Humanities in Limbo

Johns Hopkins threatens to close its interdisciplinary Humanities Center, sparking outcry from students and faculty members.

October 28, 2016
 
Johns Hopkins University

The possible closure of Johns Hopkins University’s 50-year-old interdisciplinary Humanities Center is facing sharp criticism from students and faculty members alike. They say the center merits a place on campus and are citing concerns about faculty autonomy over the curriculum, the university’s explicit commitment to graduate study and the humanities, and donor influence in academic matters.

Hopkins's reasons for considering closing the center aren't totally clear, but the dean in charge of the center's fate has cited its narrow focus (a characterization its proponents challenge), among other concerns. In any case, it doesn't appear to be a budget issue.

“Through its distinctive intellectual and pedagogical profile, the Humanities Center has formed generations of innovative young scholars, promoted precious and productive conversations across the humanities and social sciences, and played a crucial role in maintaining Hopkins’s reputation in the fields of humanistic studies in the U.S. and abroad,” reads an online petition in support of the center, with over 3,200 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

“We urge President [Ronald J.] Daniels to allow the Humanities Center to continue to thrive and to avoid any decision that would bring irreparable damage to the humanities at Hopkins and to the reputation of the university as a teaching- and research-oriented institution invested in all academic fields,” the petition says.

Graduate student supporters of the center also have created a website with details and documents about the pending decision.

Here’s a summary: the center, which operates like a department, sponsors two Ph.D. programs, in comparative literature and intellectual history. Only a few highly qualified applicants are admitted (there are 19 students currently), and courses of study are designed by center faculty members and in cooperation with those in outside, relevant departments.

The center also runs an undergraduate humanities honors program and two undergraduate courses, and recently introduced a one-year master of arts degree in humanistic studies.

It’s been requesting permission to conduct searches to replace two retiring faculty members for the last several years, a decision ultimately left up to Beverly Wendland, who was named permanent dean of the Krieger School of the Arts and Sciences in 2015. Before making up her mind, Wendland requested a review of the center, which had already been reviewed twice since 2008 with generally positive findings.

Two committees reviewed the center anew. An external committee found that while the center was at a “crossroads,” with two of four full professors then in phased retirement, it “has given a great deal of thought to its future, and (small details aside) we strongly support its plans.” The committee urged the university to hire two faculty members of similar status as those who were retiring, and the center to expand its offerings, via a new undergraduate major. It also said morale among graduate students was “measurably high” -- no small thing for graduate programs in the humanities these days.

“There was an almost exceptionless assertion of positive comments from the students we met -- about the instruction they received, the attentiveness and helpfulness of the faculty, the opportunities provided to the students to do their own teaching, the solidarities that existed among them, and the relative freedom to pursue their special interests without the constraint of compulsory routines,” the external reviewers found.

An internal review committee came to similar conclusions and highlighted what is special about the Johns Hopkins center, as opposed to those dedicated to the humanities on other campuses.

“Elsewhere, humanities centers are the supra-departmental entities intended to foster cooperation across between [sic] departments,” the internal review says. “Such humanities centers invite speakers, provide internal and external fellowships for faculty and postdoctoral fellows, and organize seminars, often around a yearly theme. They have no permanent faculty or specific disciplinary interests of their own.”

Wendland responded to the center’s reviews and requests for two replacement faculty lines in a lengthy June letter. While she relied in part on the new reviews, she drew on past reviews of the department and of the Krieger school, including one that found -- despite noting high graduate student morale -- a “pervasive anxiety … having to do with the fear of falling between disciplinary stools when it comes to seeking jobs. This is not a matter of surprise. It is entirely to be expected, almost as a form of original sin, in a humanities center that serves as a graduate degree-conferring department.”

Relatedly, she highlighted a finding of the most recent external review. While positive over all, it said that “graduate student placement seems to be good but not outstanding. 2014: Loyola University, Maryland Institute College of Art, [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] (Instructor, Instructor, Lecturer in German). The question is one of institutions, but also if they end up teaching in the right departments.”

Wendland also questioned the center’s commitment to broad interdisciplinary study, saying that it behaves “as a department with some interdisciplinary foci, rather than as an integrating locus for activities across all the humanities.”

