NELC department in dire straits

In 2011, the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) department lost its modern Arab specialist, Hala Nassar, when she was passed up for tenure. The number of ladder-faculty Arabists in the department went from three to two.

Now, as classical Arabic professor Beatrice Gruendler leaves Yale for a job in Berlin, the number of ladder-faculty Arabists in the department is down to one.

“Next year indeed we’ll have a bit of a problem,” Gruendler admitted.

As other faculty members in NELC see it, the problem is not Gruendler’s departure so much as the University’s unresponsiveness to its consequences. The University has declared a hiring freeze that complicates the process of replacing the vacant NELC posts. Gruendler said the department must petition the administration to start a search for new faculty member to fill her vacancy in classical Arab literature. But even if approved, that search can only start next academic year, and the hired professor would only come to Yale in the 2015-’16 school year.

The same holds for the vacancy in modern Arab civilization, for which the University has not yet approved a job search.

Meanwhile, Assyriology professor Benjamin Foster GRD ’75, NELC’s director of undergraduate studies, said the administration has refused to hire a temporary professor to replace Greundler for next year.

“I don’t see evidence of concern [from administrators] for the Arabic program at the moment,” Foster said, adding that Yale’s hiring freeze is “highly elective,” meaning that the University overrides the hiring freeze in certain cases when it sees fit.

For now, NELC will stop accepting graduate students for its Arabic program, to which it usually accepts one or two students a year. Gruendler said one of her two current doctoral advisees is currently finishing her doctorate and will not be greatly affected by her departure. The other advisee, who is only starting her doctorate, will have to decide whether to stay at Yale or transfer to another program, Gruendler said.

Foster said the department will “rally around” Gruendler’s doctoral students.

“We’re just letting a department die without noticing there are very good things that come out of it,” said Nicholas Aubin ’14, one of five declared undergraduate NELC majors and one of two specializing in Arab civilization.

Dimitri Gutas ’69 GRD ’74, NELC’s only remaining senior Arabic professor, offered Yale’s history of science program as a cautionary tale for the administration as it handles the present situation.

Since the University shut down the small history of science department in the late 1970s, it has been nearly impossible to rebuild the same program, Gutas said. Though Yale now offers a major in History of Science, Medicine and Public Health, that major is offered through the History Department, and is no longer an independent department with its own resources as before.

“It’s very easy to destroy good programs and very difficult to build them up,” Gutas said.

NELC has had an uneasy year, and the department is still reeling from a scandal that broke in January 2013 when Egyptology professor John Darnell was discovered to have had an illicit relationship with Egyptology professor Colleen Manassa ’01 GRD ’05 when Manassa was his student. Darnell’s subsequent suspension trimmed the Egyptology faculty from two to one for the current academic year — a move that also forced that program to stop accepting graduate students.

Still, Gruendler was quick to emphasize that her move to Berlin was not a comment on her experience in Yale’s NELC program, which she called a well-respected “boutique operation.”

Instead, Gruendler explained that the move to Berlin’s Freie Universität will allow her to commit to more interdisciplinary projects. Berlin plays host to a number of scholarly institutions with which she could collaborate, she said.

The NELC department at Yale is 173 years old — the oldest in the nation.

Correction: March 27

A previous version of this article misspelled Beatrice Gruendler’s name, and wrongly attributed the gender of her doctoral students.  It also omitted the Yale College class year of Dimitri Gutas ’69 GRD ’74.

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