Friday, January 8, 2010
"It has been said that the only essential function with which no legal system can dispense is the preservation of order.
These days, everyone has experienced a little moment of shock when the unimaginable became American. In my case, it was a relatively small thing in my hometown that recently reminded me I was in a different universe. New York City has always had one of the great urban public transportation systems. No one ever claimed it was a thing of beauty to look at or ride, but it got you, with remarkable efficiency and without complaint, from anywhere you happened to be to just about anywhere you wanted to go.
No longer. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the city’s bus and subway lines, finds itself (like many other transportation systems across urban America) facing a sudden financial “shortfall” -- in the MTA's case, almost $400 million, which means severe cuts in service just when we couldn’t be more in need of public transportation. Whole subway and bus lines lopped off or significantly scaled back in places like the borough of Queens, which guarantees that, for many, getting to and from work, especially in the off-hours, will be a nightmare, or in some cases for late night workers essentially impossible. “The cuts,” reported the New York Times, “would eliminate two subway lines, create more crowding on subways and buses, and reduce frequency at off-peak hours. Service on dozens of bus lines would be reduced or ended, and disabled riders would find it more difficult to get around.”
But the prospective change that stunned me, that left me feeling I was indeed living in a new America, was the MTA’s decision to “phase out” what, when I was a kid, we used to call “bus passes.” Today’s version of these still ensures that any student can get to any school and back for free or for at most half-fare. According to the MTA’s latest plans, all students will be paying full fare on public transport by 2011.
This has one practical meaning. If you’re poor and young in New York and your family can’t afford approximately $4 a day in subway or bus fares, you’re stuck in your neighborhood, maybe at the crumbling, overcrowded school around the corner. No hope of better. The finest, most competitive schools in the city’s public school system will be left for those who can afford to get to them. It’s a small thing on the scale of this planet’s problems, but it tells you a good deal about the direction this country is heading in and even if the MTA reverses its decision under pressure, the thinking behind it goes with an America I’ve never known.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.
By Winnifred Fallers Sullivan
Posted on January 7, 2010, Printed on January 7, 2010
Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech
Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood
This very rich little book seems to me a very good place to begin the new decade. It is smart, informed, thoughtful, urgent—and properly unsettling. It is also very difficult to summarize in short order. [Continue reading here]
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Despite last year's spike in the number of terrorism cases involving American Muslims, fears of growing radicalization in the American Muslim community may be greatly exaggerated, according to a new study. Researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill say that while homegrown Islamic terrorism is a serious issue, it remains a limited problem.
The report, released on Wednesday, notes that since 9/11, 139 American Muslims have committed violent terrorist acts, been convicted on terrorism charges involving violence or been arrested with charges pending. In a statement, the report's co-author Charles Kurzman, a UNC professor of sociology, points out that fewer than three dozen of the 136,000 murders committed in the U.S. since 9/11 can be attributed to acts of terrorism by American Muslims.
Titled "Anti-Terror Lessons of Muslim American Communities," the report says the community has successfully limited radicalization by policing itself. It cites denunciations of terrorism, internal self-policing, community building, government-funded support services and political engagement as some of the ways the community has limited the spread of radicalization. "Many community leaders have come to recognize that [tackling radicalization] is a matter of survival," says Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of religion at Duke and a co-author of the report. "They know that radicalization threatens the community at large and are working hard to defeat it." [Continue reading]
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Monday, January 4, 2010
"Yet, even Modernized Islam, in its American manifestation, poses a number of very serious problems for Blackamerican Muslims.
Airport Profiling Hands a Victory to Terrorists by Nihad Awad
Scapegoats and scaremongers
NYT: Will Profiling Make a Difference?
Obama Meets With Security Advisers
ISLAM & THE PROBLEM OF BLACK SUFFERING
Date(s): Sunday 1/17/2010
Instructor: Dr.Sherman Abdul-Hakim Jackson
Time: 9:00 - 10:30 AM (PST - USA); 12:00-1:30 pm (EST - USA)
In this one day session, Dr. Sherman Abdul-Hakim Jackson aims to acquaint students with the import of his latest work, "Islam & The Problem of Black Suffering". One of the main problems confronting the black community is not simply proving that God exists, says Jackson. The problem, rather, is establishing that God cares. No religious expression that fails to tackle the problem of black suffering can hope to enjoy a durable tenure in the black community. Therefore, it is essential to find a Quranic/Islamic grounding for the protest-oriented agenda of black religion. That is the task Dr Abdul-Hakim Jackson undertakes in his path breaking work and in this unique webinar!
