Cuts to Classics Cause Upset

Kate Grumbles, News Reporter

During the February 28 faculty meeting, the Committee of Division Chairs (CDC) announced their recommendations for new tenure track positions, notably excluding the Classics department. The loss of a tenure track position in Classics is part of an effort by Whitman administration to return to a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio.

Prior to this meeting, 18 departments submitted pre-proposals for replacements or additions to their faculty. Only five of these initial requests were then approved to submit a full proposal, including Psychology, Film and Media Studies, Anthropology, Religion and Classics. The CDC decided to recommend four out of the five departments, excluding Classics. Though the final decision about positions will not be made until the Board of Trustees meet in May, Classics is effectively out of the running. With the loss of one full time position in Classics, two out of the three Classics major offerings will no longer be available. The news of this change to the Classics curriculum spurred Hannah Ferguson, a sophomore Classics major, to write an open letter to the Board of Trustees last week expressing her discontent.

The Classics department is already small, with only 2.4 faculty currently including professors Dana Burgess, Elizabeth Vandiver and Kate Shea. Both Burgess and Vandiver hold full time positions, while Shea is part-time between Classics and Environmental Humanities. Vandiver’s upcoming retirement at the end of next year was the impetus for the request of another faculty member. Vandiver’s position is full-time and at her departure, the department will be left with 1.4 faculty members.

Vandiver sees the loss of her position in the department as a devastation to the type of curriculum that should be offered by a Classics department. The department currently offers three majors: Classics that requires proficiency in both Greek and Latin, Classical Studies—Greek, and Classical Studies—Latin. With the loss of Vandiver’s position, there will not be enough faculty to cover teaching Greek. The effect of this will be the loss of both the Classical Studies and Classical Studies-Greek majors.

“It’s a profound diminishing of the department,” Vandiver said. She mentioned the decreased opportunities for students to encounter Classics for the first time. “The really distressing thought for me is that we have so many students who haven’t been exposed to Latin or Greek or classics in high school, [they] get here, discover that they love it, throw themselves into it, and become some of our best classics majors.”

In her letter to the Board of Trustees published in The Wire last week, Hannah Ferguson echoed Vandiver’s disappointment about the shrinking Classics department.

“Despite being few in number, Classics majors are passionate about our studies and frightened of the immanent faculty changes affecting our department,” Ferguson wrote in her letter. “As a student of the Classics department, I am personally disturbed by the lack of administrative support to replace Professor Vandiver.”

This feeling of discontent has spread across Whitman campus as changes to departments and curriculum are made in pursuit of the 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio. The cuts to both Twentieth Century U.S. History and European Art History that were made last spring are exemplary of this.

Alzada Tipton, Provost and Dean of the Faculty, spoke about the challenges that come with reducing the number of faculty on campus. The current ratio is 8.8 to 1 students to faculty, and the projection for next year is 9.1 to 1.

“My hope is that there are minimal impacts on [campus culture] in the long run,” Tipton said. “In the short run, it’s very distressing for departments to lose positions that they’ve had in the past. I think that if faculty are distressed, students are quite capable of becoming distressed as well.”

Professor Vandiver expressed her doubt for the necessity of a 10 to 1 ratio on a campus like Whitman.

“Based on what the administration has told the Whitman community so far, I remain unconvinced of the necessity for a shift to a 10 to 1 ratio,” Vandiver said. “I don’t understand why, just three years after the most successful capital campaign in Whitman’s history, we are suddenly in so dire a financial crisis that we have to dismantle the curriculum in this way in order to stay solvent.”