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Saving the Cornell University Sinhala Language Program

Sinhala Language Program at Cornell University

Sri Lanka Studies has been central to Cornell University since 1960s, linked to faculty members across several disciplines in Cornell’s colleges and professional schools.  Cornell’s “Sinhala Language Program” was established by eminent Sinhala scholar, the late Sahitya Chakravarti Prof. James Gair in 1960s. Renowned linguist, the late Prof. W.S. Karunatilleke of University of Kelaniya had collaborated closely with Prof. Gair to develop the Program and teaching texts.

Cornell University is the only university outside Sri Lanka offering a full curriculum in Sinhala. Prof. Bandara Herath is the current Professor of Sinhala at Cornell. Prof. Anne Blackburn, an authority of Sri Lankan Buddhist history, is the Director of the South Asia Program at Cornell University, and the “Sinhala Language Program” comes under her purview.

The Sinhala Language Program is currently facing the threat of being pruned down and ultimate closure, due to lack of funding. The Program is funded approximately 50% by the University and 50% by external funds, which mainly come from the Department of Education of the US Government.

With a view to diverting funds to other study programmes, which students find lucrative and therefore popular, the university administration has decided to reduce its contribution to the Sinhala Program by 2018. When the funds granted by the university are reduced, the Sinhala Program would become a part time study programme, which will have a reduced curriculum. Once the Sinhala Program is converted to a part time study programme, it would not be able to retain the services of a highly qualified professor, and lose its full curriculum status, resulting in ultimate closure.

In order to save the Sinhala Program from this situation, university funding has to be replaced by funding from outside sources. This would require USD 1 million in short term, and USD 2 million to secure the Program fully.

The university administration has given a grace period until this autumn to mobilize funds with a view to retaining the full Program. After that the university will seek to reduce the Program to a part time status.

It would be an almost impossible task to raise at least the short time requirement of USD 1 million by autumn. Nevertheless, mobilization of a substantial amount of funds should convince the administration to postpone its decision to convert the Program into a part time one.

The following strategic action is proposed to remedy the current situation of the Sinhala Language Program and to retain its full curriculum status:

  • To reach out to the Government of Sri Lanka for a one-time contribution to a trust fund that aims to sustain the Sinhala Program.
  • Raise awareness in Sri Lanka through mass media with a view to garnering financial support from Sri Lankan individuals to the Program
  • To mobilize the Sri Lankan American community to raise funds for this purpose, and to appeal to the university administration (Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences) to maintain its current commitment to funding 50% of the full-time Sinhala Program.
  • To lobby the university administration with a view to postponing its decision to reduce funds.

As this is the only full curriculum Sinhala study programme outside Sri Lanka, it would be of critical importance to Sri Lanka to retain Cornell’s Sinhala Program as a full curriculum programme, which is a useful soft power tool in promoting Sri Lanka’s interests in the US. It would be important to all Sri Lankans as a national cause.

Towards this end, the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in New York has strongly recommended to the Government of Sri Lanka to consider making a substantial one-time grant to the trust fund. This would be indicative of support at a political level to retain the Sinhala Program at Cornell. The Government of Sri Lanka is considering this proposal at present.

The Permanent Mission has also requested the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka to give adequate publicity to this in media in Sri Lanka in order to raise awareness and garner financial support from Sri Lankan individuals.

The Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka will be visiting Cornell University to meet with the Dean of Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences and the university administration and lobby them to reconsider the decision to cut-off funds for the Sinhala Program.

It is imperative that the Sri Lankan expatriate community in the United States be mobilized to raise funds for this purpose. Sri Lanka associations could play a leading role in this regard. Sri Lankan associations and individuals can also appeal to the university administration to maintain its current commitment to funding 50% of the full-time Sinhala Program.

Three background documents on the Program are attached hereto, including a document on how to donate to the Program.





Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations

New York