Choices for Brandeis

Should a liberal arts university even think about phasing out instruction in ancient Greek?
February 10, 2005

In a few days, a group of professors at Brandeis University will give the provost their take on a set of recommendations that has unsettled the faculty and left some questioning whether the institution is abandoning key disciplines.

Among the recommendations: Phase out the teaching of ancient Greek. End the linguistics major and a Ph.D. program in music composition. Trim the size of the Near Eastern studies department. Use the savings from these changes to build up other areas, such as East Asian studies and programs that help students find internships.

In some ways, the Brandeis situation seems mild compared to colleges where budget cuts have meant layoffs. At Brandeis, no one is being dismissed -- the changes would be phased in as professors retire and their slots are moved to other disciplines. And professors have been given months to debate the ideas.

But to many faculty members, the debate has become more important than faculty lines. When a university that compares itself to top national institutions thinks that it can advance itself, in part, by not teaching ancient Greek, they say, something is seriously wrong.

"We have this fear that our current administration is shifting gears about what kind of university we are going to be in the future. We are currently a major university that prides itself on the liberal arts,  and classics are the heart of the whole thing," says Ann O. Koloski-Ostrow, chair of the classical studies department.

At one point in the fall, as the ideas for restructuring were circulated, one proposal was to eliminate classics as a free-standing department. Amid a faculty uproar, that idea was withdrawn. But Koloski-Ostrow and others say that it is deceptive for the administration to claim to support the department while considering the elimination of Greek.

"If Greek is cut," she says, "they will have destroyed the department without saying that they have destroyed the department because no serious student would come to study classics at Brandeis again."

Administrators say that Brandeis isn't anti-classics or anti-liberal arts. But it's smaller and younger (and thus less wealthy) than the universities it competes with for students and faculty members. It just must make choices.

Marty W. Krauss, the provost, says she understands "people's intense reactions," but adds that "the extrapolation from these proposals that we are backing away from the liberal arts is overblown."

"It's a choice we make about whether we teach Greek as a literature and teach Greek literature in Greek," she says. "It's not an overenrolled major by any stretch of the imagination, and if we didn't teach so much Greek, and taught the classics in translation, we may provide more students with access to a classical education."

The question for Brandeis, as for many other colleges, she says, is: "Can we afford to do all of these things when we have other, chronic needs."

The ideas that have set off the uproar were prepared by Adam Jaffe, dean of arts and sciences. They are part of a process known as "integrated planning" at the university, in which senior university administrators work together to plan long-term strategy. The idea is that planning takes place all the time -- taking into consideration how a change in one part of the university would affect other parts.

Jaffe's report angered many professors, and he quickly backtracked on the proposal to eliminate classics altogether. But even that possibility stunned many on and off the campus.

A strong classics department is essential for "so many other disciplines," says Adam D. Blistein, executive director of the American Philological Association. "Most of your modern languages, your history, your religion departments all need classics."

Classics was restored (potentially minus Greek). But other programs remain on the chopping block. And their supporters acknowledge that they don't have the same emotional pull as the classics do. But that doesn't mean, the supporters say, that they should be eliminated.

Ray Jackendoff, chair of the linguistics program, says he knows that linguistics is never going to be a top major. But he sees it playing an increasingly important role in psychology, neuroscience, language education and other fields. He says he believes the field is a target because he and another professor are both five years or so away from retirement.

"I think they saw this as an opportunity" to get some faculty lines, he says. And that bothers him.

"I think about the intellectual integrity. Should a university be entirely market driven?" Jackendoff asks. "Using a business model to go where the fashions drive you doesn't lead you to the best university."

"Does one want more boutique programs as opposed to the boring old things we do very well?"

Opposition to the changes is widespread among faculty members, especially in the humanities. Michael T. Gilmore, chair of English, says that any move to eliminate classics or stop teaching Greek would be "a scandal" for many reasons. "Other than the purely pedagogic and theoretical importance of classics, it would simply discredit us as a viable liberal arts institution in the eyes of our peers."

He extends his criticism to the other proposed changes. "The priorities are mistaken."

It is unclear what will happen after the faculty committee presents its findings next week. Krauss, the provost, says that a public comment period will start at that time. Various rumors are rampant among faculty members, many of whom do not want to be quoted on what they are hearing. Some believe that the faculty anger has been so strong that some of the ideas -- especially about Greek -- will be withdrawn. Others think that the administration remains committed to getting money for its priorities, and so will carry out the ideas regardless of faculty opposition.

Not all professors are opposed to all of the changes.

Marc Z. Brettler, chair of the Near Eastern and Judaic studies department, says that he can see the wisdom of parts of the plan -- even though his department (a large one, with a strong national reputation) may lose a few slots.

"For the first time probably ever in its history, Brandeis is being very fiscally responsible and forward looking and competing needs came into play," he says. "If we might need $X to make all the desired changes, we might only have two-thirds of $X. So we need to think ahead and make some decisions that are really difficult."

Tenure "gives you less flexibility" to make changes, so it makes sense for the administration to look long term, he adds.

But ask him about the decision to end study of Greek, and Brettler can't go along with the administration. "In real terms, I think ancient Greek remains an important part of the curriculum. As a Hebrew scholar, I understand what you can only understand in the original language."

And then there's what Greek means: "Greek represents the humanities and all that we stand for."


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