Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 27, 2022
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COURTESY OF ROLLIN HU The University may close the Gilman-based Humanities Center.

University considers closing department

Fifty years after its founding, the Humanities Center (HC) at Hopkins faces the threat of closure. A neutral committee of three professors and one dean has been charged with evaluating the future of the department.

Students and faculty have expressed varying degrees of concern following the announcement of the review in June. They have wondered about the future of the department’s unique interdisciplinary offerings, how the Center’s name will play into this decision and what impact the new Alexander Grass Humanities Institute (AGHI) will have.

The Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) Beverly Wendland sent a memo to HC graduate students and faculty announcing the formation of the neutral committee, which will submit a set of recommendations to the administration by mid-December.

Wendland, following discussions with Provost Sunil Kumar and University President Ronald J. Daniels, will determine what happens following the examination.

Three reviews in five years

The HC, founded in 1966, is a department which focuses on interdisciplinary graduate studies that connect fields in the humanities including, among others, philosophy, art history and film and media studies.

It offers two Ph.D. degree tracks in comparative literature and intellectual history and also houses tenured faculty lines. For undergraduates the Center offers an Honors Program and seminar courses like Great Minds and Great Books.

Graduate and undergraduate students, HC faculty and alumni have protested the potential closure of the Center. An online petition created by HC graduate students had 3,101 signatures at press time.

Seniors Evan Kim and Zeke Goodman created a separate protest letter expressing specifically undergraduate opposition. The letter had roughly 300 undergraduate signatures at press time.

This is the third examination of the Center in the past five years. The initial two occurred as part of a school-wide review in 2011 of every department in KSAS and a routine Homewood Academic Council review in 2014.

Pending these two reviews and the committee’s recommendations, Wendland has held off on authorizing the replacement of two tenured HC professors: Ruth Leys who retired in 2015 and Michael Fried who retired in 2016.

The neutral committee convened by Wendland is chaired by Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums Winston Tabb. Other members include cognitive science professor Barbara Landau, who previously served as vice provost for faculty affairs; professor Howard Egeth in the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department, who served as chair of the Classics Department; and Lawrence Principe, a professor in the History of Science and Technology Department.

The committee first met on Oct. 18 to plan interviews with HC faculty and graduate students and also look over previous reviews of the Center. Tabb clarified that the purpose of the committee is not to decide whether the HC should be closed, but rather to create a ranked list of recommendations that Wendland can consider when making the final decision.

“We are being asked by the Provost to have options and alternatives and not have a close or don’t-close decision. That is not what the decision is. It is not binary like that,” Tabb said. “We are thinking about what is the best approach for the kinds of activities the Humanities Center and the humanities more generally at Hopkins have been engaged in.”

Confusion and frustration

Protesting the threat of closure, Humanities Center graduate students have created a website with a petition and documents that include past reviews, the outline of a proposed undergraduate major and open letters of support from current graduate students and Center alumni.

The alumni open letter has 49 signatures, from current faculty at The University of Chicago and Cornell University, and the founder of Red Emma’s, a local radical bookstore and coffeeshop. Graduate students have created Facebook and Twitter pages titled, “Hands Off the Hopkins Humanities” in protest of the Center’s possible closure. Advocates of the Center are also wearing orange and white felt pins to demonstrate their support.

HC graduate students Ben Gillespie and Katie Boyce-Jacino said that they and their peers have been confused and frustrated with the University’s actions.

“The justification for its closure is really a moving target. So far the only thing that has remained consistent is the desire to close the Center,” Boyce-Jacino said. “The process has not been transparent.”

Wendland stressed that graduate students are getting ahead of themselves, since it has not yet been decided whether the Center will be closed. She said that if the HC closes, faculty will be reassigned and students will be grandfathered into other department. This means that their projects and advisers would remain the same, and current students will still graduate with a degree from the Center.

“Whatever happens I would be very concerned in making sure that graduate students, untenured faculty, people in those kinds of situations, are especially cared for,” Wendland said.

In response to the accusation that the University has communicated poorly throughout the process, Wendland blamed graduate students.   

