JHU students fight to save Humanities Center
School is reviewing future of 50-year-old department
Katie Boyce-Jacino studies planetariums. German planetariums, to be precise, in the 1920s, when gazing at simulated stars captured the public’s imagination.
It’s work that doesn’t fall neatly into a single academic field. But Boyce-Jacino found a comfortable home at the Humanities Center at the Johns Hopkins University, a small department that specializes in difficult-to-place projects.
“It’s the perfect place for something like this,” the doctoral student said. “It’s actually a really great place for you to ground yourself in a variety of different disciplines and have the support that lets you look at things from a bunch of different perspectives.”
But the 50-year-old Humanities Center now faces the prospect of being shut down at the end of the academic year.
The dean of Hopkins’ School of Arts and Sciences has launched a review of its future. The center’s supporters say they are being unfairly singled out to justify their existence as part of a broader fight across academia about the value of the humanities in schools that increasingly are emphasizing lucrative technical fields.
Barmak Nassirian, the federal policy director at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said colleges that are grappling with how to
Hopkins’ Gilman Hall with the philosoprepare students for the workforce often phy department, has moved on from those end up banking on science, engineering roots. and other fields closely related to particuThe center’s work is difficult to summalar jobs. rize, but it revolves around studying the
Assessing how to provide the best history of ideas and comparing literature education is important, Nassirian said, but from different traditions. colleges haven’t always been rigorous The center doesn’t offer a major, but about how they do it. does present undergraduate courses, in
“We can’t be sloppy and look at the cluding studies in Great Books. classifieds to decide what the next major The center has retained strong ties to should be,” he said. continental Europe. The biographies of its
Dean Beverly Wendland declined to be graduate students are rich with the names interviewed for this article. In an emailed of major French and German thinkers. response to questions, she said Hopkins Supporters say its unconventional aphas never been more committed to proach leads to innovative work. Wenhumanities education. She cited the credland told the News-Letter, the Hopkins ation of 20 new tenure-track professor student newspaper, that its personalityjobs since 2009, and the formation of a led approach is “such an unusual connew Humanities Institute backed by a $10 struct that it’s hard to really fathom.” million donation. The center’s supporters organized a
“Neither commitment to the humanrally on the Hopkins campus this week ities nor ‘return on investment’ is at issue that drew about 100 people, and have here,” Wendland said. “What we’re dismore actions planned in coming days. An cussing is the way forward for one of our online petition has garnered about 4,000 10 humanities departments.” signatures, and academics from around
Hopkins officials say the review, which the country have written letters of supis being led by the dean of the university’s port. library and is expected to be complete in At the rally Thursday, some protesters December, won’t propose a particular held signs that cast the fight as a battle course of action. between university administrators and
Instead, they say, it will discuss the academics, who are accustomed to a views of members of the department and degree of freedom to determine their own others about its future, and suggest futures. options for the dean to consider. Matthias Lalisse, a graduate student in
Wendland said in a letter to Hopkins cognitive sciences, said he’s worried that if faculty and staff this month that her the Humanities Center is shut down, decision to launch the review was other departments could also be on the prompted by line.theretirementoftwo professors in the center. Wendland said she is consulting with
She identified three concerns about the Hopkins’ faculty council over the center. center: Its work might be driven too much She declined to say who had the final by its faculty’s particular interests; its authority to shutter a department. name suggests a broader mission than it Omid Mehrgan, a graduate student at actually has; and it has not done enough to the center, said the center is healthy and teach undergraduates. working well and that it would be wrong
“This process has absolutely no prefor university officials to “destroy or determined outcome,” she said in her manipulate it from outside in an arbitrary response to The Baltimore Sun. way.”
The Humanities Center, founded in “Closure is a terrible possibility,” he 1966, takes credit for introducing the said. strain of European thought known as structuralism to the United States.
The center, which shares a floor in
Johns Hopkins University humanities students and others hold a protest against the possible closing of the Humanities Center.