Students, Faculty Fighting Threat of Closure for Hopkins’ Humanities Center

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With the 50-year-old Humanities Center at The Johns Hopkins University potential facing a forced a closure at the end of this academic year, grad students and others are speaking out and criticizing the administration.

The highly selective Humanities Center is a nontraditional academic department with an interdisciplinary focus. The center has two doctoral programs, one in comparative literature and the other in intellectual history. Its academic staff consists of three senior and two junior faculty, two adjunct professors and two post-doctoral scholars. They work with students, and in some cases other departments, to develop courses of study for those who get in. The center also has a master of arts degree in humanistic studies and runs an undergraduate humanities honors program.

Beverly Wendland, who was named dean of the Krieger School of the Arts and Sciences last year, has requested a review of the interdisciplinary center that could lead Hopkins to shut it down, according to a new report from Inside Higher Ed. One of her apparent chief concerns about the school is its alleged narrow focus, rather than worries about funding or student morale, according to the report.

Its name appears to be a sticking point. Hopkins recently established the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute with a $10 million grant from the same-named foundation this past April. Wendland told Inside Higher Ed that the Humanities Center has refused to change its name, which was requested to avoid any confusion between it and the new institute. However, some other issues that she cited include how the center would continue to run if one of its few professors left and its insular nature.

Ben Gillespie, an advanced graduate student in the Humanities Center, said the department offered several proposed name changes, but that Wendland rejected all of them. He added that “it seems unreasonable that the name change would be used a grounds for closing the department.”

Wendland has met with students already this past week. Gillespie said she mentioned the name in passing in their Wednesday meeting and that she seemed “very sincere,” but didn’t offer a reason for wanting to close the department. “We’re still looking for reasons why they would want to close the department,” he said.

Despite past internal and external reviews that gave a largely positive outlook for the school, JHU is launching a third review to be conducted by a “small, neutral committee” that will submit recommendations for the center’s fate in December.

Gillespie said the call for yet another review has placed a good deal of pressure on the students and faculty in their ongoing academic year. “Undergoing a review for an entire department is a time-consuming process,” he said. “It’s our third review since I’ve been at Hopkins. To have to undergo it involves a big time crunch, especially when it’s posed as, ‘If you don’t don’t succeed in this review you will be shut down.'”

JHU News-Letter, the school’s student newspaper, has been covering the controversy and ran an editorial in support of the center’s students and faculty.

Graduate students have started a petition calling on JHU President Ronald J. Daniels to let the Humanities Center remain open despite any potential recommendations that it close. So far, 3,316 people have signed the petition for the tiny center, though not all of them with a direct affiliation to JHU.

They have also created a website with information about the controversy.

Ethan McLeod
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