“All somebody had to do was ask,” Wendland said.

Wendland further noted that the University must continue to evolve.

“My role as Dean is to make sure that our resources are allocated such that we are delivering the greatest degree of excellence,” Wendland said. “Occasionally one really has to take a close look and make sure that the way things are, are the way things should be or [see] if there is time for some sort of reorganization.”

Boyce-Jacino, however, is concerned that faculty may leave Hopkins if the Center is closed or dissolved into other departments.

“Hopefully most of the faculty will stay, but you can’t blame them for leaving because they come to teach in this very specific way,” Boyce-Jacino said. “Why would you stay at a place that doesn’t value what you’re doing when you could go to somewhere else that does?”

Gillespie elaborated on why faculty are specifically drawn to the Center.

“You don’t fit in with any departments, so that’s why you get in this weird department. So, to be grandfathered, it is very difficult to see where people would fit,” Gillespie said.

Co-founder of the Humanities Center, Professor Emeritus Richard Macksey, explained why department exists and its unique role at Hopkins.

“The Center could be a laboratory where you try things out — not everything worked,” he said. “One of the things that I think the Center allows is to take some risks in admitting students with strange backgrounds, and I think this would not exist if all the options were limited to the other departments.”

Senior Evan Kim, who is part of the Center’s undergraduate Honors Program, disagrees with the University’s concerns.

“It’s really hard to make a criticism based on something not having a focus. It’s the nature of this [department] that you explore questions in the humanities that go into interdepartmental studies,” Kim said. “It is something that shouldn’t be shunned.”

Sophomore Matthias Gompers thinks some of the Center’s flagship undergraduate courses, such as Great Books, could be improved, but still supports the Center.

“It was very difficult to keep up [in Great Book] because there were nine books, and that’s a tall order for anyone, especially a freshman,” Gompers said. “But in the academic world at large for a major university like Hopkins… to say ‘This department that is all about the humanities… we’re going to get rid of it,’ to me, that’s in the slap in the face to not just the humanities as an academic or intellectual area, but to all of the [other] humanities departments.”

Kim criticized that the University is not transparent with undergraduates in its  decision-making.

“They did not ask any of the undergraduates... whether or not the department is beneficial to them. And that is what they did with covered grades: They didn’t ask anyone,” Kim said. “This is a growing trend, to make very big decisions about what actually affects our intellectual life as students without asking our opinion. Has Dean Wendland ever spoken to an undergraduate and asked them, ‘Does this department benefit you?’ I think that this is something that has to be taken into account.”

Senior Zeke Goodman, co-writer of the undergraduate protest letter, questioned the University’s motives in further examining the department.

“It’s good to have something that you can’t easily put into a box, and it seems like a lot of the motivation for it comes out of [the fact] that they want to be able to sell it,” Goodman said. “It doesn’t fit in with a certain kind of easily sellable education, and I don’t think when any of us were looking to go here, we wanted a school that treated its education... like commodities and things to sell us. That’s a very bleak view of what a university does.”

Tabb, chair of the neutral committee, made the distinction between the HC and the humanities in general at Hopkins.

“Everyone is always worried about the humanities thriving and surviving, particularly in a school so noted for science and technology. So whatever is discussed [by the committee] about the Humanities Center isn’t about the humanities,” Tabb said. “I’m sensing that in some of the interventions we’ve had from some of the former students and faculty and so on that they are really defending the humanities — and maybe the humanities center too — but I don’t think it is as clear as it needs to be between those two things.”

What’s in a name?

Director of the HC Professor Hent de Vries argued that the department has earned positive feedback in the past two reviews and is responding seriously to suggested improvements.

“We had proposed detailed plans for a greater focus on undergraduate teaching, made constructive proposals to start searching for new hires, especially given the fact that two of our senior faculty were retiring,” de Vries said. “We had extensive conversations with the committees whose members consisted of prominent faculty at Ivy League institutions and at Johns Hopkins. They came out with two independent reports which were very affirmative, if not to say rave, in their outcome and tone.”

