Mount Holyoke College To Phase Out German, Russian Majors

The Academic Priorities Committee at Mount Holyoke has motioned to discontinue the college’s German and Russian language programs, citing material constraints. Students have mobilized against the proposal, and Amherst German and Russian faculty also worry that foreign language is being devalued.

Mount Holyoke College To Phase Out German, Russian Majors
Mount Holyoke’s decision to discontinue its Russian and German programs follows the elimination of the college’s Arabic department in 2022. Photo by Xinran Li, courtesy of The Mount Holyoke News.

The Academic Priorities Committee (APC) at Mount Holyoke College has motioned to discontinue all programs of study in the German and Russian languages over the next four years, citing a lack of available resources. Faculty will vote on the motion on May 9.

Since learning about the upcoming vote at the end of March, students in the departments have mobilized against the proposal, sparking conversations about the value of learning a foreign language. Professors of German and Russian at Amherst have also expressed their concerns.

If the motion passes, the German studies and Russian and Eurasian studies departments will be disbanded in Fall 2023. Current students at Mount Holyoke with a major or minor in the German or Russian departments will be allowed to finish their program of study by Spring 2027. Starting in Fall 2024, new students will not be allowed to pursue these programs.

Amherst’s Chair of Russian Catherine Ciepiela called the proposal “truly regrettable.” Her colleague, Assistant Professor of German Hannah Hunter- Parker, echoed this sentiment, writing to The Student that the motion is “devastating for those of us in the Five College language community.”

Students pursuing courses in these departments are wary of some of the guarantees made in the document. Many of them said they have been forced to take courses at other Five College institutions because of the lack of resources provided to them by Mount Holyoke. While the motion includes a recommendation “that the College reallocate the vacant faculty lines to other language-oriented humanities,” students are frustrated with the lack of disclosure about how these funds will be used to support them. This lack of transparency has contributed to a feeling that Mount Holyoke is not prepared to fully support the students who are currently pursuing studies in German and Russian.

“It’s kind of like they’re saying, ‘You can finish [the majors and minors],’ but it’s very clear that they’re not putting in the resources for us to finish it,” said Julia Burm ’25, a Mount Holyoke Russian major.

The APC’s motion cites low numbers of students in the two programs of study as justification for the discontinuation of the departments. It also points to few faculty members in each department — per the motion, “each department now has just one tenured faculty member and one lecturer.”

However, students organizing against the proposal have pointed out that Mount Holyoke’s inability or unwillingness to adequately staff the departments has led to a false appearance of low interest in the subjects. Few faculty in the German and Russian departments allows for a very limited number of available courses each semester, which leads to scheduling difficulties and a lack of enrollment in the classes. As Ciepiela said, “If you understaff a department, it attracts fewer students.”

The motivation for this proposed change is a scarcity of resources that will require Mount Holyoke to offer fewer majors in the future. This demand has affected programs besides German studies and Russian and Eurasian studies: Last year, Mount Holyoke ended its Arabic program. In addition, there have been multiple instances of several majors being combined into one umbrella program of study in past years. For example, the geology, geography, and environmental studies majors were consolidated into one larger, interdisciplinary major.

Student organizers are advocating for a similar consolidation of the German studies and Russian and Eurasian studies departments in lieu of a complete discontinuation of the programs. While the option has been explored in the past, the Mount Holyoke administration will not be pursuing this option due to a lack of faculty enthusiasm. For her part, Helen Frank ’253 said that “it makes sense to us that there wouldn’t be a lot of faculty who feel confident in their ability to support that program of study” due to Mount Holyoke’s failure to hire faculty in these departments during the past decades.

Frank was also disappointed by the administration's “pessimistic” attitude. “Instead of looking at it [as] an opportunity that we have to create something really interdisciplinary and creative by combining these departments… they feel tired, and they don’t see a good alternative.”

The student-led fight against the APC’s motion has demanded that students at Mount Holyoke and professors in the Five College community pinpoint the intrinsic value of language-learning. Professor Hunter- Parker explained that language study “allow[s] us to challenge our conditioned responses and come up with novel solutions. At the very least, it may help us to appreciate the plurality of human experience.” She concluded, “It is absolutely worth protecting.”

Frank, speaking on behalf of the larger student-organizing team, feels that “these departments are very vital in developing a global understanding, and Mount Holyoke prides itself on its global curriculum.” Disbanding these departments, she continued, “would be harmful to the diversity of our curriculum.”

In a statement to The Student, Ciepiela, the Amherst Russian chairprofessor, speculated that Mount Holyoke may be making decisions due to “unstated considerations in play — perhaps a perception that Germany and Russia have diminished significance compared to other countries and regions.” If this is the case, she said, “it seems like a strange moment to conclude that, with a ground war going on in Europe that was started by Russia. Surely we want to encourage students to better understand the cultural dynamics in that part of the world.”

Elizabeth Gerbi ’252 explained the importance of learning the German language as well. “Germany is the center of the [European Union]. German is an extremely important language, especially for people in STEM.”

Amid the scramble to save the German studies and Russian and Eurasian studies departments, Mount Holyoke students have reflected upon larger themes in higher education that the motion represents: The nationwide decline in the number of students pursuing degrees in the humanities (specifically in language-learning) is at the forefront of their minds.

Beyond theoretical arguments for and against the motion, personal relationships and passion for the subjects in question play a large role in the debate. Burm said that the “community” in the German and Russian departments “is really valuable,” and several of their peers echoed such sentiments.

Although the Mount Holyoke students in the German and Russian departments were only made privy to the possibility of the end of the departments at the end of March, they have quickly assembled a multi-faceted movement. In addition to holding meetings with key members of the administration, a group of students hand-delivered letters to every faculty member on campus, explaining why the departments are worth saving.

They are also collecting testimonials from students who have taken classes in the departments and do not believe that the programs should be ended. In one such testimonial, Anastasia Meyer ’26 wrote that “It saddens me that in the midst of book bans and curriculum crackdowns happening in other states, we might be losing a wonderful window into cultures full of social critique and exploration at MHC.”

This past weekend, protesters organized during Mount Holyoke’s Admitted Students’ Day to raise awareness for the issue. Prospective students “express[ed] gratitude for our transparency, because this is not something that the administration is telling them,” Frank said.

Several students conceded that, despite their best efforts, Mount Holyoke administrators have been unresponsive to their efforts thus far. “It seems like an already-done-deal,” said Burm, “They’re not really open to hearing our critiques … It feels like student input wasn’t taken into account.”

Unlike administrators, faculty have voiced their support for the students’ movement. “The faculty response so far has been very, very supportive. And that is really important because they are ultimately the ones who will vote on this,” said Germi.

Like Mount Holyoke, the Amherst community is also being asked to tighten its belt in the face of increasingly limited resources. The upcoming vote on the motion to end Mount Holyoke’s German and Russian departments raises questions about how an institution ought to determine which academic programs to prioritize, to what extent student voices matter, and how to approach questions of global citizenship. It will be an important example of how one liberal arts college has responded to budgetary constraints that Amherst may be able to learn from.

Ciepiela, although hopeful that the motion will not pass, maintained that “Amherst’s Russian department has a long history of sharing instructors and teaching each other college’s students. If this motion passes, we hope MHC students will stay interested in Russia and join our courses.”