Tounge Tied

“For the success of students, it is extremely important that the main mission of MIIS be the teaching of cultures and languages where students may be involved in future endeavors,” says retired professor Vicki Porras.

For the past four months, executive staff and senior faculty at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies have favored a phrase in talking about controversial changes coming to the school. “It’s a fait accompli,” they repeat. 

A fancy way to say something is a done deal, the phrase was first borrowed from the French in 1845 and only came into more regular usage over the past eighty years, as shown by Google Books Ngram Viewer. It's ironic, then, that these changes involve overturning the graduate school’s marquee academic requirements around foreign language study.

In February, about a week into the spring semester, the administration released a document to faculty entitled “Language Policy Framework.” It said that starting with the class entering in the fall of 2020, the school would no longer require foreign language proficiency for admission. The new policy would also end foreign language study as part of the mandatory curriculum for all students.

The reason given for the change was that declining enrollment led to “an intractable deficit situation.”

“We are ‘boxing out’ large segments of our potential student market by appealing solely to students who have or desire to attain high-level language proficiency during their graduate studies,” the policy announcement said.

Each individual degree program would be allowed to uphold the traditional language requirements, and the opportunity to study language would be guaranteed to every student. Supporters say the change will allow better use of dwindling resources and an increased focus on advanced language instruction.

A day after the announcement, the administration at MIIS rolled out another policy, this time around “workforce planning.” Before implementing layoffs, the institute would offer voluntary separation packages with the goal of reducing its spending on faculty and staff salaries by $2.5 million. The combined salary cuts at MIIS and its parent entity, Middlebury College, would total $8 million. The announcement came less than a year after outcry about the level compensation for top executives. At the time, the college’s student newspaper ran headlines like “Executive Pay at Middlebury Is Out of Control” and “Faculty Demand Answers on Executive Pay.”

Morale plummeted. MIIS’ chief diversity officer, Pushpa Iyer, gave voice to the feeling on campus in her newsletter, titled “The Black Mirror.” (The title was not meant as a reference to the dystopian science fiction series, a MIIS spokesperson says.)

“I am struggling to write a note that encapsulates the general mood on campus,” Iyer wrote in March. “I am not sure it is even possible to do justice in a few words to almost a year of uncertainty, turmoil, and collective grief.”

Almost no MIIS faculty agreed to speak to the Weekly on the record, but Vicki Porras, who taught business and environmental studies in Spanish at MIIS for 15 years and retired in 2014, says, “All of my former colleagues have been devastated by job insecurity.”

She is also concerned the new policy will erode the identity of the school. “Monterey is the language capital of the world. Many students came here for that.”

Indeed, former Congressman Sam Farr, who once studied at MIIS, wrote in the MontereyHerald in 2017 that the language requirement was one of the factors that led to a 1995 proclamation by former Gov. Pete Wilson designating Monterey as the Language Capital of the World.

Learning of the change, Farr says, however, that the new language requirement policy is an appropriate way for the school to broaden its appeal. “You have to adapt to the times,” he says. “I doubt [the change] will hurt MIIS.”

Enrollment at MIIS dropped from 683 full-time students in the 2016-17 academic year to 583 this year, a roughly 15-percent decline. The good news is that the downward trend appears to have stopped. Dean Jeff Dayton-Johnson says the school is forecasting higher enrollment this year than last year: “I am guardedly optimistic.”

Dayton-Johnson, who is responsible for the decision to change the language requirement, says the new policy is a “big change for us.” He acknowledges the reputational risk but says that MIIS remains committed to language instruction: “We still want to be the destination for language nerds.”

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Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers higher education, the military, the environment, public lands and the geographic areas of Seaside, Monterey, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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(1) comment

Francisco de Borja Dorsch

This is supposed to be one of the country's most prominent international institutions. I hope outrage and protests will follow. The language services industry keeps growing in California. The "language nerds" quote is completely devaluing the workforce value of languages. It just shows you how the administration in this institution does not seem to see economic value in studying languages. Downright unacceptable.

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