Judaic Studies Department Faces Cutbacks at Brandeis University

By Nathaniel Popper

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., has been the site of a series of aggrieved faculty and student meetings in recent weeks, after the dean of arts and sciences proposed cutting faculty from a number of programs, including the signature Near Eastern and Judaic studies department.

Dean Adam Jaffe proposed the cuts to make room for 15 new professors to widen the offerings at Brandeis, America’s only nonsectarian Jewish university. But the new additions in the economics and business departments have some on campus worried that Brandeis is professionalizing its education at the expense of the liberal arts.

The editorial page of The Justice, Brandeis’s student newspaper, opined that with his proposals, “Jaffe is placing a curricular primacy on global economics at the expense of our academic foundations.”

Jaffe first announced the potential changes at a faculty meeting October 28, 2004, but the proposals are still under discussion. In an interview with the Forward, Jaffe pointed out that if all the changes go through, they will affect only 10% of the faculty. But Jaffe said that Brandeis does need to make changes to keep up with the times. That means providing more economics offerings, in response to student demand. But it also means providing more of the multicultural perspective on which universities across the country have focused in recent years. Jaffe envisions new faculty in African-American literature and in East Asian culture and economics.

“If our students don’t know about what’s happening in the world as a whole,” Jaffe said, “then they’re in trouble and we’re in trouble.”

The move toward more diversity in the course offerings has been praised widely, and Jaffe’s broader proposals have not been without their support on campus.

“Change is painful, but a university like Brandeis stands still at its peril,” said Peter Conrad, chair of the health, science and public policy program. “Reallocation is the only way a university like Brandeis, without unlimited funds, can grow and develop.”

The cuts that come with this reallocation, though, have been met by an expected group of critics. The music department, with its four faculty members, has been up in arms about the suggestion to end its program in music composition, which is ranked among the top 20 in the country. And the call for an end to the teaching of ancient Greek has been greeted by a concerned letter from the university’s six-member Humanities Council.

“I and my colleagues believe that ancient Greek is the heart and core of a liberal arts education,” Ana Olga Koloski-Ostrow, chair of the classics department, told the Forward. “Not to offer it would severely hamper the university’s reputation.”

To make funding available for Greek, the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department even offered to look at more cuts to its own programs. The department is itself looking at the potential loss of three or four full-time faculty positions from a department that has 26 professors. In making this and other recommendations, Jaffe says he looked at the enrollment figures to determine where student demand is out of balance with faculty numbers. The economics department, he saw, was particularly understocked for the rising popularity of economics and business classes.

Jaffe himself is an economist, but he said he is not entirely comfortable with the popularity of the field among career-oriented students who think it will help their professional prospects. However, he said that the university has no choice but to respond to student interests.

“People keep saying that students are more interested in their careers and less interested in learning for learning’s sake,” Jaffe said. “It’s a real aspect of higher education that we have to confront.”

Jaffe’s focus on enrollment in formulating the proposals — rather than student and faculty opinion — has many feeling not only worried, but also dejected. Jaffe’s predecessor as the dean of arts and sciences, Jessie Ann Owens, who is now back in the music department, said that many of the affected departments did not find out about the proposed cuts until last year’s October 28 meeting.

“There’s a considerable demoralizing in the areas that are slated for cuts,” Owens said. “It’s too bad things were handled this way, because I think that many things have been going so well at Brandeis.”






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