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Clash at Hopkins over future of 50-year-old Humanities Center

A panel at Hopkins is reviewing whether to close an unusual department, sparking a battle on campus.

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 prepare students for the workforce often end up banking on science, engineering and other fields closely related to particular jobs.

Assessing how to provide the best education is important, Nassirian said, but colleges haven't always been rigorous about how they do it.

"We can't be sloppy and look at the classifieds to decide what the next major should be," he said.

Dean Beverly Wendland declined to be interviewed for this article. In an emailed response to questions, she said Hopkins has never been more committed to humanities education. She cited the creation of 20 new tenure-track professor jobs since 2009, and the formation of a new Humanities Institute backed by a $10 million donation.

"Neither commitment to the humanities nor 'return on investment' is at issue here," Wendland said. "What we're discussing is the way forward for one of our 10 humanities departments."

Hopkins officials say the review, which is being led by the dean of the university's library and is expected to be complete in December, won't propose a particular course of action.

Instead, they say, it will discuss the views of members of the department and others about its future, and suggest options for the dean to consider.

Wendland said in a letter to Hopkins faculty and staff this month that her decision to launch the review was prompted by the retirement of two professors in the center.

She identified three concerns about the center: Its work might be driven too much by its faculty's particular interests; its name suggests a broader mission than it actually has; and it has not done enough to teach undergraduates.

"This process has absolutely no predetermined outcome," she said in her response to The Baltimore Sun.

The Humanities Center, founded in 1966, takes credit for introducing the strain of European thought known as structuralism to the United States.

The center, which shares a floor in Hopkins' Gilman Hall with the philosophy department, has moved on from those roots.

The center's work is difficult to summarize, but it revolves around studying the history of ideas and comparing literature from different traditions. It doesn't offer a major, but does present undergraduate courses, including studies in Great Books.

The center has retained strong ties to continental Europe. The biographies of its graduate students are rich with the names of major French and German thinkers.

Supporters say its unconventional approach leads to innovative work. Wendland told the News-Letter, the Hopkins student newspaper, that its personality-led approach is "such an unusual construct that it's hard to really fathom."

The center's supporters organized a rally on the Hopkins campus this week that drew about 100 people, and have more actions planned in coming days. An online petition has garnered about 4,000 signatures, and academics from around the country have written letters of support.

At the rally Thursday, some protesters held signs that cast the fight as a battle between university administrators and academics, who are accustomed to a degree of freedom to determine their own futures.

Matthias Lalisse, a graduate student in cognitive sciences, said he's worried that if the Humanities Center is shut down, other departments could also be on the line.

Wendland said she is consulting with Hopkins' faculty council over the center. She declined to say who had the final authority to shutter a department.

Omid Mehrgan, a graduate student at the center, said the center is healthy and working well and that it would be wrong for university officials to "destroy or manipulate it from outside in an arbitrary way."

"Closure is a terrible possibility," he said.

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