Dr.Sherman Jackson is an internationally recognized scholar of Islamic law and theology. He is Arthur Thurnau Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Visiting Professor of Law and Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Learn more about this session
Muslim Deli Owners Must Choose Koran or Customers
Most of Khairul Kabir’s customers at the Madison Deli and Grocery in East Harlem do not realize that his jovial smile masks a lingering sense of shame.
Mr. Kabir, 49, an immigrant from Bangladesh and a Muslim, is chagrined because he sells pork and alcohol, which are prohibited by the Koran. He also sells lottery tickets, a form of gambling that is also banned. Devout Muslims are not supposed to indulge in, sell, or even handle any of these “haram,” or forbidden, goods. Mr. Kabir’s dilemma is widespread among Muslim immigrants in New York and other American cities, where religious beliefs, the pursuit of prosperity and pressures to assimilate are often in conflict.
But the spiritual struggle is especially acute in diverse neighborhoods like East Harlem, where Muslim businesses must compete for customers who expect that a deli will, for example, make them a ham sandwich or sell them a Lotto ticket or a six pack of beer.
Opinions regarding the sale of haram items are as diverse as the people who form the Muslim community in America, but Mr. Kabir is unequivocal about his distaste for the practice.
“Selling haram is the same as eating haram,” he said, glancing at the beer-filled coolers that line the grocery’s back wall. “I feel guilty, totally guilty. I want to sell the business and go home and not sell haram. Every day I’m thinking I should do that.”
Mr. Kabir said he had to sell goods he disapproved of to survive the recession. “I am doing a lot of bad things,” Mr. Kabir said. “I pray to Allah to forgive me.”
Mohammed al Naqib, who was working at Sammy’s Grocery at 165 DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, said the store, which is owned by his cousin, stopped selling beer four or five years ago, because of lack of demand and “because of religion, mostly.”
“The area has changed,” Mr. al Naqib said. “My cousin, he was selling. But I return the license from the government. It doesn’t sell good.”
Back in East Harlem, Ahmed Ibrahim, a 25-year-old from Egypt who works in the tiny 3-S Deli at Second Avenue and East 105th Street, was concerned because the store could not sell beer — not because of religious law but because the previous owner had lost his liquor license.
From a business perspective, Mr. Ibrahim said, stores had to sell beer and other haram to be successful.
“For me, I come over here to make money and stuff,” he said. “If I come over here and try to run a halal business, only Muslims will go there. You have to sell to Americans.”
“Beer and cigarettes and deli sandwiches are the most important things in the deli-grocery business," Mr. Ibrahim said.
As Mr. Ibrahim spoke a radio played what he said was an Islamic prayer. When a group of customers entered the store, Mr. Ibrahim changed the station.
“If I see a problem with a customer, I change it,” Mr. Ibrahim said, gesturing to the radio. “To do business, I have to make the customer smile.”
A worker at a grocery on Carlton Avenue in Fort Greene said the store hired the equivalent of a “Shabbos goy,” a gentile engaged by Orthodox Jews to manipulate electrical devices on the Sabbath.
“We have somebody who handles the beer who is not Muslim,” the worker said.
Some imams say they understand the pressures faced by Muslims trying to make a living in such a competitive city.
Mr. Kabir’s imam, Mohammad Fayek Uddin, leader of the Jackson Heights Islamic Center and Mosque on Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, spoke to a reporter shortly after conducting an evening prayer service.
Mr. Uddin, 42, said that while he might chide someone he knew personally for selling haram, he was not required to get involved.
“In this country everyone has to do something. I deliver my speech in front of the people, it depends on their choice,” Mr. Uddin said as worshipers who remained after the prayer nodded in agreement. “No punishment, not here,” said Mr. Uddin, who also came from Bangladesh. “Allah will give punishment on the day of judgment; I do not have an authority to do that."
Mr. Uddin added that he had occasionally helped observant Muslims find more acceptable work. He said believers could usually find jobs that did not conflict with their faith because “Allah will provide for the people.”
