With the future of the Near Eastern Language and Civilizations Department uncertain, 640 people from across the globe have signed a petition asking that the department not be restructured.
In October, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler appointed a committee to explore potential options for the future of the study of NELC at Yale. The appointment of the committee came five months after a meeting in which NELC faculty members expressed concerns — including the administration’s failure to consult with faculty on departmental decisions — to the University administration, and almost two years after revelations about a relationship between two professors rocked the department. Given recent events, many are concerned for the department’s future.
And with the committee set to give a recommendation by early April, those concerns have only become more acute. In January, Alice Slotsky GRD ’92, an alumna of the department, created a petition asking that the department not be restructured. The petition was addressed to Gendler, University President Peter Salovey, Provost Benjamin Polak and committee chair Kirk Freudenburg, the chair of the Classics Department.
“You have asked the committee to recommend and optimal configuration for NELC,” the petition reads. “My answer is an emphatic NO to any restructuring. The optimal configuration is what NELC has been, and would continue to be, given the administrative support it has long sought and richly merits.”
Slotsky said she decided to write the petition to demonstrate that there is global support for keeping the department intact, adding that the petition has garnered support far beyond her expectations.
Among the 640 signers are some prominent figures, such as NELC professor Benjamin Foster, who called the names on the petition a “who’s who” of the field.
According to Foster, the idea of potential restructuring comes as part of a larger question about the department’s limited self-determination and a problematic relationship with the University’s administration that goes back over a decade.
“This is a series of long-term problems,” Foster said. “Relations between the department and the administration have not been good for quite a few years.”
Foster said that last year, for example, administrators informed the department that they had moved one of its disciplines, Semitic languages, to the Department of Religious Studies. There was no consultation or reason given for the change, he added.
NELC Department Chair Christina Kraus said she is not involved with the petition. Three other members of the department declined to comment.
Gendler said she, along with the president and the provost, is committed to Yale’s continued leadership in the field. She also explained that she appointed the committee based on consultation with the NELC Department, only naming members who were recommended by one or more members of the department.
Freudenburg, the committee’s chair, declined to comment on the petition.
“Each potential configuration will no doubt bring both benefits and costs,” Gendler wrote in an email. “In NELC, as in all of our departments at Yale, we are open to the possibility that the current configuration is the optimal one, and open to the possibility that there are configurations that would be even better.”
But according to some supporters of the department, no committee research is required to demonstrate that the best set up is the present one.
Former NELC professor William Hallo — who taught in the department for four decades — said any discussion of restructuring is “bad news.”
“You don’t restructure a successful department, and this is one of the most successful departments in its field in the country,” Hallo said. “It’s the old axiom: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The department fits that description.”
Foster said he has the highest respect for the members of the committee, but he noted that they will only make a recommendation, and the final decision will be made by Gendler, Salovey and Polak. It is not uncommon for administrators to ignore committee recommendations, he added.
Still, Foster said it would be unthinkable for the University to ignore the support the petition has gotten. However, others expressed less optimism.
During his time at Yale, while serving as the master of Morse College and the chair of the NELC Department, Hallo said he sent countless letters to former Yale presidents, and “never saw any indication that any of those letters were read.”
NELC major Jacob Rosenberg-Wohl ’15 said he thinks by proposing a restructuring of the department, Yale is taking steps to reduce its funding, faculty or both. This effort is likely due to the small number of students formally signed up for the major, he said, though he does not believe this statistic is representative of the interest in the department.
Sergio Tang ’17, another NELC major, said he supports the independence of the department, which could be threatened by a restructuring.
“A department is there not by chance or anyone’s ‘decision’ but only to enable an intellectual pursuit that, having unique principles and methodologies, needs its own home,” Matteo Di Giovanni GRD ’15 said. “No ‘dissection’ or ‘restructuring’ can, by definition, preserve this unity of focus and, in the end, the existence of the discipline as such.”
Yale’s NELC Department was founded in 1841.