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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Demoted department merits praise

Published: April 15, 2011
Section: Editorials

Four esteemed faculty members were honored by the university at this week’s faculty meeting and received prestigious awards for mentorship and excellence in teaching. Half of these professors, including those taking home the two most prestigious prizes, belonged to the American Studies program.

Last year the American Studies department, which hosts one of the oldest majors on campus and which also oversees the extremely popular minors of legal studies, journalism and environmental studies, was cut to become an interdisciplinary program. It was placed on a hiring freeze with the expectation that no more faculty would be tenured and tied solely to the department.

The Hiatt Career Center website says that the American Studies program “offers an interdisciplinary approach to the myths, values, symbols, institutions and behavior of the peoples of the United States, and to the questions raised by the influence of America in shaping the modern world. The American Studies major prepares students for a wide range of careers including law, business, public policy, communications and education.”

In recent history, Brandeis American Studies alumni have gone on to become company presidents, acclaimed authors, assistant attorneys general and respected academics.

Almost half of the current American Studies faculty has received a university teaching award. Three of the faculty hold endowed chairs.

The student body, through their evaluation forms and nominations, and university administrators and outside donors on the awards committees, have exhibited their admiration towards the former “department” of American Studies.

We feel that President Lawrence having received his degree in American Studies during his undergraduate career at Williams should further support the understanding of the value of this major.

We believe that the foundation of the major is threatened if the hiring freeze is not removed and the department restored to full status. It is evident that American Studies professors have made a visible impact on this campus.

If the hiring freeze were not to be lifted and the classes that constitute the major are absorbed by other departments, then the students will lose the ability to learn American Studies from experts in this field of academia—tenured experts who have, after all, received the university’s highest accolades.

The study of America and its culture, as taught by History, Politics, Sociology or any other department’s faculty, would simply not be of the same caliber that having a department and an individually-tenured faculty allows it to be. Yes, today the program functions the same as it did as a department but, as professors retire, the core and heart of this major will be diluted.

It is our hope that with all the changes and advances President Lawrence is bringing to our campus, he, the American Studies grad, and the Board of Trustees will reconsider the changes to American Studies made by last year’s “2020 Committee” and return it to its rightful position as a department. He and his new provost should see that the major may hire new professors who will then be able to continue to enrich the lives of students and the Brandeis community as the current American Studies faculty has done.