Despite the temptations America presents, Mr. Uddin said he believed that life was better here.
“In this country I saw the infinite independence," he said. “That’s better than in our country.”
U.S. Intensifies Screening for Travelers From 14 Nations
WASHINGTON — Citizens of 14 nations, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, who are flying to the United States will be subjected indefinitely to the intense screening at airports worldwide that was imposed after the Christmas Day bombing plot, Obama administration officials announced Sunday.
But American citizens, and most others who are not flying through those 14 nations on their way to the United States, will no longer automatically face the full range of intensified security that was imposed after the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight, officials said.
The change represents an easing of the immediate response to the attempted bombing of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit that had been in place the past week. But the restrictions remain tougher than the rules that were in effect before the Dec. 25 incident. And the action on Sunday further establishes a global security system that treats people differently based on what country they are from, evoking protests from civil rights groups.
Citizens of Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria, countries that are considered “state sponsors of terrorism,” as well as those of “countries of interest” — including Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen — will face the special scrutiny, officials said.
Passengers holding passports from those nations, or taking flights that originated or passed through any of them, will be required to undergo full-body pat downs and will face extra scrutiny of their carry-on bags before they can board planes to the United States.
In some countries that have more advanced screening equipment, travelers will also be required to pass through so-called whole-body scanners that can look beneath clothing for hidden explosives or weapons, or may be checked with a device that can find tiny traces of explosives.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain announced that whole-body scanners would be introduced in that country’s airports. Officials in Amsterdam announced last week that they would begin using the scanners on passengers bound for the United States.
Many, though not all, other passengers coming to the United States will face similar measures, but that screening will be done randomly or if there is some reason to believe that a particular passenger might present a threat, officials said.
The changes should speed up boarding of international flights bound for the United States while still increasing security beyond the standard X-rays of carry-on bags and metal-detector checks of all passengers.
The changes will mean that any citizen of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia will for the first time be patted down automatically before boarding any flight to the United States. Even if that person has lived in a country like Britain for decades, he now will be subject to these extra security checks.
Nawar Shora, the legal director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, says the rule wrongly implies that all citizens of certain nations are suspect.
“I understand there needs to be additional security in light of what was attempted on Christmas Day,” Mr. Shora said, adding that he intended to file a formal protest on Monday. “But this is extreme and very dangerous. All of a sudden people are labeled as being related to terrorism just because of the nation they are from.”
In the United States, an order for a “second screening” has already been in effect for a dozen countries.
But the requirement often does not have much of an impact because most passengers traveling domestically in the United States use driver’s licenses — not passports — when passing through checkpoints, so officials do not know their nationality and there is less of a chance that they would receive extra attention.
The addition of Nigeria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to the “country of interest” list marks the first time that citizens of those countries will be subject to automatic additional screening for flights to the United States.
Charles Oy, 28, of Chicago is an American who was born in Nigeria. He said that he detected heightened security over the weekend — not in Nigeria but upon his arrival Sunday at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. He was one of a few passengers taken aside for individual interviews, and his bags and passport were examined.
The suspect arrested in the Northwest Airlines episode, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, was Nigerian, but Mr. Oy said that the added scrutiny did not leave him discouraged. “I feel it is very isolated, and is something not characteristic of Nigeria,” he said. “I had no particular feelings of unpleasantness. I understand it is part of the world we live in. I factor all that into my traveling. If it happens, I roll with it.”
A homeland security official said that the Obama administration did not consider this move a step in the direction of racial profiling, which the Transportation Security Administration has said it has long tried to avoid.
“Out of abundance of caution and based on the latest intelligence in this evolving threat environment, additional screening measures are necessary to keep transportation safe,” the official said, asking that she not be identified by name as she was not authorized to address the question on the record.
Domestically, passengers traveling in the United States may notice more canine bomb-detection teams or face occasional extra checks of carry-on bags. Additional behavioral detection officials are also in airports to observe passengers for any signs that might offer a hint of a plot. But there have been no comprehensive changes in screening at domestic airports.
David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airlines’ trade organization, said the group had been “closely coordinating” the enhanced security measures with customers’ convenience in mind. “I believe we accomplished that,” he said Sunday.