However, Wendland and Matt Roller, vice dean for graduate education, criticized the HC’s academic mission.

“Should it be called the Humanities Center? They do intellectual history and comparative literature, but that is only a little bit of the humanities and there’s a lot of humanities out there that it doesn’t cover,” Roller said. “This ties in the question of the mission. What exactly do they do? And how should they describe it? That is one of the other fairly serious concerns that has come out of this review process.”

Wendland added that the HC’s departmental status and focus means that it cannot claim to encompass all of the humanities.

“Hent de Vries has presented to me the perspective that the Humanities Center is, in fact, a very broad and welcoming, inclusive kind of body... that serves the needs of all the departments of humanities,” Wendland said. “To me, it is Hent who has been trying to make these arguments about how, on one hand, they want to be a department, but then on the other hand, he claims a much broader scope than what an individual department would be expected to fulfill.”

But according to de Vries, the HC’s cross-departmental faculty appointments benefit humanities education at Hopkins.

“The Humanities Center has probably more faculty with joint, that is to say, secondary or courtesy appointments than any other department in the humanities and social sciences, and, yes, we do plan on extending more such invitations,” de Vries wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Such synergies should always be welcomed and, at a small university, need not always be institutionalized or formalized by either cross-listing or making joint appointments wherever this occurs. Moreover, students in the Humanities Center can take every course and as many seminars in other departments with faculty outside of our department as they want.”

Kim, the Honors Program student, cited the benefit of this interdisciplinary model.

“To have this freedom to engage humanities as a big field is something that creates great academic work,” Kim said. “To make a criticism based on the fact that it doesn’t have a focus isn’t one that is founded.”

Professor Stuart Leslie of the Department of the History of Science and Technology, who is currently writing a book on the history of Hopkins, spoke about how the Humanities Center has never intended to encompass all the humanities.

“Like any Hopkins department or center, [the HC] never tried to do everything,” Leslie said. “It tried to do a few things really well, and it did, and it was well aware of parts of the humanities or the social sciences where it would have liked to have more effect or participation.”

Leslie elaborated on the focus of the HC by saying that it was strongly influenced by the faculty members working within it at a given time.

“The Humanities Center always took the direction of its most prominent faculty members,” Leslie said. “In the early years it was certainly comparative literature and critical theory, when Professor Fried came it moved a little more to history of art.”

The unorthodox nature of the department confuses Wendland.

“I feel like the nature of this department has been a very unusual one, and some people say that…  what the department does really is reflected by the people that are in it,” Wendland said. “That’s just such an unusual construct that it’s hard to really fathom.”

Roller added that there are faculty outside of the HC who study intellectual history and comparative literature, so the existence of the HC to help students solely study these two fields may be unnecessary.

“There is no specific disciplinary mooring, and it is like you just bring a bunch of faculty together and say, ‘Do whatever,’” Roller said. “All the various things that faculty in the Humanities Center have done over the years are also things that faculty in other departments are doing also. It’s not like the Humanities Center is doing something super special that isn’t being done anywhere else.”

De Vries noted that other departments have overlapping subject matter, which is not being scrutinized by the administration.

“I don't see it at all as an issue if there are courses outside of the HC that delve into subject matter that might fall ‘under the scope of the HC,’” de Vries wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Is there an issue for the Department of Biology when colleagues in our department or Philosophy or Political Science are teaching courses that address new concepts of life or relate directly to the history and development of that field?”

Wendland and Roller explained that the connotation of the name, “Humanities Center,” has changed over the years.

“At most universities, the term ‘Humanities Center’ is used usually as an entity that has some kind of funding and is wide open.” Roller said. “There’s a lot of confusion that goes around this name and people hear about our Humanities Center and they think something about it that is based on their experience at other universities.”

To avoid this confusion, de Vries suggested changing the name of the HC to the “Department of Humanistic Studies and Values” (HSV). However, according to de Vries, this name was rejected by Wendland because that acronym was the same as that of the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

“That was said somewhat jokingly,” Wendland said. “But, Humanistic Studies and Values still is not a reflection of what they do. It didn’t seem a very suitable solution in the end.”