Because of the center’s “practice of not cross-listing courses if they are not taught by core or joint appointments,” she added, “colleagues in [Krieger] who specialize in comparative literature, critical theory and philosophical approaches to art, literature, film and history are de facto excluded from participation in the graduate program that attracts students with such interests.”

‘Center’ vs. ‘Institute’

Perhaps most controversially, Wendland touched on the new Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Hopkins, established through a $10 million grant from the family of the founder of Rite Aid. The gift is the university’s largest ever specifically for the advancement of the humanities. She noted that the center under review had previously refused to change its name, as not to confuse itself with the new “institute” -- a concern that even the generous external review had raised.

Crucially, though, that review said that both the center and the institute could coexist without redundancy, with the center remaining like a department and the institute offering other programs.

Wendland said she did not immediately approve of the new plan for an undergraduate major and advised the center to clarify its honors humanities program, saying that if it “truly is cross-humanities rather than specific to the [center’s] declared field, then the honors program should be moved to the Humanities Institute.”

She told it to “decide upon a name that identifies it as a department commensurate with its field and that does not claim to represent the humanities as a whole,” and to develop a plan for how to proceed if another faculty member were to depart the university, a mentoring plan for junior faculty and a “commitment by the [center members] to collegial and constructive interactions with the Humanities Institute.”

Threat to Close the Center

Then a bombshell: the center’s “future status” was up in the air, to be decided in time to know whether or not new students should be recruited for next fall. A “small, neutral committee,” to be appointed in consultation with the provost, will submit its recommendations in December.

Graduate students, many of whom were away over the summer, formally responded to the prospect of closing the center in a letter to Daniels, Hopkins’s president, earlier this month.

Highlighting the center’s uniqueness as offering both humanities study and extracurricular programs, students challenged Wendland’s assertion that the center was isolated and narrow in its focus.

Information from the anthropology department, for example, they wrote, shows that more than half of its cohorts between 2010 and 2015 took Humanities Center courses, and nine anthropology graduates who have worked with center's faculty since 2007 have placed well on the job market.

“While this case is only one example, we trust that the outpouring of support from other departments will attest to the nonredundancy and utility of the Humanities Center’s scholarly resources,” they wrote. “[Wendland’s letter] does not acknowledge this rich collaborative spirit, and instead criticizes our limited research interests and our apparent failure to represent the full range of scholarship in the humanities. We would like to indicate to the contrary, that despite the research tendencies of the department, its interdisciplinary core has enabled it to serve as a meeting ground for many scholars across the university.”

A long list of center alumni, many of whom hold tenure-line academic jobs in the U.S. and abroad, have signed on to a separate open letter, also published earlier this month.

“We consider the education, training and mentoring we received there to be superlative, and unlike any we could have obtained at any other department in any other university in the U.S.,” they wrote. “We chose to study at the Humanities Center because of its superb faculty, because of the extraordinary independence that it offers its students and because of its quality, rigor and originality.”

The letter continues, “We also chose to study at the Humanities Center because it crosses disciplinary boundaries. The Humanities Center is distinctive. It occupies an unusual position within conventional university structures. This is precisely its strength.”

A handful of scholars with no affiliation to the center also have written to Hopkins, urging that it remain open. Glenn W. Most, visiting professor of social thought and of classics at the University of Chicago, for example, wrote that he has been “perplexed and dismayed over the past weeks to learn that there is a real danger that the [center] might be closed. I write to you as a concerned senior scholar who has no direct connection with the Humanities Center but who has long regarded it as an institution of fundamental significance in American humanities, asking you to do what you can to maintain and if possible expand it and to reflect on the very negative consequences that would derive from its closure.”

Graduate students continue to use social media to advocate for the center, and the issue has received some attention on higher education blogs. Arash Abazari, a graduate student in philosophy at Hopkins, recently posted an essay to the popular philosophy site Daily Nous, for example, saying that the threat to the center demonstrates the “encroachment of administration” on education, and on the humanities in particular -- now even at the country’s wealthiest, most selective universities.