Meanwhile, flights out of one terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport were temporarily halted Sunday evening as officials investigated a possible security breach.
After a man was seen walking the wrong way down the exit lane between the secured, or “sterile,” area and the public area around 5:20 p.m., the Transportation Security Administration stopped screening. More than two hours later, the T.S.A. ordered all passengers on the sterile side to move back to the public side for rescreening.
The concourse was reopened shortly before midnight. The man who was being sought was not found, the authorities said.
While it was unclear who first alerted the authorities to the potential breach, the person was not an employee of the T.S.A., an official of the agency said.
Micheline Maynard contributed reporting from Detroit, Mark Guarino from Chicago, and Sarah Wheaton from New York.
Gotham Gazette - http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/civilrights/20100104/3/3139
City's Muslims Report Harassment by Police
by Farah Akbar
04 Jan 2010
Coming from a family with members who work in law enforcement, Yasmin Nasser used to look at police officers as honest, upstanding and there to protect all members of society. Today, though, Nasser said, she feels uneasy when she walks by cops and. for a brief period, tried staying away from them altogether.
The 20-year-old American citizen who resides in Saudi Arabia had come to New York City to visit family. Her trust in New York City's finest eroded the day she claims a police officer pulled her by the arm, told her to leave Rockefeller Center, where she had gone to see the Christmas tree, and called her a "terrorist." She was asked to provide identification to the officer, was subsequently accused of having phony identification and allegedly told, "Leave you terrorist, you shouldn't be here."
"It's so hard for me to believe that a cop could do this," said the Muslim woman who covers her head with the traditional headscarf (hijab) worn by some women who follow the Islamic faith. "I couldn’t get over it. I was in shock," she said.
Nasser has reported the matter to the Council of American Islamic Relations and plans on filing a report with the city Civilian Complaint Review Boardonce she returns to Saudi Arabia. She fears that making a complaint prior to her departure could disrupt her travel plans.
Advocates say that Nasser's story is not an isolated incident. Monami Maulik, executive director of Desis Rising Up And Moving (DRUM), an immigrants' rights organization in Jackson Heights, said that she has heard many such stories. Several other organizations say police harassment of Muslims is a genuine problem.
Encounters with Police
The Council of American Islamic Relations analyzed civil rights cases in 2008 by circumstances of occurrence. The group found encounters with police ranked sixth, following schools and prison. "Underreporting of hate crimes and police misconduct cases remains a real issue with American Muslims,” said the council's New York civil rights director Aliya Latif.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, law enforcement officials have worked on building a cooperative relationship with the American Muslim community in an effort to obtain valuable information related to terrorism and safety issues. Muslim groups worry that allegations of misconduct by law enforcement damage the fragile ties between the two groups. "We are concerned that incidents like these further alienate community members and contribute to an atmosphere of mistrust with law enforcement authorities," Latif said.
Edina Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, agrees. "The evidence of any problem with law enforcement undermines any cooperation they may seek from Muslims," she said. "Even if there is a perception of harassment, it very naturally leads individuals to be cautious and reluctant to seek help from law enforcement, let alone report any suspicious activity."
A police officer, though, may see the situation differently. "Police officers may not always realize how they have come across to a civilian," said Graham Daw, a spokesperson for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the all-civilian board that investigates civil complaints about alleged misconduct on the part of the New York City Police Department. "Civilians are not always aware of the pressures under which police officers work or the powers with which they are vested in order to do their job."
The New York City Police Department was contacted numerous times to comment on this issue but did not respond.
According to DRUM, many Muslims have complained about being randomly approached by members of law enforcement in their own neighborhoods and apartment buildings and being asked about their whereabouts and about what they did for a living.
Maulik said that her organization has received hundreds of accounts of cases regarding police misconduct since Sept. 11, many from blue-collar workers such as street vendors and taxi drivers. She also hears stories from youth.
Slurs and Questions
In 2006, DRUM and the Urban Justice Center Community Development Project surveyed 662 South Asian youths living in Queens, most of them Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims, about the impact of school safety policies on them. The report revealed that nearly a third of the youths reported having seen harassment by police officers or experienced harassment. The study defined harassment to include "verbal abuse or harassment such as racial slurs and names, yelling and cursing; physical abuse or harassment, including physical harm, grabbing, pushing, forcing to do something the person does not want to do; and intimidation, including asking for identification or calling over for no reason, threatening to report person or their family to immigration and bullying."
