Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

June 25, 2008

It's been a bad year for German programs. The University of Southern California is eliminating its department. A graduate program at the University of Florida is alive, but facing an admissions freeze and future scrutiny.

But in North Carolina, German professors are celebrating. After several years of planning and lobbying, the boards of Duke University and the University of North Carolina have approved the merger of the graduate programs at Duke and UNC's flagship campus at Chapel Hill. The result will be a single, larger department that will have the sort of scale that few universities could sustain these days in many humanities fields like German -- intellectually important, but not in the nanotech way that attracts big bucks from legislatures and donors.

The Duke-UNC plan was drafted by professors, who then sold it to administrators (a contrast from many mergers that flow in the opposite direction). "This is a model that allows us to be important in our institutions and the field," said Ann Marie Rasmussen, a Duke professor who was German chair for many of the negotiations.

With a combined 16 faculty members (not counting visitors and part timers), the joint program will offer a breadth of coverage few universities in the United States can match. "Most German departments have had to say, 'we're going to forget everything before 1750,' but we're going to have two medievalists,' " said the chair at Chapel Hill, Clayton Koelb. "Our students will be able to look at the whole range of German studies fields, not what happens to be available."

To do this, the two faculties have agreed to an unusual degree of collaboration across not only institutional, but public-private, lines. For instance, all future searches in German at the departments (which remain separate for undergraduate instruction) will feature a professor from the other university, with full voting rights equal to that of other professors on the committee. So when Chapel Hill had an opening this semester, the decision to search for an early modern specialist was based on an assessment of both departments, not just one.

"We have no interest in competing with one another, and we have every interest in making good, complementary hires," said Rasmussen.

Starting in the fall of 2009, graduate students will apply to and enter a single graduate program, taking courses at both institutions. They will be assured the minimum stipend levels Duke offers that year (likely to be higher than those at Carolina) and will have full rights at both institutions for access to fellowships, research support and so forth. Their eventual degrees will come from the joint department and will feature both universities' names.

A key feature of the program is that its students will be able to serve as instructors or teaching assistants in both introductory German language courses and in literature or culture courses at both institutions, giving them experience teaching and working with students at a top public and a top private university.

Professors at both institutions said that a key to working out the merger was that there were years of less formal collaboration predating it. Professors have routinely served on doctoral committees at both institutions, and the departments have worked with acquisitions librarians at the two institutions to make complementary purchases. Koelb said that it became clear over the years that in German, "some programs were going to get cut but high quality programs could survive."

At USC, professors reported that the department elimination followed the gradual elimination of faculty slots, which created a vicious cycle. With staffing limited, it was difficult to create excitement about programs beyond introductory language instruction -- and then the department was criticized for not having programs for which it didn't have professors.

Koelb said that he was never worried about a USC-type situation in North Carolina, but that a structure was needed to promote long-term growth. "This is about positioning ourselves not for the next 5 years, but for the next 20 years," he said.

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