Editorial: Standing in solidarity with the Humanities Center

October 27, 2016

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Humanities Center at Hopkins, and it may also be the year it is eliminated.

The department is graduate-student focused with two tracks of study: comparative literature and intellectual history. Faculty members have tried at least twice before to establish an undergraduate major, but their requests were denied. The Center offers some undergraduate classes, such the popular Great Books and Great Minds.

In June, Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) Beverly Wendland sent out a memo explaining that a “neutral committee” would be formed to assess whether the Humanities Center should remain a department at Hopkins, the department’s third evaluation in five years. She will take the advice of the committee and make a decision in conjunction with University President Ronald J. Daniels and Provost Sunil Kumar.

According to Wendland, her confusion arises partially from the Humanities Center’s name. She says it implies that the center offers in-depth coverage of all humanities, and that the center does not deliver on that promise.

Faculty members of the Humanities Center, like chair Hent de Vries recognize that the curriculum does not cover every humanities field, and state that they have never claimed it does. The original intent of the Center, they say, was to provide a place for leading intellectual minds from across fields of study to come together.

They have even offered to change the name, suggesting the Department of Humanistic Studies and Values. Wendland dismissed that name with a poorly received joke, arguing the name is too similar to Herpes Simplex Virus. The Editorial Board thinks that levity is not appropriate for such a serious situation.

The review of the Humanities Center suspiciously coincides with the introduction of the brand-new Humanities Institute, made possible by a generous $10 million gift. The Institute will not offer classes, as the department would. It would simply host interdisciplinary events for Hopkins faculty and students.

The Editorial Board unequivocally does not support the disbanding of the Humanities Center and questions why the Humanities Institute could be considered to take its place, as it would do nothing that the Humanities Center doesn’t already do. In fact, it does less. We wonder why the money given to establish the Institute was not instead donated to the Humanities Center to help provide more resources and programs for its students, some of whose projects are groundbreaking.

One of Daniels’s goals in his Ten by Twenty plan is to create more opportunities for cross-disciplinary projects and collaboration between departments. The Editorial Board strongly endorses the Humanities Center as the gold standard for this goal because it is one of the few interdisciplinary departments at Hopkins.

We do not understand why the University would consider eliminating a department that puts it one step closer to accomplishing its President’s stated goals.

The Humanities Center is a necessary part of the Hopkins community. If it were to be eliminated following the Spring 2017 semester, all current graduate students would be grandfathered into other departments and would still graduate with the degree they intended to receive. However, a degree from a defunct institution is worth less, especially from a humanistic standpoint, than from a vibrant one.

Similarly, current Humanities Center professors would be funneled into other departments where they would “best fit.” It is unclear whether the departments would hire other professors to replace them, and as a result, there could be fewer tenure-track humanities faculty lines at Hopkins.

Many undergraduates rely on the Humanities Center to provide them with more resources and a home in a big research university like Hopkins, where about two thirds of majors are in STEM fields. Abolishing the Center would set a dangerous precedent and directly contradicts the University’s admirable goal of showing support for the humanities.

Graduate students, professors, undergraduates associated with the department — and even Dean Wendland herself — seem to all suffer from a lack of clarity concerning the process. The University should be more transparent, especially when it makes such critical decisons.

And on top of all this confusion, it is unclear when the final report will be released and when the final decision will be made. The Editorial Board suggests that the University release more information about the process as a whole, including a potential timeline.

Eliminating the Humanities Center would be a mistake. The Center directly benefits the humanities at the University and represents a refuge for students in an environment of a STEM-dominated school.

The Editorial Board stands in solidarity with the faculty and students of the Humanities Center.

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