Johns Hopkins University

In a major win for students and faculty at Johns Hopkins University’s Humanities Center, school administrators have decided not to shutter their department at the end of the spring semester.

This past fall, Krieger School Dean Beverly Wendland called for a review of the Humanities Center’s future, saying she had concerns about its academic focus. In response, students and faculty engaged administrators, starting a petition to save the department and meeting with them over the last several months.

In their petition, supporters of keeping the department open wrote: “In the fifty years since its foundation, the Humanities Center has established, maintained, and renewed a stellar national and international reputation as a vibrant department where teaching and research are inseparable, intellectual problems are studied in their disciplinary and interdisciplinary aspects and, when necessary, at the margins of prevalent norms and canons.”

The Humanities Center fills a unique academic space at Hopkins. The department, which was founded in 1966, offers doctoral programs in comparative literature and intellectual history, a master’s degree in humanistic studies and an undergraduate honors program. It designs students’ paths of study by working directly with them and, often, other departments. It presently has three senior and two junior faculty, two adjunct professors and two post-doctoral scholars.

In their petition, supporters noted that the department received positive recommendations in internal and external reviews in 2014 and 2015. However, in the most recent review requested by Wendland, a committee said “many parts of [its] foundation fell away” since its inception. They wrote in their report that the center “was founded as a meeting place for intellectual exchanges and projects among the faculty and students of all humanities departments,” but that the department’s decisions to hire its own faculty, rather than use professors from other departments, admit only certain students and professors, and allow its seminar series to “evaporate” eroded at its mission over time.

Ben Gillespie, an advanced graduate student in the program, said the issue of potential closure emerged as the department was in the middle of replacing two senior faculty members who retired two years ago. During what he called an “extremely unusual” wait time for filling the vacancies, Hopkins established the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute, which serves as a “focal point” for humanities-related programming at the school, according to its website.

Wendland told Inside Higher Ed that the department refused to change its name, as requested, to avoid confusion between the two humanities-focused institutions on campus. Gillespie said students and faculty refused. In October, Wendland called for the review.

While the committee originally said it planned to issue recommendations for the center’s future last month, the release of the report was delayed until this week. According to the report, provided in an email by a JHU spokesman, the school is now considering three options:

  • Keep the center’s given name while still reviewing its focus;
  • Rename it the “(Interdisciplinary) Humanistic Studies Department,” the “Comparative Critical Theories and Societies Department” or a similar name that could better represent its focus; or
  • Transform it into a comparative literature department to build on its current graduate program, given that younger faculty “predominantly” identify as scholars in that field.

“We will consider carefully all of the committee’s recommendations and options to determine the best path forward for the humanities in the Krieger School,” wrote Wendland in part in an accompanying letter. “However, consistent with the report, we would like to provide reassurance that departmental closure will not be considered.”

A university spokesman said Wendland didn’t wish to comment further beyond what she wrote in her letter.

Even with those potential changes still in play, Gillespie said he and his peers are “happy with their findings in general.”

The “Support the Humanities Center Team,” a faculty-student coalition, said in a statement, “We are deeply grateful to all those who have actively stood with us during this unfortunate episode and look forward to constructive conversations with the administration to forge a path forward.”

The committee made acknowledged the existence of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute and the Humanities Center as a “complication” in its report, but also pointed out their differences — mainly that the Humanities Center grants degrees, while the Humanities Institute is a programming-focused body. “One cannot replace the other, nor can one be imagined to prevent the existence or productivity of the other,” they wrote.

Despite the decision not to close the department, committee members said they are expecting the Humanities Center to sharpen its focus in the years ahead. They wrote that all three options assume the department will “quickly come together as an effective unit, as it was in the past,” once it fills its two faculty vacancies.

“The options may well be different” one or two years down the line if there are additional faculty departures or if other issues arise, they wrote.

For now, students and professors can celebrate knowing their Humanities Center is safe. “I think that the verdict is what we wanted, which is no closure,” Gillespie said. “The other stuff, that the department needs to figure out its way forward, that could be said about any other department.”

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Ethan McLeod

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...