Graduate students in Binghamton University’s Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture (PIC) department — whose current status as a department remained a complicated issue as of press time — held a protest Wednesday afternoon against steps the University has taken to reduce and get rid of the PIC department.
The PIC department, which includes two faculty lines and typically averages 50 to 60 graduate students, according to BU Interim Provost Jean-Pierre Mileur, takes an interdisciplinary approach to various discourses in the humanities and social sciences.
The PIC department suffered a number of cutbacks in recent years. From 2001 to 2008, PIC lost half of its funded assistantships, from 18 down to nine. In February last year the assistantships were again reduced to four.
Some students and faculty in the department, as well as those in related disciplines, have alleged that the University administration has pursued a campaign of targeting PIC for reduction and elimination because the program does not produce monetary profit for the University in the way technology or research programs do, or because the administration finds the radical studies and beliefs of PIC’s members objectionable.
In a press release issued prior to Wednesday’s protest, the Binghamton chapter of New York Students Rising (NYSR) stated that the event “will … raise awareness about the larger trend toward curtailing resources for ‘non-profitable’ departments and programs in the Humanities and Social Sciences at public [sic] university.”
The release further argues that following the passage this summer of “NYSUNY 2020” — legislation that approved 30 percent tuition increases during the next five years at SUNY schools and created a “Challenge Grant” program offering as much as $35 million in additional funding to each of the four SUNY Centers in Binghamton, Stony Brook, Buffalo and Albany — BU’s decision not to support the PIC program with greater funding is motivated by the University’s priorities rather than a lack of resources.
“While [NYSUNY 2020] ostensibly resolves SUNY’s budget problems for the future it does not reinvest those funds in the university’s central academic and pedagogical mission,” the release stated. “Instead, monies are budgeted for capital funds and public-private partnerships to spur economic growth.”
The press release and fliers on campus advertising Wednesday’s rally called the event “Rising from the Ashes: A Day of the Dead Celebration of Innovative Programs and the State of Public Education.”
16 PIC graduate students, costumed in white and black face paint and paper masks made to look like skeleton costumes, stood in a silent line at 12:15 p.m. Wednesday, while several student speakers from the PIC department, NYSR and other supporters of PIC took turns on the megaphone, addressing the roughly 25 people assembled on the Lois B. DeFleur Walkway outside of the New University Union.
The students said they dressed in skeleton costume to give PIC a satirical “funeral” theme in response to what they see as the University’s steps to kill the program. The protest also was a celebration of the Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day, a Catholic holiday that is observed on Nov. 1 with festivities in Latin America and around the world.
Brendan McQuade, a graduate student in the sociology department and leader of the Binghamton chapter of NYSR, addressed the crowd.
“The attack on PIC demonstrates a trend toward focusing on profitable programs,” McQuade said. “Albany got rid of language programs. NYSUNY 2020 takes care of problems of money, but academic programs still don’t get funded. NYSR is a statewide organization fighting to change this. We need not prostitute ourselves to monied interests and become a technology center.”
Brian Zbriger, vice president for multicultural affairs of the Graduate Student Organization, said he believed losing the PIC program lowers the prestige of BU.
“[PIC] is a top-rated interdisciplinary program on the national level,” Zbriger said. “I know these are difficult times in terms of humanities funding, but that’s wrong-headed thinking when it will benefit the school in the long run. It’s well-known, and graduates get great jobs. Cutting the program sends the message that the University is in decline, which I don’t think is the message the University wants to be sending.”
This semester the University took down PIC’s web pages from www.binghamton.edu. BU is not currently recruiting or admitting any new students to the program, according to Mileur.
“We can’t advertise a program that we don’t legally have,” Mileur said. “It would be very misleading to prospective students. We are not able to admit students right now.”
Mileur said that the University’s decisions to take these steps had “nothing to do with financial constraints or the content of the program.”
“The issue is a regulatory issue,” Mileur said. “Graduate programs have to be reviewed and approved at the State Education Department level. Over the years [PIC] has changed so much that we can no longer argue with a straight face that it’s the same program. We risk the program being shut down and the campus being fined if we did not suspend admissions and remove the advertising from the website.”
The provost said for the program to be fully reinstated, its faculty would need to draw up a proposal for the program that reflected its current practices. He said Wednesday that he and the dean of Harpur College would meet with faculty and PIC student representatives in the coming days and weeks to discuss the future of the program.
The PIC protesters walked from the New Union to the Couper Administration Building at about 1 p.m., chanting “PIC’s not dead!” They stopped outside the front doors of Couper, where they danced, sang and held up signs that said things like “culture studies,” “Black Europe,” “Japanese philosophy” and “indigenous practices.”
Within a few minutes, officers of Binghamton University’s New York State University Police appeared in the lobby of Couper Building, watching the protesters through the glass doors but not interfering. A few minutes later the protest broke up.