ESL program cut draws ire from faculty, graduates

In October, CLA Dean James Parente announced his decision to halt admissions to the program.

Jill Jensen

The College of Liberal Arts cut the English as a Second Language masterâÄôs degree in October, and the decision has since sparked backlash from University of Minnesota alumni, faculty and students.

The program is the only one in the state that trains students to teach college-level English to international students.

In late October, College of Liberal Arts Dean James Parente announced his decision to halt admissions to the program because of the announced retirement of two of the programâÄôs three faculty members. Students admitted in September will be allowed to finish the two-year degree.

There is a statewide need for the teachers this program produces, said Elaine Tarone, a professor and director of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition. Many graduates from the program go on to improve the English skills of foreign students. Forty-five alumni from the program work at the University in that capacity.

âÄúThe entire system relies on having high-level academic language training for international students at a time when weâÄôre trying to recruit more,âÄù Tarone said. âÄúThe dean just shut this program down.âÄù

Parente said CLA would invest in other priorities instead of replacing the departmentâÄôs retiring faculty. He said the departures made it a âÄúpressingâÄù decision.

âÄúWe needed to take this step now, not at the moment that the faculty retired,âÄù he said.

CLA has made teaching second languages to American students a larger priority than teaching masterâÄôs students to provide high-level ESL support, Parente said.

He said the College of Education and Human Development has a masterâÄôs degree in ESL that targets K-12 and basic adult education. The University also has an undergraduate certification program in ESL. 

The masterâÄôs ESL program was founded in 1968, Tarone said. ItâÄôs the only program in the state that prepares students to teach at a post-secondary level.

She said there is a statewide need for teachers with advanced English skills âÄî often hired right out of graduate school âÄî in universities and adult education programs.

âÄúI just donâÄôt think people understand that this is not ESL for beginning immigrants at low levels of proficiency,âÄù she said.

âÄòBaffledâÄô alumni and students react

Graduate students in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies developed a survey, which became available Friday, in protest of the decision to cut the degree.

Angela Pinilla-Herrera said the cut is a concern for more than just the students currently in the program.

âÄúWe donâÄôt think that it was a fair decision,âÄù Pinilla-Herrera said. âÄúWe donâÄôt think the dean appreciates the value of the department and we donâÄôt think he is really conscious of the consequences for closing the program.âÄù

She said she has taken classes in the department that were valuable experiences as a linguist.

Tarone said six to eight graduate students are admitted to the program each year, which involves a semester-long practicum in teaching college-level ESL classes with the Minnesota English Language Program.

Mike Anderson, director of MELP, said the department helps about 500 students each year transition to the University through language development and support in coursework.

Tarone said without the masterâÄôs degree in ESL program, MELP will either have to hire teachers from out of state or lower the quality of instruction for teaching international students, which could lead to lower academic achievement and delayed graduation.

âÄúI will bet money âĦ that time to degree is going to be longer for international students without this program,âÄù she said.

Anderson said about 80 percent of its teaching specialists, including him, graduated from the program.

Without it, he said MELP will be more limited because it will not have access to graduate teaching assistants or masterâÄôs degree in ESL students doing a teaching practicum.

 âÄúThe quality of international student language support is going to go down without a constant influx of high-quality teachers,âÄù Tarone said.

There was âÄútotal shockâÄù when alumni were told the degree would be cut, said program graduate Kimberly Johnson, director of an adult education program at Hamline University.

She said the move was âÄúshort-sightedâÄù given the growing need for ESL teachers who can teach at a post-secondary level.

âÄúYou absolutely have to have supports in place for those international students and the University of Minnesota is the place that prepares those teachers,âÄù she said.

Robin Murie, coordinator for the Academic English Language Program at the University of Minnesota – Duluth and a graduate of the masterâÄôs degree program in the early 1980s, said she was âÄúbaffledâÄù when she learned the program would be closing.

âÄú[I was] puzzled at why such a well-established, reputable program that has such a strong use in the state would be cut,âÄù she said.

She said Duluth is looking at creating an ESL program for undergraduate students, like a minor, that could eventually build to a masterâÄôs level.

âÄúWe recognize the need in the state,âÄù Murie said.