While the committee charged with evaluating possible futures for the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization Department has finished its consultations, the department’s future has yet to be decided.
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler, who charged the committee in fall 2014, will be meeting with its members twice in April, and then with University President Peter Salovey and Provost Benjamin Polak as soon as their schedules allow. Gendler said she aims to have a decision about next steps for the study of NELC at Yale made before July 1.
“We will be using the careful work that they’ve done to try to make an informed and thoughtful and respectful decision,” Gendler said. “Every configuration brings with it benefits and challenges.”
Gendler explained that the committee was asked to explore many possible scenarios for the department’s future, but emphasized that the committee itself will not offer a recommendation. The committee consulted every member of Yale’s NELC department, current and former graduate students and a number of leading NELC faculty from outside Yale. Classics Department chair Kirk Freudenburg, who chaired the four-person committee, declined to divulge any details of its findings.
Despite the committee’s efforts, several students and alumni in NELC have expressed serious concerns about the University’s commitment to the department, and in particular about the possibility that the department will be restructured.
“I came to Yale for its NELC Department, so Yale’s tepid attitude towards such a famous and historic department is disconcerting,” NELC major Sergio Tang ’17 said.
One graduate student, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic, expressed concern about potential restructuring of the department, but added that there are more worrisome issues — such as the department’s tense environment.
Earlier this year, NELC alumna Alice Slotsky GRD ’92 created a petition advocating against any restructuring of the department. The petition, which was shared with the committee in March, garnered nearly 700 signatures, more than double its original goal. Slotsky told the News in February that it is imperative that the NELC department is not “weakened or damaged by restructuring.”
Gendler said she, Salovey and Polak will consider all possible options for the department, including the possibility that its current configuration is the optimal one.
“We’re open to the possibility that the department is structured in the absolutely optimal way. We’re open to the possibility that a radical restructuring is what would be the best way to preserve this exciting and important legacy going forward. We’re open to the possibility that small changes are the best way to go forward,” she said. “What we are committed to doing is preserving Yale’s leadership in the study of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.”
Still, NELC professor Benjamin Foster said the committee’s work came with the one caveat that the department would remain approximately the same size — a rule that limits the department, which Foster said sorely needs an additional faculty member in Arabic.
Foster said he believes the committee’s work has taught administrators a great deal about the department. Citing last year’s decision to relocate Semitic languages from NELC to the Religious Studies Department, Foster said the University has made “clueless” and “arbitrary” choices about NELC in the past. Foster added he hopes that this thorough education on the work of the department will help administrators make smarter decisions.
“If anything, this has been a positive experience in the sense that it’s about time the University knew who we are and what we do,” Foster said. “Maybe now they’ll do a better job.”
But both Foster and the anonymous graduate student said the committee’s work will lead to a top-down administrative decision. There has been no indication that the department’s faculty or students will have any final say in the department’s future, which Foster said is “unusual” given the generally consultative nature of academic life. He added that when the department is informed of the decision in July, there will be little time to make changes before the beginning of the school year.
Assyriology professor Eckart Frahm said he believes Yale needs a strong NELC department, but declined to comment further. Acting NELC department chair Christina Kraus declined to comment.