"Since 9/11, there are a lot more security agents and police," said one young person. "They treat us differently.”
"There is more hatred against South Asians [post 9/11]. The police pay more attention to you; they think you are suspicious. They wait for you to screw up," said another.
DRUM received a report on one incident in which a teenage girl who wore a hijab on the streets of Times Square was allegedly asked by a police officer if she was a terrorist.
Ayesha Mahmooda, who works with DRUM, spoke to at least 100 South Asian families in Flushing during an outreach effort and found many reported experiencing harassment by law enforcement. She said that many South Asians described feeling scared while being questioned by officers. She mentioned the case of a Muslim man who was questioned by law enforcement officials inside his own apartment. They asked him numerous personal questions, such as where he was born, what his immigration status was and if he smelled anything funny in his building, an apparent reference to possible bomb-making activities.
An alarmed South Asian woman asking Mahmooda why her husband was stopped and questioned by law enforcement on his way home from working the late shift. "I told her that it was because of the color of his skin, he is not white. He is a person of color," Mahmooda said.
A Reluctance to Protest
Those questioned are often afraid to protest, according to DRUM. Latif of CAIR, though, urges Muslims to exercise their right to have a lawyer present if questioned by the FBI or police. "Refusing to answer questions without an attorney present cannot be held against you and does not imply that you have something to hide," she said.
Few Muslims take their cases to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Of the 14 allegations of offensive language based on religion reported to the board in 2008, only two involved Muslims or Islam, and the board was unable to conduct a full investigation in either case. One complaint was withdrawn by the complainant, and the complainant in the other case did not respond to requests to be interviewed by board.
"100 percent of the cases that we’ve ever gotten, no one has ever called the CCRB," says Maulik. "We really don’t have faith in the CCRB. It is not a mechanism that has worked for many years in New York, so for the most part, Muslim immigrants don’t call the CCRB and file complaints.
People do not think the board will hold police accountable for harassment or profiling, she said adding that Muslims who are undocumented immigrants are particularly hesitant to report any instances of misconduct to the complaint board. Instead, she said, they live their lives in fear.
Daw said the board would be glad to make a presentation to the Muslim community to educate them about its work, but Monami has no plans of reaching out to them. She has been working on a project to create a formal complaint process with CUNY School of Law.
Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council encourages Muslims to report all instances of misconduct to whomever they feel comfortable with, whether it be to Muslim organizations or city agencies . “Without individuals sharing their experiences, we do not have leverage to make change,” she said.
Meanwhile, Yasmin Nasser thinks about what happened to her on her most recent visit to New York. "People in Saudi Arabia ask if people discriminate in New York City, and I always say 'people are nice,'" said Yasmin Nasser. When she lands in Saudi Arabia this time, though, she may offer a different answer.
Gotham Gazette - http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/civilrights/20100104/3/3139
Sunday, January 3, 2010
"Islam is making progress, as it always does. Yet no-one should assume that our present task is an easy one. Humanity is now being programmed from an
"From my middle teenage years, I recall living in a deep alienation from the modern condition, with a restless desire to be free of its brilliant
"Certainly for my own spiritual journey, the old images of Christ, solace of pacifists and ineffectual dreamers, were less impressive than the new
icons of a truly socially responsible human being drawn by Bonhoeffer and, more especially, the liberation theologians. Sometimes I believe that there is significance in the fact that I was baptised by Father Jack Putterill (1892-1980), best known of all radical priests in his day, who insisted that true religion is not pacifist or apolitical, but must be a revolutionary challenge to the rich and the autocratic. Putterill, to my knowledge, went to his grave without knowing the Prophet whose Lord was Lord of the Poor, who actively championed their cause and adopted their way of life, who challenged great empires instead of meekly submitting to them. That Prophet, hailed by the socialist Bernard Shaw as ‘a princely genius’, turns out to be a spiritual type close to the urgent but hidden needs of a comfortable, bourgeois consumer culture, which in its heart yearns not for faint chanting in distant oratories, but a willingness to engage in a virile way with the real issues of poverty and injustice. Such, of course, was the motivation which drove Roger Garaudy, whose Communism was of the empathetic kind, and who therefore broke with Stalinism and entered the free, non-hierarchical space of Islam. For Garaudy, like Putterill and Shaw, secularity could only produce freedom within the confines of the ‘cage of steel’. True freedom lay beyond, but it had to be promote itself, and therefore incorporate a willingness to challenge those who degrade God’s earth and His servants. Faced with radical evil, preaching and witnessing alone are tragically inadequate.
