OBERLIN — Oberlin College will be terminating its Arabic language program in the fall due to consistently low enrollment in the upper-level courses and a larger institutional push for tighter finances amid a budget crisis.
The move has drawn criticism and protests from students, faculty, parents and alumni.
Students interested in intermediate or advanced Arabic can continue learning the language by enrolling in Great Lakes Colleges Association's Shared Languages Program, which connects students in a live "virtual classroom" setting. Students will video-conference with Denison University's associate professor of Arabic, Hanada Al-Masri, and other enrolled students via the Zoom conferencing platform.
While individual Arabic language courses have been offered for years, Oberlin's Arabic program was created in 2016 with a four-year grant meant to assess student interest. According to Oberlin's registrar data, Oberlin's Arabic classes currently have 13 people enrolled in the intro course and two people enrolled in the upper-level course. Both classes are taught by Basem al-Raba'a, whose contract was not renewed for the 2019-20 academic year.
David Kamitsuka, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and associate professor of religion, originally applied for the four-year grant that brought Arabic to campus. He is optimistic about the partnership opportunities and learning outcomes that could come from the Shared Languages Program.
"Oberlin College will offer Shared Languages Program courses in Arabic at the intermediate and advanced levels next year utilizing the latest digital technology," he said. "This was a decision that was influenced by lower enrollment in some classes. We will support this real-time, video-conference instruction with an on-campus mentor, who can offer tutoring and opportunities for practicing conversation. Other consortia such as the Five Colleges Consortium in Massachusetts and the Shared Course Initiative at Columbia, Cornell and Yale universities have had positive experiences with similar programs."
The Great Lakes College Association program connects students from 13 Great Lakes region colleges and universities, including Oberlin, Denison and Earlham College. It was created to help smaller schools offer higher-level language courses that tend to attract lower enrollment numbers.
"Shared Language Courses are designed to expand the language course offering for students from participating colleges," reads the Shared Languages Program's website. "These courses increase course choices both vertically, i.e. courses beyond the elementary language level, and horizontally adding breadth and variety to students' choices of language and content courses on the intermediate and advanced level."
Students have created an online petition calling for the re-institution of the Arabic Department. The petition has gathered 1,227 signatures as of Monday, including 258 alumni, 862 students, 32 parents and 13 faculty members. Organizers hope to get 1,500 signatures before they present it to the Arts and Sciences deans and College President Carmen Ambar.
Some students are still skeptical about how useful the Shared Languages Program will be — particularly for students who aren't very familiar with the language.
"The (Shared Languages Program) is great as a supplemental resource," said junior Caitlin Kelley, one of the organizers behind the petition. "It is free for Oberlin — I have no problems with a free additional resource. I think shared language can be really useful for students who already have a basic understanding of Arabic."
Al-Raba'a agreed, adding that the new program won't allow for the same face-to-face interaction that early language learners need.
"I have been working with the (shared language program) since 2016," al-Raba'a said. "The idea was they could provide courses that the college could not offer — like 300-level Arabic — so we said this could enrich our programs. It's not ideal — not the same as face to face. I told the administration I don't think it could work for second- or first-year language students. For second- or first-year students, I think it is completely destructive, to be honest with you, because they need the interaction and the classroom setting."
College junior and Middle East and North African Studies minor Simon Idelson is concerned the termination of the program also makes it harder to compete with Oberlin's peer liberal arts schools, which often offer Arabic.
"I just want Oberlin to be its best thing — especially because we are facing a lot of competition," Idleson said. "Every school offers an Arabic program because it's an important program. If we don't have an Arabic program, we won't be competitive in MENA-related fields. We aren't going to be able to recruit prospective students interested in the Middle East. It looks really bad."
MENA stands for Middle East and North African studies.
The students mobilizing behind the petition are brainstorming alternatives to keep the program on campus. Suggestions include retaining an on-campus professor but limiting offerings to 100-level classes, teaching some courses in both Arabic and English to create broader appeal, offering private reading Arabic courses, and sharing multilingual teaching assistants across language disciplines, to name a few.
"If I wanted to take classes online, I could do that myself," Kelley said. "I wouldn't need to be at Oberlin and pay Oberlin tuition. That's just not what I signed up for, so there is kind of a breach of contract. Students come to this school planning on focusing on Arab issues or the Middle East — no one signed up for online classes."
One of the largest community concerns around the termination of the Arabic program stems from a perceived lack of communication with both faculty and students.
"Despite the fact that I am a member of the Arabic Studies Committee, I was never ever invited to any discussion about Arabic," said Zeinab Abul-Magd, associate professor of history. "I was surprised by the decision to cut down Arabic like everyone else in the college."
Al-Raba'a had a similar experience.
"This year they started making arrangements with the (Shared Languages Program) without my knowledge, completely without my knowledge," al-Raba'a said. "They told the students directly that they were going to end my contract before they told me. Even if they keep it, I am not staying. I have been mistreated badly here."
Abul-Magd also is concerned that Oberlin's MENA minor requires one year of instruction in a relevant language such as Hebrew, Farsi or Arabic. Arabic was the only language on campus that counted toward the MENA minor.
"We have raised it with the Dean's Office, but the Dean's Office is not listening," she said. "They have been very unresponsive. (The Shared Languages Program) is the one and only argument that the Dean's Office is putting forward, but if you ask the students they aren't interested."