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PERSPECTIVE: How Ancient Greek was saved at Braneis

Published: April 1, 2005
Section: News

In part one, I tried to explain why the study of Ancient Greek language and literature is essential to the curriculum of a liberal arts university like Brandeis. This second part explains how Ancient Greek was actually preserved as part of the curriculum at this institution in the spring of 2005. It is about both the people and the ideas that were in play.

A few weeks after Adam Jaffe, Dean of Arts and Sciences, made public to the faculty his intention to phase out the teaching of Ancient Greek in order to gain an FTE in other words, by eliminating Greek he claimed that within ten years he would be able to hire a full-time faculty member to teach another subject than Greek two professors from a Brandeis humanities department met him in his office. Their agenda had to do with something unrelated. They wanted to consult with the Dean about an interdisciplinary program that they were preparing to propose to a committee. The task of this committee, chaired by the Dean, was to evaluate such proposals and to pass them on to the faculty for final approval. The Dean informed them that he would support their proposed program if they supported his plan to phase out Greek. They answered: No, this program is in addition to Greek, not instead of Greek.

It may sound as though I were trying to portray the Dean as a manipulative cynic for proposing this exchange of favors – and the professors as heroes for refusing him at the likely expense of their own program. But the Deans offer was completely consistent with his view of curriculum reform and faculty staffing, and the professors refusal of his offer was consistent with a completely different view of curricular reform and of the university itself. All over Brandeis, many other professors have articulated this second view and have even acted upon it some at their own expense. The Dean believed that curricular reform is largely a matter of substituting one subject for another, and that the members of the faculty must face up to the logic of it all. For subject in the previous sentence, you can substitute faculty member: the Deans idea, that by phasing out the teaching of Greek, he would obtain an FTE that he could use to hire a professor for some other subject, showed how in his mind there was no distinction between teachers and subjects.

In this administrations view as was reflected again and again in PowerPoint presentations and in long and short documents and interviews with news media the way to decide what should be added and what should be taken away was primarily a quantitative decision. If students were not attending Ancient Greek classes in the numbers that they were attending Economics classes, then the decision was simple: add resources to Economics and remove Ancient Greek. Heres how the Dean himself said it in a non-confidential message to the Chair of the Classical Studies Department: we have many more students interested in some other areas, who are currently being told that despite their $30K a year, they cannot take the courses they wish to take.

It is a lesser of two evils to tell a smaller number of students that they cannot take Greek language here. It should be clear that the Deans quantitative thresholds, both high and low, for decisions to remove or add subjects were neither explicit nor precise.

Actually, Jaffe was not the first Brandeis administrator to give this description of the way the university functions. Anne Carter, an Economics professor who was Dean of the Faculty in the 1980s and 1990s, used to say that in her job, she was constantly faced with the problem of deciding whether to add resources to the Physics department or to Classical Studies. (In the 1990s, Physics was a hot department, with large enrollments and not enough faculty members to handle them. Will what happened to Physics happen to Economics in the next ten years?) In the past 35 years, there have been deans from the arts (Fine Arts, Music), from the sciences (Physics), from the social sciences (four times, two psychologists and two economists), and from the humanities (Russian).

Of these, only two deans, the economists, have publicly portrayed the university as a closed system in which they were burdened with the responsibility of making either/or choices about subjects and personnel. In reality, there is no intrinsic or inevitable need to consider curricular and personnel and budget decisions at the university as either/or decisions. One can make priorities over time. One can adjust the size of departments over the long term. One can raise money for new initiatives. One can share appointments between departments. In general, not much in real life is a matter of all or nothing unless people choose to make it so. Also, it is abundantly clear that an either/or university runs the risk of tearing apart the morale of the faculty even as it empowers the administration, since it puts every subject or professor in competition with any/all of his or her colleagues.

The other model of the university is the one that the two professors I mentioned above must have had in mind: a collegial institution whose basis is an evolving set of ideals about scholarly research and education. Those ideals look backwards and forwards: they respect the past and look to the future, to young people, for the perpetuation of civilization. The university is not a department store changing its wares in response to the marketplace or the seasons;

nor is it a pirate ship manned by cutthroats who kill and throw off one passenger for every new one they take on. Like other long-lived cultural institutions, a university needs to take the long view of itself. When it makes a decision to add a tenure-track job, the consequences of that decision play out over a period of forty or more years;

and a universitys only business is to educate young people for lifetimes that generally last longer than forty years after graduation. Given its purposes and structure, the ideal university is obliged to give balanced instruction in enduring monuments of culture and thought across the fields of knowledge.

This view of the university and the collegiality that it inspires is what saved Ancient Greek at Brandeis. It wasnt just two gutsy professors who were willing to risk their program and stand by their ideal of what a university should teach and be. The chair of another department, who stood to benefit from the Deans proposals (which provided him with an FTE), was so disturbed by the Deans proposal to eliminate Ancient Greek that he made a public commitment to offer his FTE to the Classical Studies Department if the Dean went ahead with his plan to phase out Greek. People who heard about the Deans proposal contrary to hints from the administration, the Classical Studies department did not activate a mailing list or send out cries for help to its friends and constituents asked us what they could do on our behalf.

We said to them: write to the Dean, the Provost, and the President. Students old and new, remembered and forgotten, wrote letters to protest, almost all of them long, thoughtful, and constructive. Our colleagues acted on their own in writing and speaking to the Dean, the Provost, and the President to protest the administrations proposals. Many worked tirelessly to make members of the administration heed the Faculty Review Committees report, which was in itself the product of a Herculean effort. The head of the Music Department, despite the Deans threat to his own graduate program, took the time and energy to write a sterling letter to the administration on behalf of instruction in Ancient Greek. Professors from across the university, in the sciences, social sciences, history department, creative arts, and the humanities stood up for Greek, Linguistics, Music Composition, and Physics, and they complained fearlessly and without mincing words. At a meeting of senior faculty members in which the Dean began defending the idea of phasing out Greek by saying, Maybe Im nuts, but.., a professor interrupted to tell him that he in fact was nuts.

Another professor presented a list of no less than eighteen reasons why Greek and other ancient languages of its kind needed to be taught at Brandeis. And more than one member of the Board of Trustees told the administration that it had better not touch the Classical Studies department. All this is to say nothing of the tireless efforts of Classics students and of student journalists, who doggedly reported their stories with care and independence, and who expressed their thoughts on the editorial pages with exceptional clarity, force and wit.

The support expressed by all these individuals and by many others whom I have not singled out or who have remained quiet in their efforts to help has not been a childrens crusade or an orchestrated campaign, nor has it been an appeal to snobbism or elitism, nor was it a victory of sentiment over logic, but it was a spontaneous and realistic and often fervent appreciation of the educational value of a collegial university and of the legitimate study of the subjects that the Dean had proposed to diminish or cut. I wish to thank all of them not in my own name but in the name of the marvelous subject that I have had the honor to teach at Brandeis.