Liberation from the cage, whether that cage be capitalist or Marxist, should be a real liberation for society as well as for the spirit."
-Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad, Quicunque Vult, or, A teenage journey to Islam
"Is any of this story of larger significance or helpfulness? Muslims often ask me what they should study; and are perplexed when I usually warn them
Making College ‘Relevant’
THOMAS COLLEGE, a liberal arts school in Maine, advertises itself as Home of the Guaranteed Job! Students who can’t find work in their fields within six months of graduation can come back to take classes free, or have the college pay their student loans for a year.
The University of Louisiana, Lafayette, is eliminating its philosophy major, while Michigan State University is doing away with American studies and classics, after years of declining enrollments in those majors.
And in a class called “The English Major in the Workplace,” at the University of Texas, Austin, students read “Death of a Salesman” but also learn to network, write a résumé and come off well in an interview.
Even before they arrive on campus, students — and their parents — are increasingly focused on what comes after college. What’s the return on investment, especially as the cost of that investment keeps rising? How will that major translate into a job?
The pressure on institutions to answer those questions is prompting changes from the admissions office to the career center. But even as they rush to prove their relevance, colleges and universities worry that students are specializing too early, that they are so focused on picking the perfect major that they don’t allow time for self-discovery, much less late blooming.
“The phrase drives me crazy — ‘What are you going to do with your degree?’ — but I see increasing concerns about that,” says Katharine Brooks, director of the liberal arts career center at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of “You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path From Chaos to Career.” “Particularly as money gets tighter, people are going to demand more accountability from majors and departments.”
Consider the change captured in the annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, of more than 400,000 incoming freshmen. In 1971, 37 percent responded that it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially,” while 73 percent said the same about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2009, the values were nearly reversed: 78 percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy.
The shift in attitudes is reflected in a shifting curriculum. Nationally, business has been the most popular major for the last 15 years. Campuses also report a boom in public health fields, and many institutions are building up environmental science and just about anything prefixed with “bio.” Reflecting the new economic and global realities, they are adding or expanding majors in Chinese and Arabic. The University of Michigan has seen a 38 percent increase in students enrolling in Asian language courses since 2002, while French has dropped by 5 percent.
Of course, universities have always adjusted curriculum to reflect the changing world; Kim Wilcox, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Michigan State, notes that universities, his included, used to offer majors in elocution and animal husbandry. In a major re-examination of its curriculum, Michigan State has added a dozen or so new programs, including degrees in global studies and, in response to a growing industry in the state, film studies. At the same time, it is abandoning underperformers like classical studies: in the last four years, only 13 students have declared it their major.
Dropping a classics or philosophy major might have been unthinkable a generation ago, when knowledge of the great thinkers was a cornerstone of a solid education. But with budgets tight, such programs have come to seem like a luxury— or maybe an expensive antique — in some quarters.
When Louisiana’s regents voted to eliminate the philosophy major last spring, they agreed with faculty members that the subject is “a traditional core program of a broad-based liberal arts and science institution.” But they noted that, on average, 3.4 students had graduated as philosophy majors in the previous five years; in 2008, there were none. “One cannot help but recognize that philosophy as an essential undergraduate program has lost some credence among students,” the board concluded.
In one recent survey, two-thirds of public institutions said they were responding to budget cuts with extensive reviews of their programs. But Dr. Wilcox says curriculum changes at Michigan State have just as much to do with what students, and the economy, are demanding. “We could have simply reduced the campus operating budget by X percent,” he says, “but we wouldn’t have positioned ourselves any differently for the future.”
In Michigan, where the recession hit early and hard, universities are particularly focused on being relevant to the job market. “There’s been this drumbeat that Michigan has got to diversify its economy,” says Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan.
