FREE SPEECH ZONE | Where do we go without the MA in ESL at the University of Minnesota?

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In late October, the College of Liberal Arts Dean James Parente suddenly decided to close admissions to the English as a Second Language master’s degree. This was shocking news for all the University of Minnesota alumni, faculty and students.

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The MA ESL is the only program in the state that trains students to teach college-level English to international students with a higher ed. teaching practicum and 8-credit grammar course. It worth mentioning that postsecondary institutions in Minnesota are popular choices for international students, according to the Institute of International Education and over one-third of all international students in Minnesota study at the University of Minnesota. In Fall 2010, the total number of international students was 4,716 including undergraduate, graduate, professional and non-degree students. On Nov. 23, the Minnesota Daily reported that without the educational benefit of this program to international students, many of them will find academic achievement much more challenging and time to graduation would likely increase. The global impact of terminating this program is huge. Whether the international students at the University of Minnesota return back to their own countries or stay here in the United States after their graduation, without proper high level language instruction, the quality and quantity of their academic work will decrease dramatically.

Elaine Tarone, a professor and director of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA http://www.carla.umn.edu/) believes that there is a statewide need for the teachers this program produces. Many graduates from the program work in higher education in Minnesota to improve the English skills of international students, with forty-five alumni from the program working at the University in that capacity. Professor Tarone also mentions, “The entire system relies on having high-level academic language training for international students at a time when we’re trying to recruit more.”

A week after the Dean closed the program, Professor Tarone was informed that she will be the 2012 winner of the prestigious national Distinguished Scholarship and Service Award of the American Association for Applied Linguistics.  The committee was especially impressed by the program building she has done at the University of Minnesota.  One committee member said the Dean’s closure of the program was a slap in the face of the discipline.

How could the Dean just shut this program down? He justified his decision because of the announced phased retirement of two of the program’s three faculty members. It seems that Parente prefers to invest in other priorities instead of replacing the department’s retiring faculty. Students admitted in September will be allowed to finish the two-year degree but the dean is initiating a formal consultation process to close the program in 2014, and dissolve Second Language Studies as a tenure home in 2016. The graduate students in the MA ESL program along with students in other disciplines who have taken research classes in the program believe that Parente did not make a wise decision and is not aware of the long run consequences of cutting this unique program.

As an international graduate student in this program I feel a responsibility to take action in order to let people hear our voice. We will not stop reminding the Dean of CLA that this decision is unfair. A petition is circulating among program alumni, faculty, and graduate students in related programs on campus, asking that the Dean reverse his decision; around 90 people have signed that petition and added comments.

Instead of shutting down the MA ESL program, Parente should focus on replacing the retiring faculty to ensure continuation of its important work.

Sara Khanzadi

December 9, 2011