[CHE] Foreign-Language Programs, Facing Cuts, Find a Champion in ‘Tennessee Bob’

The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 23, 2010

By Mary Helen Miller

Robert D. Peckham is "Tennessee Bob"
Robert D. Peckham is "Tennessee Bob"

Robert D. Peckham, a professor of French, had more to deal with this spring than his usual end-of-semester duties. The countryside in western Tennessee was bright green and dotted with the yellow of wild mustard blooms, but Mr. Peckham was less than cheerful. His department at the University of Tennessee at Martin was restructuring. The oldest of his four kids had just moved back home, so the family was adjusting. Most of all, Mr. Peckham was anxious that a university more than 400 miles away was thinking about cutting its programs in Spanish and French.

Albany State University, in Georgia, included the elimination of the two languages in a proposal to save $3.6-million that it submitted to the Board of Regents in February. Mr. Peckham, a national advocate for foreign-language programs known among his colleagues as “Tennessee Bob,” felt he had to act.

Albany State’s dean of arts and humanities, Leroy E. Bynum Jr., says that the programs were included on the list because they are “vulnerable,” but that the university has no plans to actually discontinue them.

Still, Mr. Peckham says, program eliminations always start as “worst-case scenarios.” So he is crafting arguments showing how language skills are a key to students’ success—arguments that faculty members at Albany State can use.

“Administrations see getting rid of a foreign-language program as a politically low-cost thing to do,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is say, You can’t get away with that.”

This is not an easy time for foreign-language departments. Programs at California State University at Fullerton and the University of Maine at Orono, to name two, were recently shrunk, and decisions about the fate of some language programs at the University of Nevada at Reno and University of Tennessee at Knoxville are pending.

Mr. Peckham is chair of the Commission on Advocacy of the American Association of Teachers of French, but he sees all languages as his to defend. Every week he spends roughly 20 hours scouring the Web for reports of threatened language programs and giving advice to those that ask for it. He does research on institutions and their surrounding areas, and passes along material for faculty members to use to defend their programs.

His work has been “very helpful,” says Raymond J. Pelletier, chair of the department of modern languages and classics at Orono. Mr. Peckham pointed out to Mr. Pelletier that nearly half of Maine’s export revenue comes from countries whose languages are taught at the university, a fact that informed the Orono faculty’s campaign to save French and Spanish.

Languages for Leaders

When he was a student, Tennessee Bob recalls, a person had to know a foreign language to be considered well educated. The same should be true today, he believes. Learning a foreign language is crucial to becoming a strong leader, he says. Most of the schools and colleges he helps are public, and he would especially like to see good leaders come from those institutions.

That desire drove him to become vice president of the French teachers’ association, in 2003. He was “never one of those people who was gung-ho to be part of an organization,” he says, but the group seemed to be a good vehicle for advocacy work.

“I want to see people given the chance,” Mr. Peckham says. “If all we’re going to do is take folks from Harvard and Yale and put them in the best jobs, eventually we’re going to have the same problem that you have with an ecosystem that’s not varied. You’re going to lack certain types of thought.”

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