German, classics and religious studies deserve to stay here at Pitt

By Simon Brown / Columnist

The Roman orator Cicero once cautioned, “He who does not know what happened before his birth will remain forever a child.”

Now that the administration of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences has disregarded this advice by moving to suspend the graduate programs in classics, German and religious studies, fewer students will benefit from this ancient wisdom.

The indefinite suspension of graduate programs in classics and German and the termination of the graduate program in religious studies has met with trenchant opposition since its first proposal in April 2012. The students and faculty of these departments learned that the deans had agreed to suspend admission to their programs without prior warning. The deans waited until after the decision had been made to inform even the departmental chairs — without any consultation — that they would return to severely downsized departments.

Since then, petitions have circulated, meetings have been held and editorials have been written decrying this narrow-minded move against the integrity of the humanities at Pitt. Most recently, on Oct. 24, the University Council on Graduate Study narrowly voted against the suspensions in German and religious studies, but supported the cut to the classics department. The fate of these departments, however, continues in doubt down the bureaucratic rabbit hole. 

Unfortunately, the vibrant discussion concerning the merits of these departments — or the merits of their dismantling — has been unable to escape the language of that bureaucracy. According to Provost Patricia Beeson, the consistent divestment of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from the University has forced the administration to “examine areas of previous commitment and consider difficult choices.” Neither she nor John Cooper, dean of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, have provided a reason for the University’s total severance of three particular departments rather than, say, an equitable reduction in funding across the board.

This argument for the cuts — that is, the only argument — emerges from an accurate description of the commonwealth’s receding support for the University. But this blanket justification fails to cover the fact that the resulting cuts to graduate-level teaching assistant positions actually constitute a “reallocation of money,” rather than a financial cut, according to a letter from Pitt’s chapter of the Association of American University Professors that directly cites “focusing on the future,” as the official strategic plan for the fiscal year 2013. 

So not only do the administrators provide insufficient reasons for eliminating entire programs due to a lack of funds, but the funds in question aren’t even sufficiently lacking. And anyone enjoying the new soft-serve ice cream in Market Central could tell you that. 

While these same arguments have been rehearsed repeatedly in faculty meetings and on the pages of the University Times, they have gone on largely free from the attention of undergraduates. However, besides graduate students, undergraduates stand to lose the most in the wake of this proposal. 

In purely practical terms, graduate programs provide opportunities for distinguished scholars to influence the future of their academic fields — primarily by advising dissertations. Without this option, world-class professors will see little benefit from joining Pitt’s faculty, leaving undergraduates unable to access the greatest minds in their fields, either inside or outside the classroom.  

The loss of graduate-level teaching assistants in these subjects closes a necessary source of in-class support for professors teaching large lectures. Fewer TAs means fewer opportunities for recitation, review and one-on-one assistance.

When asked about this development, fourth-year classics graduate student and introductory Latin instructor Brooke McLane-Higginson noted, “This of course affects, if not the number and availability of classics, Latin or Greek courses, at least the amount of attention available to individual students.” 

What is more, graduate-level classes are no longer made available either to graduate students such as McLane-Higginson, or to curious undergraduates looking for an introduction to scholarship in these fields.  

Among these pressing practical considerations, some fundamental considerations have been lost. Discussion of the inherent value of an education in these fields has given way to speculation on the monetary value of “previous commitments.” In short, this debate has illustrated just how far a university can stray from its two fundamental obligations: to deliver a worthy education and to always re-evaluate what that means. 

To meet these obligations, Provost Beeson and the deans for the Dietrich School must explain why advanced study in German, classics and religious studies is superfluous to the worthy undergraduate education that the University takes such pains to advertise. Simply repeating the mantra of state budget cuts will not do. And considering the cultural influence of German art and literature, the lasting traditions of the ancient world and the inescapable force of religious belief in the modern day, any argument for these programs’ dispensability would require either cynicism or ignorance — neither of which accurately characterize our well-meaning administrators.

If Pitt is serious about maturing as a university, it should heed the advice of Cicero to stop always “focusing on the future” and take a moment to remember the past.

Write Simon at [email protected].