Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Steering committee recommendations anger members of departments with revolutionary roots

Published: April 24, 2009
Section: News

CARS: Prof. Tim Hickey (COSCI) listens to students’ grievences at a Town Hall on Wednesday about the CARS Committee’s recommendations. <br />PHOTO BY Danielle Wolfson/The Hoot

CARS: Prof. Tim Hickey (COSCI) listens to students’ grievences at a Town Hall on Wednesday about the CARS Committee’s recommendations.
PHOTO BY Danielle Wolfson/The Hoot

The recent recommendations by the faculty senate’s Curriculum and Academic Restructuring (CARS) Committee to turn the American Studies, Classical Studies and African and Afro-American Studies (AAAS) departments into interdepartmental programs have sparked controversy through out the university’s students and faculty.

The news that there is a consideration of making AAAS and American Studies departments is particularly upsetting to students and faculty involved in the departments given the departments’ unique significance in the Brandeis community.

In 1969 a group of 60 to 75 black students occupied Ford Hall after issuing a list of ten demands for the university’s administration at the time.

The first demand was “An African Studies Department with the power to hire and fire. This means that the committee must have an independent budget of its own,” according to an article published on January 14 1969 in the Justice found in the university archives.

The take over lasted 10 days, during which white students held a sympathetic sit-in at the Bernstien Marcus administrative building, and ended with the promise of the AAAS department.

While no department at Brandeis has the ability to hire or fire their own faculty—the decision to hire is left up to the Dean of Arts and Sciences and faculty members are technically not allowed to be fired, according to Dean of Arts and Sciences Adam Jaffee—the idea that the university would disperse the department into an interdepartmental program 40 years after the takeover represents “skewed values” on behalf of the university, AAAS major Nathan Robinson ’11 told The Hoot.

“These students took a huge risk, they risked expulsion and arrest in the take over,” he said. “And their number one reason for taking that risk was to start this department. This recommendation, if put into place, would be directly reversing a promise to students.”

Tim Hickey (COSI) of the CARS committee said at a town hall held yesterday evening surrounding the recommendations that the committee “took Ford Hall into consideration and discussed its role in the department’s history when making this recommendation.”

“But we decided that making it an interdepartmental program would strengthen the major and therefore decided it was worth it,” he said.

Robinson, however, disagrees.

“You can argue that an interdepartmental program will strengthen the program,” Robinson said, “but the history of this department makes that an irresponsible and disrespectful decision. There is no way to separate what the department is now or will be and the circumstances under which it was created. Ford Hall is a crucial factor in what the AAAS department is today.”

While the American Studies department at Brandeis does not have such a rich history of protests, Stephen Whitfield (AMST) would argue that the department does have a revolutionary past.

American Studies, as a discipline, was first founded in the mid to late 1930’s at Harvard University as a field that combined American history and literature.

After the Second World War, however, the field of American Studies was revolutionized by Brandeis Professor Max Lerner, who broadened the scope of the field to include social sciences and humanities—an addition Whitfield said is particularly important for understanding the American culture during the Cold War of the 1950’s.

“Lerner shaped the understanding of America in terms of culture…in a way that echoes Alexander de Tocqueville,” Whitfield said. “He made American Studies at Brandeis pioneering and exemplary in the field.”

After the publishing of Lerner’s book American Civilization in 1957, universities around the globe changed the way they studied American Studies to “imitate what Max Lerner pioneered,” Whitfield said.

This national and international acclaim led to the transition of the American Studies program into a department in 1970.

Whitfield believes that to change American Studies back to a program after almost 40 years of existing as a department would be “a repudiation of an extraordinarily rich heritage of visionary teaching as well as significant scholarship and would deprive our department of its integrity and autonomy.”

The CARS committee did not respond to questions of whether they had considered Brandeis’ American Studies department’s history in making their recommendation, however, Jaffe stated at the town hall that “being transitioned into a program is not a demotion. It is an attempt to strengthen the programs.”

Whitfield argues that “were we reduced to the status of a program the department could not fulfill our educational mission, which is anchored in this history of a community of like-minded teachers and students whose approach is multi-disciplinary.”

“We are very proud of our majors who have in various forms…shown a great sensitivity to American culture,” he continued. “ We like to think that their accomplishments owe something to the way we taught these students.”