“The fate of an extremely successful department, with a tradition of more than 50 years, should not be upon the arbitrary decision of few temporary administrators in a process that is not transparent to the public,” he wrote. “What traditionally made American universities unique for education and research was arguably the autonomy of the departments -- their independence from the administration. … This unique characteristic of the American universities, however, is fading away, and it is fading away unfortunately quite rapidly.”

The center also has support from unaffiliated students on campus. An editorial published Thursday in the student newspaper, The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, says that eliminating the center “would be a mistake” and that its review “suspiciously coincides with the introduction of the brand-new Humanities Institute, made possible by a generous $10 million gift.”

“The center directly benefits the humanities at the university and represents a refuge for students in an environment of a [science, technology, engineering and math]-dominated school,” the paper says. The newspaper’s editorial board “stands in solidarity with the faculty and students” of the center.

As to what's actually behind the move to close the center, a group of center graduate students -- Ben Gillespie, Katie Boyce-Jacino and Benjamin Stein, writing on behalf of their cohorts -- said via email that they were "still bewildered at the prospect, have found no clear or consistent rationale behind the administration's actions, and have been seeking answers," though a recent meeting with Wendland offered no clarity. "The usual suspects of cutting costs or eliminating a unique, interdisciplinary department due to its perceived inscrutability to nonhumanities scholars are all possible," they added.

The students said they saw no conflict whatsoever between the center and the new institute, and said that the center continues to offer "courses not available anywhere else at Hopkins, be they outside of the national language concerns of other departments, or topics like religion, cinema and philosophy, critical theory across the disciplines, and other subjects that are outside the purview of traditional departments."

"Our coherence and singular reputation are well attested to in the outpouring of scholarly support we've received," they added.

If there is concern about the missions of the institute and center overlapping, it’s not coming from the institute’s director, William Egginton, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities. He called the two humanities entities “entirely different,” with “very different purposes.”

The institute “exists to serve the humanities across their considerable breadth, to support graduate and undergraduate research in all humanities departments, and to help connect humanities scholarship at Hopkins with a public audience that often isn’t aware of the fascinating work being done here,” Egginton said. To that end, the institute “has representation from and seeks collaborations with all humanities departments at Hopkins, including the Humanities Center.”

Egginton offered one caveat: that the overlapping names do present potential confusion. The department, the center, “would be better served by a name that more accurately represents the work done by its distinguished faculty,” he added.

That’s something with which the center eventually agreed, and it’s offered up a few possible new names. None have yet stuck.

Wendland said via email that Johns Hopkins has a “a long and proud history in the humanities – and continues to be a place where the humanities are thriving and important.” The humanities faculty has grown from 90 to 110 faculty members in recent years, for example, she said. 

To “further strengthen” the humanities, the Humanities Center is under review, she said. A faculty committee, led by a dean, is looking at a number of issues, from mission to structure, and will present several alternatives for the department’s future by mid-December. There is no predetermined outcome, and Hopkins looks forward to receiving the committee’s advice, “as well as the input of our faculty and students as we chart the best path forward.” 

Supporting faculty, making the “best use of resources, challenging and educating our students well and putting our programs in the best position to thrive intellectually and prosper academically” are all part of the process.

Hent de Vries, Russ Family Chair in the Humanities and director of the Humanities Center, said that given that Johns Hopkins is a “relatively small research university, intellectually vibrant units are based up two related principles: selective excellence and the fostering of the intensive seminar tradition.” 

The Humanities Center “never pretended to be a neutral platform for the transmission of everything knowable or interesting, nor did it limit itself by definition to research and teaching of two distinct fields — intellectual history and comparative literature — alone,” he added. “And yet it is committed to these two disciplines in which we have a known track record in terms of placement and publication and that simply do not find systematic, serious and sustained coverage elsewhere at this university.”

A larger institute that serves as a broader forum, “disconnected from such specific, faculty-bound knowledge interests, converging strangely in a certain shared intellectual style and scholarly profile, cannot replace such a learning experience,” de Vries said. “It can do other things, but not what makes this small operation unique and one of the gems that Johns Hopkins and at least its senior administration should perhaps appreciate a bit more.”

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