The End of the Florence Program Signals Sarah Lawrence's Decline

Exploring the city of Florence and the surrounding region is a core part of the current program. Photo by Kayley Shimmin '17

Exploring the city of Florence and the surrounding region is a core part of the current program. Photo by Kayley Shimmin '17

News of the closure of SLC Florence has prompted much discussion among those of us students now set to be the last that SLC Florence (at least in its current and, up until now, only incarnation) will see. Whether studying abroad on this program was a heavily weighed decision or, as in my case, was one of the primary reasons for attending Sarah Lawrence, both current students and alumni alike are looking for answers as to why Sarah Lawrence would put such an abrupt end to one of its most enduring and highly regarded international programs.

From the Board of Trustee’s email earlier this week, it’s clear that the reason is money. This comes as no surprise: it seems that for years now Sarah Lawrence has remained the “little engine that could” of prestigious liberal arts schools, that well-intentioned and poorly endowed refuge for independent thinkers and individualized curriculum, distanced against all odds from the increasingly corporate climate of American higher education. While that’s a very rough sketch of the college’s standing within the university world, the point still stands: Sarah Lawrence is strapped for cash, and we’re seeing serious changes because of it.

One can be sympathetic to the college’s practical needs. That is, that even as an institution which prides itself on academic liberty and egalitarian values, Sarah Lawrence has an inevitable need to function as a business and a brand (that much is at least evident by the infamous tuition price-tag). The question then is: in the interest of saving money, why should the longstanding Florence program be the first corner to cut? If the closing is strictly business, then it would appear Sarah Lawrence has a problem with business ethics; the news has come as a decree, abrupt and inflexible. Basta. For Sarah Lawrence to essentially deliver a pink-slip to the staff of SLC Florence, which has molded and organized the program since its inception almost thirty years ago, suggests a sort of callous disregard for livelihood that one might expect from a corporate juggernaut, but surely not from a small liberal arts college founded on humanistic virtues.

The problems of SLC Florence’s closure extend far beyond the issue of fairness. It is, of course, absurd that a college with such a vested interest in defending the study of the humanities would be so quick to sever ties with the birthplace of the Renaissance, a city noted for having the highest concentration of art in the world. Are we meant to accept the irony that the loss of a seat in a timeless city should be a response to changing educational priorities? In the eyes of our administration, why is Florence the dead weight on the budget plan? Why haven’t solutions been pursued?

The official response to these questions is that 1.) closing is inevitable, and 2.) SLC Florence will not actually be closed, but rather “redesigned” in partnership with Middlebury, a plan which comes across as little more than a way of maintaining a tenuous connection to the city. Among the casualties for this transition will be the prime location near Piazza Santa Croce, the staff, the homestay arrangements, and, of course, the Sarah Lawrence pedagogy. The fact that Middlebury’s most recent abroad program in Florence was attended by only four undergraduates, (in comparison to our current fifteen) only makes the merger all the more puzzling. Had this been the program format last year as I applied, I likely would have remained on campus in Bronxville for my junior year.

As for whatever “inevitability” has factored into the administration's rather clandestine decision-making, it’s worth examining whether “unsustainable” enrollment numbers really have so much to do with shifting student interests as they do with a laissez-faire attitude towards publicity and support. The email from the Board of Trustees claims that this closure comes despite “intense recruiting efforts.” Yet a careful reading of the college’s glossy admissions booklet finds no mention of the Florence program, and information on the web is scant and unpronounced. Indeed, the outrage generated in the wake of these recent announcements may very well be the largest boon to the program’s on-campus visibility in recent years. In any case, there is reason to believe that whatever rationale the administration has for closing SLC Florence was reached well before exhausting - or even pursuing - all other options. Too little, too late.

For a school that puts so much weight on uniqueness, it’s bizarre the immersion and educational rigor of the Florence program should be so overlooked. Many Italian abroad programs have greatly fallen in prestige and have garnered the reputation of being little more than school-sponsored vacations. Here we frequently see American students making no effort to speak Italian, even when ordering a caffe. Many now belong to programs of over two-hundred students and live in on-campus dormitory housing. With such superficial interaction with the city so common, it’s strange that Sarah Lawrence would not make more effort to showcase the novelties of our program: from almost daily Italian language class to the family homestays, and especially our courses - like Art History and Medieval History - in which we make daily, direct contact with our subject matter just outside the building.

This speaks to the issue of Sarah Lawrence being a school of “gems,” by which I mean a school of phenomenal academic offerings which often fly under the radar. For example, if Sarah Lawrence should be following Middlebury’s example on anything, it’s on foreign language study, not abroad programs. The Vermont liberal arts college is widely reputed for its emphasis on foreign language courses and the advantages at which they place students within the international job market. Speaking in the business terminology which has become so necessary these days, Middlebury has built its brand on it. Having studied Italian and French at Sarah Lawrence, I have always found it strange that the college has not adopted a similar attitude. In this area SLC offers intimate class sizes, conference meetings and projects conducted in the target language, and regular meetings with conversation tutors, some of whom I have remained in contact with even in Florence. In my experience, this has been the most effective and immersive approach available short of actually living where the language is spoken. But the language curriculum - like the Florence program itself - has remained a gem that has played practically no part in the Sarah Lawrence brand. It’s perplexing to me why the college, while grasping for an educational niche and more competitive name, seems so adverse to nurturing its most exceptional offerings.

If the eight-hundred or so alumni appeals serve to tell us anything in the wake of this apparently definitive decision, it’s that SLC Florence remains a cause of timeless value, well worth defending. Likewise, the lack of more statistically specific and transparent language in communications by the Sarah Lawrence administration - not to mention the triumphant announcement of over $100 million dollars raised in “quiet” campaigning just two days after the closure email from the Board - serves to tell us that there have likely always been options, they were just never put on the table. What’s missing is the prioritization of a program, twenty-nine years running, which has been an integral if not definitive moment in undergraduate careers at Sarah Lawrence. And so the real, long-term weight that this closure carries is not for the current students and alumni who have been so vocal in their opposition, nor for those who will lose their jobs after decades of service; it’s for the ethos of Sarah Lawrence itself. Ready to dispose of a renowned post in a city so connected to the ideal of the liberal arts, it’s becoming clear that Sarah Lawrence, at least as a pedagogical and philosophical idea, has entered into decline. 

by Frank Chlumsky '17

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