Endangered French Department at Rural Kentucky University “Waits Anxiously”

Last August, Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) threatened to suspend its French department. Since then, Randi L. Polk – one of the two full-time professors of French at the university – has been trying to attract more students and save her program.

France-Amérique: How did the recent $3 million state funding cuts affect the French department?

Randi L. Polk: Last January, Kentucky governor Matthew Bevin [Republican] reduced the state funds allocated to colleges and universities by $18 million, including $3 million for Eastern Kentucky University. He specifically recommended teaching the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] subjects over the humanities. “There will be more incentives for electrical engineers than French literature majors”, he declared. “Anyone who wants to study French literature can do so, but they won’t be subsidized by the taxpayer.” It’s been devastating for all the state-funded universities throughout Kentucky.

Was it around this time that EKU’s French department was recommended for suspension?

The university’s Budget Review Committee recommended the suspension of French and 20 other programs, including Theatre, Horticulture, Geography and Journalism. Any program that did not graduate at least ten students per year was identified last August as problematic for budgetary reasons. [Six students graduated from EKU with a Bachelor’s degree in French Literature and one student with a degree in French Teaching during the academic year 2015-2016.]

What happened next?

In September, I was given fifteen minutes to plead for the French department before the university’s Faculty Senate and the Council on Academic Affairs (CAC). The CAC voted to put us on probation. The Faculty Senate has not yet voted. Ultimately, the university president and the Board of Regents will gather all the recommendations and make the final decision – probably in December.

What are the possible outcomes for the French department?

If the department is suspended, the university would not allow any new students to take French classes, but we still have a commitment to teach out the students who are currently enrolled in the program. So if we have a student who declares a French major up until the end of this semester, we will have to teach the courses that they need until they graduate. The university could also put the department on probation and review the program again next year. That would give us a two-year period in which we would have the time to regroup, try to attract more students, and get more support.

What can you do to attract more students to the department?

We’re not just teaching our students French literature; we’re showing them the usefulness of French. We’re focusing on practical and professional applications. Canada is Kentucky’s main trade partner. The French company Euro Sticks is planning to open a plant [and create 90 jobs] near us in Corbin. There are opportunities to interact with Francophones in Kentucky – that’s one of the arguments I use to defend our program. But when you’re living in a rural area that does not have quite as much exposure to diversity, you’re not going to be as well-informed about the culture and the language that could help you in your future career. Some of my students have never traveled, and are completely unaware of the French presence in West Africa or the rest of the world. We are trying to inform our students of the importance of an international language like French.

What was the students’ reaction?

In all this negative publicity, I’ve had at least ten students who have come to me in the last couple of weeks to declare a major or a minor in French – they are afraid they might not be able to in the future. In the meantime, we are all anxiously waiting for the university’s final decision.