Students want U. to reconsider sign language program cuts

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Jim Lipsky was taken aback in February when he found out that the American Sign Language program at Brown was being phased out.

“One of the students who was participating in the program heard about the program change when she was in the Academic Priorities Committee meeting, (and) the student told her instructor and who then passed it on to me, ” he said through a sign language interpreter.

Lipsky, the coordinator of ASL studies at Brown, had been warned by the director and associate director of the Center for Language Studies that the APC was considering cutting the program. But he had not been informed that the actual discussions were taking place, and the APC refused to let him get involved after the decisions had been made, he said.

When he found out that the Academic Priorities Committee, which is in charge of making curricular decisions, had been discussing the fate of ASL at Brown, he was already too late. The committee had made a final decision to reduce the program.

“I was extremely disappointed, because ASL is an extremely popular program,” Lipsky said. “People enjoy the language itself, and it has rich culture associated with it. … It’s really incredible.”

But now, on the eve of Disabilities Awareness Week, students on campus are mobilizing in an attempt to raise awareness of the cutback and to keep the ASL program on campus.

Current ASL program ‘deficient’

The APC decided in February to cut back the ASL program at Brown. The program, which currently consists of four classes – SI 10, 20, 30 and 40 – will be completely transferred over to the Continuing Studies program over a yearlong period. This fall, only SI 30 and 40 will be offered for credit at the University, and the year after, the entire program will be transferred to Continuing Studies, in which students will have to pay extra to take the classes and will not receive course credit.

There are about 40 students taking ASL classes this semester. The two sections of SI 20: “Introductory Sign Language” are capped at 20 students each, and SI 40: “Intermediate American Sign Language II,” has four students.

The decision came after the Center for Language Studies, which offers ASL, proposed that the program be cut unless it could be significantly expanded, Dean of the College Paul Armstrong, an APC member, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Merle Krueger, associate director of the Center for Language Studies, said he believes the APC cut back the ASL program because of several “deficiencies.”

“My feeling is that the program, as it currently exists, clearly had some deficiencies that needed to be addressed. The University, in my opinion, had to invest more resources into the program to raise it to the academic standards of the University, or it needed to decide to discontinue it – one or the other.”

ASL classes, he said, only met three hours a week, whereas most language classes meet four or five hours a week. There is no full-time faculty member in the program, and the professors in the classes are adjunct lecturers with no master’s degree.

Armstrong cited additional reasons for the APC’s decision.

“The APC gave highest priority to languages that are closely related to the needs of the undergraduate concentrations, study abroad programs, graduate requirements and faculty research interests,” he said. “Although important for many good reasons, ASL did not emerge as a high priority for funding according to these criteria. It is not required for any undergraduate or graduate degree programs, and it did not seem integral to faculty research in any department.”

Armstrong added that the College Curriculum Council came to a similar conclusion.

Students speak in support of ASL

Against the backdrop of the upcoming Disabilities Awareness Week, concerned ASL students have started a campaign to restore the for-credit ASL program at Brown.

Leaders of the efforts began collecting signatures this week for a petition to keep ASL studies, and they have met with faculty members and administrators in an effort to gain support for the program. At the Undergraduate Council of Students meeting Wednesday night, a student presented their case before UCS and President Ruth Simmons, who said she wanted to look further into the issue.

Two leaders of the campaign, Adee Thal ’05 and Willa Mamet ‘04.5, have argued that the program is vital not only to the University, but also to the local community.

“I would feel that Brown had lost a great opportunity to remain a part of the Providence and Rhode Island communities,” Mamet said. “The ASL program presents many opportunities for community service.”

Thal said the elimination of the program would contradict Brown’s institutional philosophy.

“Part of the reason I chose Brown was because of its commitment to diversity,” she said. “By shutting down ASL, they would not be adhering to that commitment.” Thal also feared that Brown might set a precedent for other universities to eliminate their ASL programs.

Lipsky argued the potential importance of ASL classes for students’ careers.

“This is important for them to have these sign classes,” he said. “Someone working in medicine at a hospital will know how to deal with a deaf person.”

Thal and Mamet said one of their biggest challenges in trying to save the ASL program is getting the word out. They said that many students were unaware that the program was being cut, so this week, they began to issue bright blue “Save ASL” buttons to students around campus, and next week, they will distribute T-shirts for students to wear.

The two students spoke of the enormous impact the program has had on their lives. Thal, in particular, has been particularly affected by the program. She said she is the only deaf student on campus, and did not know any ASL before coming to Brown.

“It’s changed my life,” said Thal, who is also a teaching assistant for SI 20 and 40. “It’s such a part of myself. The professors adopted me and became my personal advisors, and without ASL at Brown, I would not have been able to communicate and to enter the deaf community.

“If Brown did not have ASL,” she added, “I would not have come to Brown.”

Mamet, who in December became Brown’s first Deaf Studies concentrator, echoed Thal’s words.

“I would have left Brown if it weren’t for the independent concentration program,” she said.

Thal, Mamet and Lipsky all said the APC did not know enough about ASL studies at Brown to make a proper decision about the program.

“(Their decision) was a huge disappointment, and we felt the academic committee didn’t have a full perspective on it, and we should’ve been involved,” Lipsky said. “The committee didn’t really know anything about sign language or our program.”

“Honestly, it’s embarrassing that it’s happening here at the college,” he added.

For now, concerned students in the ASL program are fighting to keep the program as it currently is, Thal said. But it’s clear that she and other ASL supporters are facing a tough battle.

“The most important thing is for Brown to remember its commitment to diversity,” Thal said. “A lot of people look to Brown as a very liberal and progressive university – this would be a huge setback to lose the program.”