Op-Ed: Per arduo surgo — why Whitman needs classics

West Bales and Grace Mitchell

The Financial Sustainability Review (FSR) proposes not replacing retiring faculty and moving to a minor-only classics program. These proposed changes may rob future students of the chance to study the ancient world and understand Latin and Greek sources in the original language. classics gives us the unique opportunity to uproot and decenter Western exceptionalist historical frameworks and tracing the effects of such narratives in modern-day imperialism, racism and colonialism. For this reason, we believe that Whitman should preserve our major. 

We do not wish to see our department maintained because we believe that the field contains some lofty past, or that it comes with prestige. Rather, we want future students to have an equal opportunity to learn the origins of power structures that continue to persist to this day. We want students to be able to study underrepresented and marginalized voices in the Ancient world, to interact with the original languages and see how Greco-Roman imagery is used as a claim to power. Without faculty members to teach courses at Whitman, the field becomes more inaccessible than it already is.

The FSR document recommends the elimination of Professor Dana Burgess’ position following his retirement this year, however, last year students successfully campaigned for a guaranteed new hire with a testimony campaign. The department was already operating with a deficit left by a retirement in 2019, which means the classics cannot sustain more cuts without sacrificing the heart of the department.

The proposed “re-envisioning” of the classics major into a “classical Studies” minor is detrimental to the college’s future because classics courses have a high demand.  This semester, the classics department has the Arnold Invited Professorship. Advanced Latin this term has the highest enrollment in almost a decade.

During the FSR meeting, a prepared statement by classics students asked the administration the following:

If demand exists, if the Board of Trustees knows students care deeply about the department and want to pay to take these courses, why are there no working solutions that will maintain the department for the time being? Why is the solution to fully discontinue the department now, reducing all future students’ choices in humanities?

The response given was dismissive. None of the questions were answered nor the arguments heard. The administration replied that the department is not going away and classical languages could be taught. They ignored the fact that without staff to teach courses, nearly all of what makes classics at Whitman what it is will cease to be.

Starting next fall, the only remaining faculty would be Professor Kate Shea. Shea also teaches Environmental Humanities, and her position in the classic department would be reduced to 0.4. The proposal suggests a single faculty member can sustain courses from two retiring professors in both classics and environmental humanities departments. The proposal also suggests WWU has a classics department that will sustain classics — they do not. Whitman is the only college in Eastern Washington that has a classics department, which means that the loss of the department would mean a loss for the whole region. 

People tend to view classics as “dead” or as an extremely white, rich and cishet male line of study. Working-class people rarely have the opportunity to interact with the field. We believe this is changing (as it should) and Whitman is an institution fostering that change. Whitman needs to continue supporting students experiencing the field from new perspectives. Otherwise, students like us will never have the chance to further that change, to use classics to challenge the whitewashed narratives we are surrounded by. 

The interdisciplinary approach that Whitman so proudly promotes necessitates interdepartmental support and solidarity. classics’ interconnected nature with race and ethnic studies, gender studies and environmental humanities is emblematic of those values and is therefore necessary to maintain Whitman’s liberal arts agenda. All three departments have high student interest and deserve to be maintained. 

Whitman College’s motto in its original Latin is “per ardua surgo, which translates to “through adversities I rise.” We use Latin here—it is, along with Greek, integral to the classics major. Whitman classics students rise up to face the adversary of this “re-envision.” We want to know more and need more time to respond in full. Senior honors classics and history double major Chloe Daikh articulates students’ desires for more transparency and agency in a petition that has gotten over 300 signatures in 24-hours. Please read and consider signing it. Petition for Board Minutes, Greater Transparency on and More Time for Decisions Regarding the Financial Sustainability Review


Mat Chapin, the Managing Editor of The Wire, helped edit this Op-Ed.