Language and International-Studies Programs Face 'Devastating' Cuts Under Budget Deal

April 13, 2011

The federal budget plan expected to be approved by Congress this week would make sharp cuts in foreign-language and international academic programs, with some university officials saying they could result in staff layoffs.

International-education advocates are raising objections to reductions in programs authorized under two federal laws, Title VI of the Higher Education Act and the Fulbright-Hays Act. The budget deal, which would finance federal agencies until the end of September, would slash funds for these Department of Education programs by 40 percent, or $50-million, reducing their allocation to $76-million.

"A cut of that magnitude to such small programs really has a huge impact," says Miriam A. Kazanjian, a consultant with the Coalition for International Education. "It would be devastating."

In particular, she says the teaching of "critical" foreign languages, like Arabic and Farsi, and studies of various regions of the world would suffer, hurting America's national security and competitiveness in the global economy.

Title VI and Fulbright-Hays provide grants for a range of programs. Fulbright-Hays primarily pays for doctoral students to conduct research overseas, while Title VI supports a variety of academic centers at American universities. They include Language Resource Centers, National Resource Centers, and Centers for International Business Education and Research. There are more than 150 of these centers at universities across the country.

Ohio State University operates and receives federal funds for six such centers, including ones focused on Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and one in East Asian languages.

Under the budget plan, "a number of these programs would have to be cut back," says William I. Brustein, the university's vice provost of global strategies and international affairs. "They would be bare bones and without legs."

He says the drop in government support could mean layoffs among the 30 or so administrative staff members who operate the centers. (Faculty members would not be affected because their salaries are not supplemented by federal dollars.)

Ohio State was expecting to receive $3-million for these programs in the current fiscal year, says Mr. Brustein. He is contacting members of Congress in hopes that the cuts can be reversed, though it's unlikely lawmakers will make changes in the plan at this date.

Mark Tessler, vice provost for international affairs at the University of Michigan, says the university, which operates seven Title VI centers, may need to cut courses in Thai, Bengali, Indonesian, and other less-commonly taught languages. While removing these languages from the curriculum would affect a small number of students, "there needs to be a place for these languages to be taught in America," he says.

Academic fellowships for master's and doctoral students supported under Title VI for language and international studies could also be trimmed, he says. Sixty to 70 students could be affected, he says.

For now, Mr. Tessler says the university will wait to see what the Obama administration proposes and Congress allocates for these programs for the next fiscal year, which begins October 1, before making any decisions.

Government spending for other international-education programs would also be trimmed under the budget compromise, though not to the extent of the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs.

Exchange programs that send American students and professors overseas and bring international scholars to the United States would be reduced by 5.5 percent, and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, which has several international components, would be cut by $140-million.

In the past, conservative Republicans have questioned the value of such programs and whether some Middle East academic centers are biased against American foreign policy.

However, Ms. Kazanjian says she was surprised that the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs were the focus for such deep cuts. The programs, some of which began 50 years ago to counter research gains made by the Soviet Union, received increases in federal dollars after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the government wanted more graduates with fluency in Afghan languages like Pashto.

The budget deal "rolls these programs back to 2001 levels," she says.

Karin Fischer contributed to this article.