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Classical Studies proves itself as timeless as Virgil

Published: October 28, 2011
Section: Front Page


Amid the university’s budgetary crisis in 2008, Brandeis humanities departments faced imminent, and possibly fatal, downsizing in response to economic realities. Yet less than three years later and despite the setbacks, at least one department has managed to flourish.

The Classical Studies department, under the guidance of Professor Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, who goes affectionately by “Professor AOK-O,” has not only recovered from the imposed cutbacks but has grown. By instituting a graduate program three years ago, which now contains more than 20 students and is seeking out private donor support, Classical Studies has gone from a small department under threat to that rare example of one that brings revenue to the university. “Small does not necessarily mean weak,” AOK-O said, and cited the initiative of the students and alumni, many of whom were not Classical Studies majors, who showed strong support for the department.

Under AOK-O’s leadership, the department is now thriving.

Many in the community were troubled by the administration’s willingness to cut so much of the humanities. AOK-O explained, “Classics is at the core of a liberal arts education. Brandeis’ message of social justice—some of these ideas were developed by the Romans and the Greeks.” Even to those majoring in business or economics, the liberal arts provide balance and guidance, according to Professor Cheryl Walker (CLAS), which may explain why some of the students and alumni who avidly supported the Classical Studies department had only taken a few courses in the subject.

The Classical Studies department and chair AOK-O were already known for their cross-curriculum activity. This semester, a course on historical economics was taught by professor, alumnus and journalist Paul Solmon, Professor Cheryl Walker from the Classics department, as well as others. AOK-O even allied with the Physics department, successfully offering a Classics-affiliated course on ancient architecture.

The administration had called on these departments to reduce their spending because the enrollment in them was low and because it would often cost the school more money to fund these low-enrollment classes than to do without them. Through inside initiative and cooperative effort and, according to Walker, spectacular leadership by AOK-O, however, the department found less painful ways to balance their budget.

Classical Studies found outside donors to fund the department, which is in an area that is less likely to attract them naturally because there are fewer alumni. Business and economics programs are often the beneficiaries of corporate patronage, but the business sector has less reason to support departments like Classical Studies and other humanities. Many regular personal donors funded scholarships for classics majors, lecture tours and private classes.

But by vigorously marketing their graduate studies program, the department was able to increase enrollment. Three years after its founding, the Classics graduate program will be graduating its first full class this spring. Enrollment numbers of undergraduate courses have also grown and increased the revenue of the department, which was a “good solution,” Walker said, to their problems and have also proved that they could be an asset to the university.

Faculty consensus is that the new administration has been far more open to the internal initiative of the departments and allowed them to find their own solutions to the crisis. “The administration has shown up to faculty meetings for our department and we appreciate that. The new president and provost, they seem far more open to our field of study,” Walker said.

Other departments have not been so fortunate. Italian Studies is not replacing Professor Richard Lansing, who is set to retire. Initially even the Physics department was threatened by the cuts, evidently because it was also a small program. AOK-O, who has taught courses in the School of Science as well, laughed at the idea of a university without Physics—or Classics. She said, “The Physics department is small because it’s hard to be a physicist. Just because the enrollment isn’t high doesn’t mean we’re not an asset to the university.”