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Covert Innsbruck decision a disservice to German department

Jackie Mirandola Mullen | Monday, January 25, 2010

Last Monday, the University announced its decision to cancel its study abroad program in Innsbruck, Austria. The facts are few and repeated; the Innsbruck program was founded in 1964 and is Notre Dame’s oldest study abroad program, over these 45 years there have been more than 1,400 student participants, it was canceled due to lack of interest and Berlin is a cultural hot-spot of prestige to which the University would much rather send its students.

As an alumna of Innsbruck, I do not support the University’s decision to cancel its most tradition-seeped program.

The city of Innsbruck itself has unique qualities that separate the Innsbruck program from nearly every other Notre Dame study abroad program. Innsbruck’s quaint valley population is approximately 120,000 — 22,000 of whom are students and academics. It is truly a university town, as it has been since the University’s founding by the Jesuits in 1669. Innsbruck’s rich theological history educated the minds of Karl Rahner and Raymund Schwager, and its continued Catholic character provides foreign students like me a community through Catholic organizations at the University.

Beyond my obvious bias to the community spirituality, and beauty of the city, I believe the decision to cancel the Innsbruck Program could cause serious problems for Notre Dame’s German Department. Innsbruck is a welcoming, small city where students feel a part of the experience and can treat the province Tirol like home. Because of this, many students who return to America apply for Fulbrights, Fulbright Teaching Assistantships, internships, jobs and other research positions in Germany or Austria. The majority of students in the past three years who have participated in these prestigious (to use a favorite word of the administration) undertakings have studied through the Innsbruck program before deciding to apply.

Berlin’s program could perhaps promote the same drive to return and undertake higher-level projects, yes, but the minimal interest in the program suggests that the numbers of German students to go on in such pursuits would never meet current numbers without the Innsbruck program encouraging German language development. One fact that has been ostentatiously missing from all articles and press releases is the current interest in the Berlin program; enrollment has oscillated between three and five students per year for the past three years. 

During my time in Innsbruck, I experienced academic frustrations that arose from the limitations that the Office of International Studies (OIS) places on its students. Before going to Innsbruck, I had taken German for seven years and also lived in northern Germany, setting my language at the C1 level that the European Union requires one to attain before attempting university study in a language other than your own. However, OIS allows students to take only Notre Dame-offered courses in the fall semester, which are still in German and taught by Innsbruck Professors, but are with only other Notre Dame students. Because my language was at a different level than other students, in my fall Notre Dame classes I was bored, unchallenged, frustrated — all symptoms arising from what Mr. David Younger from OIS cited as the less “demanding” academic qualities of the Innsbruck program.

He is certainly right; the academic portion was not quite as demanding as a Notre Dame education. But to fix this, all OIS needs to do is allow students with the language competency at the beginning of the year to enroll in normal University of Innsbruck courses (currently, students are allowed to enroll in one or two Innsbruck courses, but only in the spring semester). The academic challenge would then increase for those students who have more experience with the language, and the challenging opportunity for German-language beginners in the Notre Dame Innsbruck program would continue, as well. Enrollment issues solved.

When I spoke to OIS last fall about my frustrations, I was told I could transfer to Berlin. However, I preferred the small mountain city of Innsbruck — and the companionship of my host family — to living alone in a huge metropolis. Our program director, an Innsbruck Professor who has led the Notre Dame program for 20 years along with his wife, could not help me beyond contacting Notre Dame or comforting me, due to hand-tying by OIS.

This same man was not informed of the decision to cancel the Innsbruck program until the day of Notre Dame’s press release to the world. Never have I been so ashamed of Notre Dame — that lack of respect is unacceptable to show anyone, much less someone who has devoted 20 years of his life to making a program excel beyond Notre Dame’s standards in ways that the Ivy-chasing administration would not understand. I turned down Ivies to go here because I thought Notre Dame’s Catholic character fostered a sense of respect for fellow human beings that no other American University matched.  Perhaps the Administration feels decency is not important when negotiating with other first-world citizens. I respectfully disagree.

I never thought I would so adamantly argue for Innsbruck, but if the only option students will have to study German is in a huge metropolis, the future German Department enrollment will suffer. Improving the Innsbruck program would have helped the German Department and Notre Dame students far more than shafting it in a secretive and dishonest way. I and many other alumni of the Innsbruck program are ashamed of our University’s decision and we urge its rethinking — while fully aware of the apparent futility of this request.


Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a senior history and German major who studied abroad in Innsbruck, Austria last year. She would like to dedicate this article to Prof. Gernot Guertler. You can reach her at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.