Existential crisis

College of Humanities, reeling from class cuts, focuses on path forward

Quirino de Brito and Julia Kobrina-Coolidge, Chico State lecturers in international languages, sit at the campus entrance by the Humanities and Fine Arts building on the first day of school (Aug. 21).

Quirino de Brito and Julia Kobrina-Coolidge, Chico State lecturers in international languages, sit at the campus entrance by the Humanities and Fine Arts building on the first day of school (Aug. 21).

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Learn more:
Visit www.csuchico.edu/hfa for information on the college.

Julia Kobrina-Coolidge has grown accustomed to the whirlwind of activity that precedes a school year at Chico State. First as a grad student, now as a faculty member, she’s been on campus since 1998.

Kobrina-Coolidge is a Russian native who teaches in the Department of International Languages, Literature and Cultures—one of seven in the university’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts. Heading into a new semester, she hones instruction plans, but the past few years also has worked toward her doctorate at Middlebury College in Vermont. She traveled there last week to receive her diploma, returning just in time for the first day of classes Monday (Aug. 21).

Typically in a term, she’ll expect to have four or five courses to teach. This fall, she has just two. Because of a budget deficit in the humanities college, Chico State cut 68 from the schedule—44 just ahead of the semester.

“This is the first time in probably 18 years that I have so little work—and my degree,” Kobrina-Coolidge told the CN&R. “The irony of the situation is just something to laugh about. Or cry about.”

The three semester levels of Russian she would have taught got consolidated into a single class. Her other fall course is a graduate seminar on developing curriculum for ESL (English as a second language).

Colleague Quirino de Brito got hit similarly. Like Kobrina-Coolidge, he learned on short notice his schedule would be slashed. Unlike her, he’ll have no language class to teach: Portuguese was removed entirely. He’s down to an introductory course on international engagement and the one-unit International Forum.

Seated with Kobrina-Coolidge in his office Monday, de Brito—a lecturer since 2003—said: “I don’t want you to think we are whining … like a spoiled child that doesn’t get his gratification right away. That’s not the point. The idea here is to think more objectively about how the current situation of the budget is affecting us at different levels, and we have to look at that not as just numbers.”

Kobrina-Coolidge expressed the frustration she heard from students who found that their schedules had been—or had to be—altered by course cancellations and consolidations.

“If they know about such changes ahead of time, that’s one thing,” she said. “If they find out a week or five days before school starts, that makes a huge difference.”

The humanities college’s budget crisis dates to spring semester, when Dean Robert Knight revealed a $1.2 million deficit heading into the 2017-18 academic year. Faculty expressed surprise, for which Knight owned up in an interview Monday with the CN&R.

Due primarily to “one-time money” allotments and faculty payments from elsewhere, Knight said his college had “always been able to come out in the black.” However, that balance changed under the funding system released last year.

The deficit now stands at $1.8 million, pending contracts with all the lecturers. However, Knight said Provost Debra Larson, hired in March, has allocated $1 million to help the department bridge the gap. (She’s pledged the same for 2018-19.) Knight expects retirements and reimbursements to drop the deficit to under a half-million dollars—roughly 5 percent of the department’s budget.

“We’re trying to address this issue head-on, in a way that frankly hasn’t been addressed for well over a decade,” Knight said. “I’ll be the first to say that, as I told [Larson], I accept responsibility for these past three to four years, not diving into this…. Now I’m at a point where I can look at the budget and say, ‘What are we going to do?’”

His approach is multifaceted.

The immediate action, obviously, was cutting classes, in which enrollments did not meet minimum levels required by the university allocation model to fund an instructor.

Over the next several months, college faculty will hold meetings—some with Knight and Larson—to craft proposals on long-term solutions. Concurrently, the Curriculum Innovation Committee will bandy recommendations.

In addition, college departments will work on ways to attract more students to major in their subjects. Students within a major take more classes within that respective college—notably upper-division classes.

The funding structure campus-wide accords different per-student allocations for different types of courses: GE, lower division, upper division, lab-science, etc. The system disadvantages GE-heavy colleges.

Humanities delivers GE classes all students need to graduate: English composition, American history and critical thinking, plus many of the writing-intensive courses required to fill out the specified total of four. The College of Behavioral and Social Sciences also provides GE classes but features two of the most popular majors, psychology and criminal justice.

“Across the U.S., humanities enrollments have been going down for years,” Knight said. “That’s not an excuse, but it is a contributing factor….

“We can’t cut our way out of this, nor can we continue what we are doing.”

De Brito and Kobrina-Coolidge support the “shared governance” described by Knight, in whom they expressed confidence. Their biggest concern, apart from the impact on students, stems from timing.

“It’s a good process; I just wonder why they didn’t start that earlier,” de Brito said. “The tsunami that fell upon us recently, it could have been avoided—to some extent it could have been mitigated—by starting this conversation much earlier.”