increase enrollment
During the 2015-2016 school year, Langbehn worked to promote the German curriculum and keep up with increasing enrollment. He reached out to the School of Engineering — the fourth largest of SF State’s 63 departments — with what he called a “vision document.”
His detailed eight-page proposal introduced an international engineering program that would have offered students the opportunity to study abroad and earn credit for two bachelor’s degrees: one in a foreign language and another in engineering. Students would be eligible for internships at companies such as BMW and Volkswagen and could potentially reach engineering positions at these US-market companies.
Several universities such as Purdue University, University of Connecticut, and UC Irvine already offer international programs, all of which have seen an increase in student interest and enrollment.
Purdue University Global Engineering Program reported an 85% increase in participation from 2013 to 2018. According to its Office of Institutional Research, international experiences, such as study abroad, are a key component of transformative education.
MLL Department faculty discussed the proposal with School of Engineering Director Timothy D’Orazio. D’Orazio favors language studies as a former student abroad himself but does not see the feasibility of the international program.
“It’s hard to institute with a high unit major because BAs and BSs are different unit numbers,” Egan said. “And so the engineering program is a very high unit major. So to be able to do that, you would need a five-year BA instead of four years, for example.
Another attempt was made with the current Principal of the School of Engineering, Kwok-Siong Teh, in the fall of 2018 when Teh first became Principal. Teh was an international student himself, speaks six languages, and studied abroad while at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
After discussion within the department and with the dean of the college, the School of Engineering again decided not to pursue the proposed dual degree program for reasons similar to D’Orazio’s. Langbehn disagrees with the reasons for not pursuing the dual degree and has made it known.
“It’s one of those things that I think is beneficial for students if they want to learn the second language, which I hope will interest more students, but I think it’s just the nature of what it is on this campus,” Teh said.
Implementation of a language requirement
Alternatively, Vandergriff has suggested implementing a foreign language graduation requirement to increase enrollment, which other MLL professors agree with. Part of the CSUs assignment is to “prepare students for an international and multicultural society”.
Within the CSU system, five universities have language requirements for undergraduates to earn a bachelor’s degree: Sacramento State, Cal State San Marcos, San Diego State, Cal State Monterey Bay, and Cal State Channel Islands.
The UC system has already implemented foreign language requirements on all of its campuses.
“The university, CSU, doesn’t value language learning enough to make it a requirement,” Vandergriff said. “We know that students, they’re very pragmatic, they know, ‘This is what I have to do to finish my studies.'”
She added that one of the biggest problems for the SF state is graduation rate and timely graduation, which were below the CSU average. Much like the proposal for an international engineering program, adding an extra language requirement would keep students in school longer.
“Overall, language learning does not have the same value or the same type of capital as elsewhere. In America, there has often not been enough value placed on the languages that exist in the community,” Vandergriff said.
The value of the foreign language
Egan said people need foreign language skills in California to provide basic services in sectors such as health, education and government. MLL began offering interdisciplinary courses such as Spanish for healthcare professionals.
Harris sees the potential to increase enrollment by encouraging other departments to adopt language study as complementary studies to another major.
“There’s no shortage of ways to connect us, not just to health professions, but probably to others as well,” Harris said. “I think it’s a real conversation that the Department of Modern Languages has the opportunity to have because I think there’s an opportunity there.”
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages conducted a nationwide survey in 2019 of 1,200 managers and human resources professionals. Nine out of 10 US employers said they need employees fluent in languages other than English.
The United States Census Bureau estimates that 26.6% of California’s population are foreign-born residents, double the nation’s 13.5%. Additionally, the Migration Policy Institute reported that in 2019, 52% of foreign-born residents in California had limited English proficiency and nearly half of the population spoke a language other than English in the House.
“The Italian program has served students and community members for decades, and it has had and continues to have strong ties to cultural institutions here in San Francisco – throughout the Bay Area” , Albiero said in an email. “Small programs tend to be particularly vulnerable in difficult times in higher education, especially when learning languages and literature is not a priority.”
The State of SF establishes a new strategic plan every five years, the last of which was adopted in 2015. The strategic planning committee began developing a new plan in September of last year.
“Strategic planning provides a university with the opportunity to assess its success, address its challenges, and engage in ongoing work to strengthen itself and better serve its communities,” the SF State President wrote. Lynn Mahoney, in an email last fall.
“I think it’s mostly talking,” Egan said. “The current strategic plan focuses primarily on social justice, which is a wonderful goal, isn’t it? But there is almost no mention of international things in it. Whereas the previous strategic plan focused on internationalization. But even then, it was more talk than action.
The Academic Master Plan Framework currently recommends the new strategic plan to “support and develop academic programs that respond to international and global concerns” and “internationalize the curriculum and facilitate international exchange”.
“Well, there’s definitely a contradiction,” Langbehn said. “When an institution like the State of San Francisco makes the big spiel that it’s so international, then I wonder out loud, ‘How can you make that claim if, ultimately, your Department of modern languages asks the question: Can we keep it on high?'”