The role of the new Humanities Institute

To create a hub for the humanities similar to those of other universities, the Dean’s office solicited an endowment that resulted in a $10 million gift to create the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute (AGHI). This new Institute is directed by William Egginton, chair of the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures (GRLL).

Egginton asserted that humanities departments at Hopkins do not receive the attention that they deserve, especially considering their high quality.

“The central function of the Humanities Institute is bringing together the disparate fields of the humanities for events that would span the departments,” Egginton said. “One thing that the Humanities Institute is about is acting as sort of a sounding board, or a loud speaker, for the humanities internal to Hopkins — to make that message resound to the broader fields, to the nation, but also to the Baltimore community.”

The AGHI plans to host multiple events that explore the intersectionality of varying disciplines and offer graduate and undergraduate research fellowships. The Institute is comprised of a director, assistant director and a rotating faculty board that represents all the different departments within the humanities at Hopkins.

Regarding potential overlap with the Humanities Center, Egginton sees the Center as another department represented on the AGHI’s faculty board. The only conflict he sees between the Institute and the Center is the similarity between their names.

“Other than [the naming confusion], I don’t see any conflict,” Egginton said. “In fact I could see robust partnerships.”

According to Egginton, the Humanities Center did serve some of the AGHI’s functions in the past.

“My understanding of the history of the department, which is called the Humanities Center, is that, in fact, 50 years ago it began more along the lines of a humanities institute, which I had described: to serve all the populations across the humanities,” he said. “Over time it evolved... into a department with a more directed set of concerns.”

Roller believes that the name of the Humanities Center contributes to the confusion over the naming of AGHI.

“There’s only so much real estate under that name, and we can’t call this new entity anything but a humanities institute because that’s what it is,” Roller said. “This is something that has been brewing for a long time ever since the 1965, or whenever it was, they named the Humanities Center ‘the Humanities Center.’ They planted a little problem that was at some point going to come up on who gets to decide, who gets to make the claim for how we delimit the scope of the word ‘humanities.’”

HC graduate students Gillespie and Boyce-Jacino are excited about the newly opened AGHI, but they stress that it cannot replace the Center.

“What the Humanities Center offers is an entire coherent department with graduate students and faculty members and opportunities to bring visiting professors to interact with these graduate students,” Boyce-Jacino said. “It’s a unique role rather than what the Humanities Institute is, which is another excellent body for the University, but is something entirely different. It’s apples and oranges.”

Unanswered questions

The graduate students from the Center met with Dean Wendland and Betsy Bryan, vice dean for Humanities and Social Sciences of KSAS, on Oct. 26  to address some of their concerns.

“[Wendland] described all of the issues as eminently fixable, and when we asked why the closure was on the table at all, she had no answer. In fact, she responded with a prolonged silence before assuring us that there are alternate possibilities that she had not included or considered for the memo,” Gillespie and Joyce-Basino wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “The Dean seemed to be genuinely open to graduate student wellbeing, but she was unprepared to answer substantive questions regarding her own process and logic. We remain concerned and unsatisfied with her responses.”

According to de Vries, the University has not sufficiently justified the potential closing of the department.

“It sets a very nasty precedent if a department, although evaluated well, would be closed. I see my task in making sure whatever decision is made is based on adequate information to begin with. What has been shockingly lacking so far in the conversation is a respect for empirical facts and sound arguments,” he said. “I haven’t heard any intellectual, academic, institutional arguments that would justify dissolving a department with a rich and prominent tradition, an established reputation and solid placement record. I frankly don't know why anyone in his or her right mind would do that, and I think that if alumni, graduate students and distinguished colleagues nationwide and internationally are expressing their grave concern and consternation, this is precisely because they haven’t heard those arguments or seen those facts either.”

De Vries recognizes the University’s authority, but hopes that the administration understands what it will lose if it closes the Humanities Center.

“I also think the expectation on the part of faculty and students is that that happens with due diligence and due process,” de Vries said, “with the interests of all, and not just some, in mind.”

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