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Students meet with provosts about program

Sarah Mervosh | Monday, January 25, 2010

Students who studied in Innsbruck, Austria last year met with University provosts Monday to discuss the recent decision to cancel the Innsbruck study abroad program.

“Our main goals for the meeting were a) to obtain some sort of an explanation for why the Innsbruck program was cancelled and b) what were the rationalizations,” senior Jessica Technow, one of the nine students who attended the meeting, said.

Joe Buttigieg, assistant provost for International Studies, said Notre Dame’s oldest study abroad program had problems sustaining itself for the past 10 years, due to low enrollment numbers.

When the program fell to seven students in the 2005-2006 year, and nine in 2006-2007, the University created a spring semester option in an attempt to increase enrollment, he said.

“That basically saved it,” Buttigieg said.

The numbers then rose in the following years to around 15, the minimum threshold to keep the program viable.

But for the 2010-11 school year, only two students applied for the year, and nine applied for the spring semester, he said.

“We noticed that the numbers were so low. We said my goodness, not only have we had a problem with the program for quite a substantial number of years, but now its reached the point where it is almost impossible to keep it going,” Buttigieg said.

Students in Innbruck usually take classes exclusively with Notre Dame students and taught by Notre Dame hired faculty. This design creates a need for a certain number of students each year to make the program financially feasible, associate provost Dennis Jacobs said.

“We would have needed to hire five faculty to teach two students,” Jacobs said.

Buttigieg said low enrollment numbers reflected a shift towards the semester, instead of a year, abroad and Notre Dame’s growing number of study abroad locations.

“Since the program started, the landscape of international study has changed dramatically. We have 36 programs. Students are going to find more and more programs that address directly what they’re interested in,” he said. “It’s not as if we have in any way, privileged the program in Timbucktoo over the program in Innsbruck.”

Jacobs said the Innsbruck program’s problem with enrollment was also partly due to the way its curriculum was modeled.

“Innsbruck has an on-site director and has faculty teach Notre Dame students in an exclusive environment,” Jacobs said. “On the opposite end of the spectrum, students would take their classes at a university, like Oxford or something like that.”

The disadvantage of the Innsbruck program was that it could not absorb the fluctuations in enrollment, because it did not exist as a part of a larger group, he said.

Technow said in an ideal world, the students would like to see the Innsbruck program be reinstated. For now, they simply asked that the Innsbruck program not be ruled out in the future, and that the cancellation of the Innsbruck program be used as a learning experience.

Buttigieg said he has already begun evaluating what went wrong in the Innsbruck program so he can avoid it in the future.

“We should have insisted much, much, much earlier on that a much higher percentage of the students’ courses being taken at the University because that was the soft underbelly of this whole thing,” he said.

He added, “you’ve got to find a way where the survival of the program is not dependent of the oscillation of the students going into it.”

Buttigieg also asked the students to think about qualities of the Innsbruck program that were most important to them, and said he would be receptive to their suggestions.

“What is really fruitful is to distill in simple, straightforward articulation, what is the ideal program for German language? What is it that, in your experience mattered most?” he said.

Both parties said they were pleased with how the meeting went.

“I think that was a great discussion,” Jacobs said. “I think it was very helpful and constructive.”

Though the Innsbruck program remains discontinued, Technow said she felt the students succeeded in opening up the lines of communication with the University, she said.

“We were definitely very pleasantly surprised with the reception that we received. We felt that they definitely listened to use, respected what we had to say and gave us a voice,” she said. “I think that we’re moving in the right direction. No one is really happy with the decision and what happened, but I think that we’re more optimistic about having some sort of input in the future.”