Dr. Coleman says she had an “aha” moment five years ago, when the director of admissions was describing the incoming class and noted that 10 percent — some 600 students — had started a business in high school. The university has responded with about 100 entrepreneurship courses across the curriculum, including “Financing Research Commercialization” and “Engineering Social Venture Creation,” for students interested in creating businesses that not only do well financially but also do society good. Next year, the university will begin offering a master’s to students who commit to starting a high-tech company.
At the same time, Dr. Coleman is wary of training students for just one thing — “creating them to do some little widget,” as she says. Michigan has begun a speaker series featuring alumni or other successful entrepreneurs who come in to talk about how their careers benefited from what Dr. Coleman calls “core knowledge.”
“We believe that we do our best for students when we give them tools to be analytical, to be able to gather information and to determine the validity of that information themselves, particularly in this world where people don’t filter for you anymore,” Dr. Coleman says. “We want to teach them how to make an argument, how to defend an argument, to make a choice.” These are the skills that liberal arts colleges in particular have prided themselves on teaching. But these colleges also say they have the hardest time explaining the link between what they teach and the kind of job and salary a student can expect on the other end.
“There’s no immediate impact, that’s the problem,” says John J. Neuhauser, the president of St. Michael’s College, a liberal arts school in Vermont. “The humanities tend to educate people much farther out. They’re looking for an impact that lasts over decades, not just when you’re 22.”
When prospective students and their parents visit, he says, they ask about placement rates, internships and alumni involvement in job placement. These are questions, he says, that he never heard 10 years ago.
St. Michael’s, like other colleges, has adapted its curriculum to reflect demand. The college had to create new sections of chemistry labs and calculus on the spot during summer registration, and it raised the cap on the number of students in a biology lab. “I’d say, given the vagaries of the business cycle, people are looking for things that they know will always be needed — accountants, scientists, mathematicians,” says Jeffrey A. Trumbower, dean of the college. “Those also happen to be some of the most challenging majors academically, so we’ll see how these trends hold up.”
Still, Dr. Neuhauser finds the careerism troubling. “I think people change a great deal between 18 and 22,” he says. “The intimate environment small liberal arts colleges provide is a great place to grow up. But there’s no question that smacks of some measure of elitism now.”
There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”
“It’s not about what you should major in, but that no matter what you major in, you need good writing skills and good speaking skills,” says Debra Humphreys, a vice president at the association.
The organization has conducted focus groups with employers before and heard the same thing. With the recession, she says, they weren’t sure the findings would hold. “But it’s even more intense. Companies are demanding more of employees. They really want them to have a broad set of skills.” She adds that getting employer feedback is the association service that “college leaders find the most valuable, because they can answer the question when parents ask, ‘Is this going to help in getting a job?’ ”
Career advisers say that colleges and universities need to do a better job helping students understand the connection between a degree and a job. At some institutions, this means career officers are heading into the classroom.
Last fall at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the career office began integrating workplace lessons into capstone research seminars for humanities majors. In one of three classes taught by Anne Scholl-Fiedler, the director, she asks students to develop a 30-second commercial on their “personal brand.” “When somebody asks, ‘How are you going to use that English degree?’ you need to be able to clearly articulate what you are able to do,” she says. “If you don’t know, employers probably won’t either.”
At the University of Texas, Ms. Brooks says, many parents drop their children off freshman year asking, “How can my child transfer to the business school?” She tries to establish the value of the liberal arts with a series of courses called “The Major in the Workplace.” Students draw what she calls a “major map,” an inventory of things they have learned to do around their major. Using literature — “The Great Gatsby,” perhaps, or “Death of a Salesman” — she gets students to think about how the themes might apply to a workplace, then has them read Harvard Business Review case studies. The goal, she says, is to get students to think about how an English major (or a psychology or history major) might view the world differently, and why an employer might value that.
“There’s this linear notion that what you major in equals your career,” Ms. Brooks says. “I’m sure it works for some majors. If you want to be an electrical engineer, that major looks pretty darn good.
“The truth is,” she says, “students think too much about majors. But the major isn’t nearly as important as the toolbox of skills you come out with and the experiences you have.”
Kate Zernike is a national reporter for The Times. Rachel Aviv contributed reporting.