In a recent video, the president of LASA, Aldo Panfichi Huamán, described his vision of the future of Latin American Studies as global in scale. The globalization of Latin American Studies underscores a renewed interest in diasporic populations, international migration, and the vicissitudes of international politics in shaping modern identities and modes of life. It also reinvigorates long-standing tensions between here and there, the specific and the general, disciplinary and interdisciplinary methods, area studies and transnational critique.
The future of Latin American Studies—indeed, the future of all our economies, politics, and lives—may be global (this in spite of the recent shift toward isolationism in Britain and the US), but what about our academic fields? What about our departments?
To my own field: Contemporary literary studies may be globalizing, but not everything is World Literature.
And yet, on May 1st—just as I was wrapping up my time at LASA in Lima—I received an email informing me that the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Stony Brook University, where I work, planned to eliminate the PhD program in Hispanic Languages & Literature (my department), and to merge HLL with two other departments—European Languages, Literatures & Cultures and Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature. This merger would result in a new unit: the Department of Comparative World Literature. (Language is conspicuously absent from this new title).
Just what sort of thing is comparative world literature? And why did the Dean, Sacha Kopp—formerly of UT Austin—decide to take this measure?
Some context: Stony Brook University (SBU) is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, and depends heavily on the New York State budget. Just this past April, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced, to much fanfare, a new plan to provide “free tuition” for middle-class college students in the SUNY and CUNY systems. It was a bold move in the wake of the polarizing 2016 Presidential election campaign, and one that followed in the footsteps of similar proposals, first by Bernie Sanders and then by Hillary Clinton. But this bold move was lacking in detail and structure, a vague promise of upward mobility that was soon criticized as politically expedient and lacking in substance.
One of the budgetary items that this plan failed to include was funding for the UUP (United University Professions) negotiated salary raise for SUNY faculty of 2%. That is, rather than fulfill its financial obligation to faculty and staff, the state required individual campuses to find ways to cough up the money. In the case of the College of Arts and Sciences at SBU this amounted to $1.5 million. In effect, this salary raise became a tax on SUNY universities, and has led to the current situation in which short-term solutions such as cutting arts and humanities programs are proffered as necessary and in the best interest of the university as a whole. Cost savings, efficiencies, and shared resources have become key words in this neoliberal paradigm, just as faculty governance is undermined while administrative positions expand.
These cuts will disproportionately affect low-income students, students of color, first-generation college students, and in particular Latino/a students, whose languages and cultures are quite literally being devalued at Stony Brook University. This, in stark contrast with SBU’s recently published (and now ironic) Diversity Plan.
Some numbers: SBU’s Hispanic/Latino graduate students comprise 6.3% of all graduate students. In HLL, they comprise 60%. Hispanic/Latino faculty comprise 3.9% of SBU’s total faculty. In HLL, they comprise 80%. Latinos on Long Island constitute 20.5% of the population and represent the fastest growing group in an area where all other population segments are decreasing.
In a letter to the dean, we, as a department, pointed out the following: “Along with this population boom comes a growing Latino cultural presence in our region, in New York State, and the country. Given the young average age of Latinos, soon they will represent one of the largest target groups for Stony Brook recruitment. This growing presence also increases our intellectual responsibility to research, document, and theorize about the traditions, debates, and challenges of what soon will be 25% of the US population. We, and many others, believe that the identity of Hispanic Languages & Literature is absolutely vital to the mission of the university, and to its future. Our visibility as a vibrant unit on campus and beyond is of key importance to preserve our department’s academic excellence and the future growth of our undergraduate and graduate programs.”
And we were not alone. Letters poured in from professional organizations such as the MLA and ACLA, as well as from prominent scholars in Latin American, Iberian, and Trans Atlantic Studies. Current HLL graduate students circulated a petition that has garnered nearly 4,000 signatures. Acclaimed writer Junot Díaz wrote on Facebook: “This sucks. Stony Brook, what the hell are you thinking?” Indeed. Other writers joined in his indignation. Univision Noticias ran a headline: “Esto apesta.” The Graduate Student Organization convoked a protest on May 12th that was attended by students, faculty, and staff from across the university.
Echoes of the chant “We want education not administration” fell on deaf ears. Deaf still, even as this year’s commencement speaker, Michael J. Fox, highlighted the need to support the arts and humanities in the current political climate. Deaf to the alternative proposals presented by Chairs of several CAS departments. Blind to the mission of the public university as an engine of upward mobility. Blind to the reality of Stony Brook’s place in the broader fabric of the Latino/a population of Long Island and New York State. Blind to the optics of gutting a program that promotes the intellectual growth, historic specificity, and artistic value of Spanish-speaking world. Deaf and blind to the reality of such a proposal.
All of these efforts have led to one minimal concession: HLL will be able to keep its graduate program (for now). Still, the College has announced that it will suspend admissions into the undergraduate degree programs in Theatre Arts, Comparative Literature, and Cinema & Cultural Studies, as well as to the graduate program in Comparative Literature. The plan to merge the three departments is still in effect. Comparative World Literature remains the end goal of the administration.
What good is a Spanish Department in this context? Or, perhaps, we should be asking ourselves: What value does the specificity and independence of a Spanish (or Spanish and Portuguese) Department add to a university? If we are to take this plan as any indication, the answer seems to be that there is no qualitative reason to distinguish between one linguistic, cultural, and literary tradition and another. All literatures are world literatures. All languages are world languages. All languages outside of the English-speaking world, that is. (Again, ironic).
The plan represents not only a shortsighted attempt to resolve a budget shortfall, but the repetition and entrenchment of the very colonial ideologies that many of us have ardently sought to dismantle. In addition to serving the interests of the neoliberal economy (save STEM fields, cut the humanities), this plan exposes—with astounding clarity—the underlying structures of colonial dominance that persist in the academe. Rather than conceive of Spanish as a language of critical importance and academic inquiry; rather than conceive of a Spanish Department as an essential component in promoting diversity and mentoring for minority students, Hispanic Languages and Literature is to provide a service, a bonus, to students from other departments. It is a plan that I can only describe as willfully ignorant of its intellectual bankruptcy. But that was never the point, was it?
Joseph M. Pierce
Stony Brook University
Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature
M.A. Latin American Studies, 2007, The University of Texas at Austin
Ph.D. Spanish American Literature, 2013, The University of Texas at Austin