Defense department cuts 13 of its language flagship programs

May 15, 2024
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The U.S. Department of Defense is withdrawing funding for more than a third of the 31 language flagship programs it supports at 23 universities across the country.

The move, which a department spokesperson said in email was driven by a “Congressional change in funding,” caught the linguistics community by surprise as one of the latest examples of declining support for postsecondary foreign language education.

“The decision by the National Security Education Program under the U.S. Department of Defense to terminate funding for the [University of Oregon’s] Chinese Flagship in 2024 was shocking, given the national strategic security interest in promoting professional-level language proficiency in languages like Chinese and Korean,” Zhuo Jing-Schmidt, director of the Chinese Flagship Program at the University of Oregon, said in an email.

Oregon’s program first opened in 2005, and joins four other Chinese language flagship programs—at Brigham Young University, San Francisco State University, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and the University of Washington—that won’t reopen next year.

“The unexpected closure of this prestigious program means that approximately 60 students—many of whom are first-generation and low-income students from underrepresented communities across Oregon and beyond—will face enormous financial hardship in pursuing overseas linguistic and cultural immersion without the support they had relied upon,” Jing-Schmidt said.

The Oregon program was one of 13 flagship programs whose grants were not renewed for the 2024–28 cycle. In addition to the elimination of five of the 13 Chinese programs, grants for one Portuguese, three Arabic and four Russian language programs weren’t renewed. The Defense Department did approve one new program—a Portuguese flagship at the University of Arizona—so, as of next academic year, 19 total will be in operation, down from 31.

The Defense Department declined to elaborate on its decision to cut the programs.

But Amanda Seewald, executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies, said the cuts illustrate a need for more stable funding streams for language education programs that aren’t dependent on the whims of annual Congressional budget negotiations.

“Congress needs to see this as a priority and the funding for the programs should be set in a solidified way that can best serve our nation,” she said in an email. “It is a statement of our national values of diplomacy and national security and the impact of language education on our ability to address global issues.”

‘A Great Disadvantage’

The reduction in funding for the Pentagon’s flagship program comes more than two decades after its inception in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. National security officials were concerned that the United States didn’t have people with high levels of proficiency in geopolitically significant languages, and created the flagship program to help fill in the gaps.

Many of the students who participate in the program also choose a second major or minor in a complementary discipline such as international relations or political science. Throughout the four-year program they take specialized language courses, work with tutors and take regular benchmark assessments with the goal of reaching high levels of proficiency; They also receive up to $20,000 each to study abroad.

While students enrolled in a typical bachelor’s degree program in a foreign language may take only a handful of courses in a language like Chinese or Arabic per year, the intensity of the flagship program accelerates the path toward technical and cultural fluency.

Of the 79 students who completed their capstone project during the 2020–21 academic year, 78.5 percent demonstrated professional-level proficiency and 95 percent demonstrated limited working proficiency, according to a 2021 report from the National Security Education Program.

“The idea is that we’d be jumping in very early with students to give them a whole lot of extra hours, and through Flagship, give them more than one time abroad,” said Charles Egan, director of the Chinese Flagship Program at San Francisco State University, which is closing this month. And unlike most traditional language degrees, which often focus on literature, the flagship programs emphasize practical use. “It’s trying to get people to use whatever language they’ve learned in any career field they want to be in.”

The overall success of the flagship programs made the Defense Department’s decision to eliminate so many of them all the more discouraging to Egan, who noted that historically, language education has received more support from the Defense Department than from the Education Department.

“The U.S. is no longer the sole superpower, so language and culture is actually much more important than it ever was. And here we are not developing talent in that area,” he said. “If you’re negotiating with somebody from another culture, the norms are totally different than what they might be for an American. We’re putting ourselves at a great disadvantage.”

Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said the closure of close to half of the flagship programs “shows a national trend toward insularity and a refusal of the understanding that we need to build up this nation’s competence to understand cultures beyond our own.”

And it compounds the enrollment declines and cuts some traditional language programs have already seen in recent years.

While West Virginia University’s elimination of all of its foreign language degree offerings made national headlines last fall, it was part of a larger trend: Between 2016 and 2021, the number of available Chinese and Arabic language programs fell by 105 and 80 respectively, according to a report from MLA. Within that same timeframe, enrollment in non-English languages fell by 16.6 percent.

“The implication here that’s not said is that we can just rely on AI translation services to do our work for us,” Krebs said. “If that’s your mindset, you’re refusing to acknowledge that working with other cultures is more than a question of translating word-for-word. It’s a question of understanding cultures and the context in which the languages are spoken. That’s what the flagship programs do. ”

Although the flagship program does not require government service post-graduation, alumni have gone on to work for numerous federal agencies, such as the Departments of Defense, Commerce and Veterans Affairs. Many others have taken a variety of civilian jobs, including those in the technology and nonprofit sectors.

“It benefits anywhere these students go because they have near-native fluency in these languages,” said Na’ama Pat-El, chair of the Middle Eastern studies department at the University of Texas at Austin, which is losing both its Portuguese and Arabic flagship programs. “Not only that, they have extensive study abroad experience most Americans don’t have.”

While the flagship programs are closing, the university will still offer courses in Portuguese and Arabic. Although Pat-El believes students will still be able to reach high levels of proficiency in those languages without the program, “it’ll be a little harder because we don’t have all of those supports.”

Students who are already enrolled in the 13 now-closed programs will be able to finish, but that hasn’t eased their concerns about the long-term implications, especially the elimination of all but one of the Chinese programs in the western half of the country, where the Asian-American population is highly concentrated. (Arizona State University now hosts the West’s single Chinese flagship program.)

“As the University of Oregon Chinese Flagship students, we are deeply saddened, disappointed and confused by this decision,” said an online petition written by Banzhang, the student leadership committee for the Oregon program.

As of Tuesday it had 1,623 signatures.

“We are also extremely concerned by the disparity and inequality in education this decision has exposed to the Chinese language learners on the West Coast,” the petition said. “This doesn’t seem a well-judged decision considering the West Coast’s proximity to Asia, the significant presence of K-12 Chinese immersion programs, and the strong Chinese & Asian culture influence.”

Cornelius Kubler, the Stanfield Professor of Asian studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, who served as a language training supervisor for the Foreign Service Institute, said that downsizing the flagship programs is dispiriting and myopic.

“One of the special things about the language flagships is they were able to get students to that high level in four years. Regular college programs just can’t do it,” he said. “It’s hard to understand why the department is doing this. If it’s just a budget issue, perhaps this is penny-wise and pound-foolish. They’ve already made such a huge investment. To suddenly break it off like this is a huge problem.”



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