Petitioning and Pushing back

In early October 2021, students were made aware of immediate cuts to Tufts’ Portuguese program. These cuts, students alleged, include a reduction in the number of Portuguese courses offered and the elimination of the minor. Within days, social media posts circulated on Facebook and Instagram to “Save Portuguese at Tufts.” Students in the department immediately created an online petition that now has over 1,100 signatures and 42 pages of testimonials from students, alumni, and community members. 

 In the petition, Portuguese program students and native Portuguese speakers outlined their three asks of the administration: 1)  guaranteeing a Portuguese minor at Tufts, 2) keeping the Portuguese full-time program coordinator position, and 3) keeping the part-time lecturer position. The petition includes testimonials and letters of support from undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, faculty, and community organizations. 

While students and faculty became aware of cuts to the Portuguese program in October, the administration said they had already decided on these reductions this past spring. In an email to the Tufts Observer, James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, wrote, “When the full-time lecturer in charge of the Portuguese language program resigned last spring, the A&S deans decided to phase out the program and use the program elsewhere.” Maria Champlin, who took over as interim Portuguese program coordinator, was unaware of the school’s decision when she took over the program. “I asked for a meeting [this month] because I had heard that the minor was being cut. I did not know anything about it and that [meeting] is when I learned about their decision,” Champlin said. 

According to Glaser, Tufts’ decision to downsize the Portuguese department stems from enrollment size concerns and the departure of a full-time faculty member in Spring 2021. He wrote, “For some time now, it’s been evident that Portuguese courses have lower than optimal enrollments, often near the threshold of 6 that leads the School of Arts & Sciences to cancel courses.” 

However, Sophia Costa, a junior leading the push to keep the Portuguese minor along with two other students, said that enrollment for the Portuguese department has not fluctuated as much as the administration is claiming. Costa stated that participating in the Tufts 1+4 Brazil program, which allows admitted students to spend a year abroad before matriculating to Tufts, has led many students to the Portuguese department. Though fewer students are participating in Tufts 1+4 due to COVID-19, she believes the department has maintained its average of students in on-campus classes per semester. “It’s not a decrease in enrollment as the institution is painting it to be,” she said.

Whether the administration’s fears are unfounded or not, they have resulted in drastic changes to the department. Portuguese classes will still be offered at Tufts, but only a limited number and for a limited amount of time. For the 2022 –2023 academic year, Portuguese language classes will still be offered. However, after this time, Tufts will offer only Portuguese for Spanish Speakers, which, according to Glaser, “generates stronger student interest,” as well as “a culture course each semester relevant to this area.” 

Professors, however, are concerned about the potential limitations of only offering the Portuguese for Spanish Speakers course. This decision, according to Champlin, “cut[s] out anybody that does not speak Spanish to take Portuguese.” Some students come to Tufts to connect to Portuguese itself. In a testimonial, Leticia Priebe Rocha (A’20) described her experience of initially losing her Portuguese fluency when she immigrated to the United States. “Something integral to my identity… was just disappearing day after day,” she wrote. Rocha regained her fluency when she took classes at Tufts: “I was able to find a piece of home for the first time in nearly a decade through this department.” 

Furthermore, students said that the decision to cut language courses and offer only one culture class per semester proves consequential to those who desire to achieve fluency in the language as a means of connecting to their culture. In his written testimonial, Jimmy Parker (A’21) stated, “After taking nine courses in the Portuguese department, I unlocked a level of proficiency in the language that allowed me to reconnect with my Portuguese heritage and engage with the various lusophone cultures present in the greater Boston area.” 

Champlin also discussed the importance of language in learning about a culture: “Language is the gateway to culture. If we speak a language, [students] are better equipped to understand and meet the needs of local communities [and] stakeholders,” she said. This semester, Roger Burtonpatel, a sophomore and organizer of the “Save Portuguese at Tufts” petition, is in an upper-level Portuguese culture class that is entirely taught in Portuguese. He explained that by cutting upper-level Portuguese language classes, the culture classes they offered would have to be in English. “I’m really reading hard documents [in my Portuguese culture class]. I’m prepared very well for it, but I could not have done this if I hadn’t taken [Portuguese] 21 and [Portuguese] 22,” he said. 

The petition’s organizers believe the Portuguese language has particular value in local areas. In Massachusetts, Portuguese is the third most widely spoken language, spoken by 2.6 percent of the population. Massachusetts has the second-largest Brazilian population in the United States; 18 percent of Brazilians in the United States live in the state. BR Rose, a junior minoring in Portuguese and an organizer of “Save Portuguese at Tufts,” described how her study of Portuguese led to her finding opportunities to engage with the surrounding community. These opportunities have included community health research in Medford and Somerville, working with a local mutual aid network that assists Brazilian community members, and working for local organizations that help non-English speaking individuals get vaccine appointments.

To many students, the measures to phase out Tufts’ Portuguese program contradict Tufts’ commitment to becoming an anti-racist institution. According to the petition, “Eradication of minority languages and attempts at the imposition of master languages are inextricably related to racial inequality.” Costa reflected this sentiment and said, “It feels like actions like this one show how much [Tufts] devalues different ethnic and racial groups and their respective cultures. That includes languages, and how they’re unable to see that cutting and, in the near future, possibly even eliminating, such programs, is in direct opposition with their [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice] commitment.” 

On October 31, Glaser said, “No students have contacted [the] A&S administration, to my knowledge, expressing their concerns.” According to Burtonpatel, organizers of the “Save Portuguese at Tufts” movement hope to meet with the administration to present their petition signatories and letter of support to communicate their disappointment with Tufts. Champlin said, “I think this is a program worth keeping [at] the university. I would love to see [Tufts] revisit its decision.”