Crisis at Columbia: English Department Is in Receivership

Since the 1930’s, when The Liberal Imagination author and well-known Anglophile Lionel Trilling walked the corridors of Philosophy Hall as a professor, the English department at Columbia University has held its own among those at other Ivy League institutions. A bedrock of the university, its faculty today boasts such internationally recognized scholars as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak, and national academic celebrities like Ann Douglas.

Within the walls of the university, the English department remains a seeding ground for its intellectual community–not to mention a cornerstone of its finances. Nearly 100 students a year choose English as their major; another 140 students are enrolled in the graduate program.

Yet the English department at Columbia has been suffering from a host of maladies, not the least of which are understaffing and high turnover. The result has been a department so unnerved, it has a difficult time holding faculty meetings, let alone making such crucial decisions as who to name as its department chair.

Paralyzed by internal strife, and shaken by the cultural winds of gender and ethnic studies, as well as contemporary theories like deconstructionism, the department has been locked in inertia.

But now university officials have taken the dramatic step of placing Columbia’s English department in academic receivership–though administrators eschew the term. In a series of steps begun two years ago and culminating last September in the university’s imposition of an acting chair, Roger Bagnall, a papyrology specialist from the classics department, university officials have considerably restricted the English department’s autonomy.

In January, the administration announced its choice of a new permanent chair, Jonathan Arac, from the University of Pittsburgh, who takes over the troubled department in July.

The university’s actions have resulted in a degree of embarrassment–but also a good dose of relief–for the department’s embattled faculty members.

“The administration at Columbia could not afford to let the English department, one of the four major departments in the country, just go down the drain,” said Ms. Douglas, a tenured faculty member whose popular feminist scholarship, and books like Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920’s, have made her a university star. “Columbia has a genuine interest in this department, so I knew the administration would step in. If anything, it was overdue, but it came just in time.”

Columbia’s is not the first English department to face such action. Famously, Duke University’s esteemed English department went through a similar process in 1998. Once home to Stanley Fish and Henry Louis Gates Jr., Duke’s department had become so immersed in squabbles–and made so many hiring errors–that Duke administrators appointed an outside executive committee (headed by a botanist) to make crucial departmental decisions.

And indeed, what happened to Duke’s and Columbia’s English departments has also happened to many others around the country. It has simply been a matter of degree.

Once, the literature known as “Great Books,” and the way to study them, were clear and uncontested, and faculties reflected the literature’s white, male, European sensibility. Today, however, numerous factions springing from feminist, multicultural and postcolonial schools of inquiry push and pull their departments, like Rottweilers locked down on the same bone.

“What has happened at Columbia represents an acute form of what has happened in the field as whole,” said George Stade, a veteran of the department who retired last year. “There are those people who see literature in traditional ways, which includes historical circumstances, and there is a school that wants to see literature as a symptom of all the evils of society.

“These problems are not new in academe,” he continued. “And I should point out that both schools here are immensely popular.”

The fissure, partly born of the university’s high-octane and even more highly politicized climate–it is in New York City, after all–has resulted in static factions, according to past and present junior and senior faculty members interviewed by The Observer.

“The department is made of hot shots and of people who believe in what they’re doing,” said Mr. Stade. Among those are Ms. Douglas, Jean Howard and Joan Ferrante, renowned feminist scholars, and Mr. Said and Ms. Spivak, postcolonial specialists.

“They’re fighting for professional values,” Mr. Stade continued, “and they have an established reputation. They don’t have to be covert about their opinions; no one is going to ship them to Dade Community College.”

Though he views it differently, Karl Kroeber, another longtime tenured professor and a specialist in 19th-century British literature, agreed with the characterization. “We talk like New Yorkers–we disagree violently. But I don’t think it prevented us from functioning. It’s been lively, but persons having opinions is a sign of vitality in the department. A department where everything is hunky-dory–that’s worrying.”

But lively academic debates are one thing; what was happening at Columbia was really quite different, most faculty members agreed.

“The department is particularly bad in managing disagreements,” said one faculty member. “There are divisions in the field as a whole, but Columbia hasn’t worked through the differences other departments have worked through. The field as a whole has moved away from polarization, and here they still fight over things like feminism, anti-feminism. It seems very anachronistic.”

Ms. Howard, a tenured professor and Renaissance scholar, blamed a “top-heavy” tenure structure and an aging faculty for the faculty’s inability to reach compromise and allow the newer factions their place in the pedagogical food chain.

“There was a big shift in the discipline in the 80’s,” Ms. Howard said. “The shift towards greater theoretical sophistication, and towards historical and cultural studies, has successfully been done at Columbia, but other theories, like feminism and deconstructionism, haven’t taken root, probably because of our unfortunate tenure structure.”

Of course, the stakes at Columbia were higher. “Over roughly a century of English studies in the English-speaking world, [the English department at Columbia] has been one of the three or four most important,” noted Jonathan Arac, the incoming department chair.”

Thus, things fell apart. The first sign of disarray was a massive turnover, with swarms of distinguished senior faculty retiring. Among them were Edward Tayler, prominently featured in David Denby’s Great Books , an homage to the vaunted course, and George Stade, a Gothic literature specialist and winner of a student-bestowed “Great Teacher” award.

Younger tenured members have recently left, too. Famed 19th-century literature professor Franco Moretti left for Stanford University last year and, according to his colleagues, 19th- and 20th-century specialist David Miller is heading to Berkeley at the end of this academic year. And the department has failed to make a single lasting senior appointment in 10 years to counter these departures, department members said. The last two senior hires, made in 1995, were a married couple–and both quit the department a year later, for family reasons.

A substantial number of junior faculty members have also expressed thoughts of leaving, especially after four candidates put up for tenure by the department in the last four years were turned down by the central administration’s ad-hoc committee.

Indeed, junior faculty members are among the unluckiest to be found in Philosophy Hall. Assistant and associate professors complain of crowded classes and facilities, where junior professors have to share offices.

Yet junior professors are performing senior-faculty tasks, such as advising on dissertations, partly because the faculty is so understaffed. According to Ms. Douglas, “The ratio of graduate students to professors is about the highest in the Ivy Leagues.” In the field of American literature, she said, the department has “one-third of the [English department] students and only one-sixth of the faculty.”

“We need fresh blood,” summed up Ms. Howard. “We need it very badly.”

And yet, personal and ideological dissent has prevented the department from addressing these problems.

“Half of the senior faculty no longer attends department meetings,” said a member of the department. The fights have “degenerated into personal vendettas,” said a junior professor, and “there are barely any meetings. There’s no socializing and not a lot of encounters.”

And, even more insidiously, there’s very little interest. Even Mr. Kroeber, who downplays the department’s internecine squabbles, conceded that there exists a culture of scorn for administrative duties.

“No one wants to be chair,” Mr. Kroeber said. “These are people who have published books, have a lot of students. Who has time for this?”

David Damrosch, who was department chair from 1996 to 1999, blamed the 1980’s style of hiring–not unique to Columbia–that had departments running after theory stars rather than devoted, civic-oriented faculty.

“One aspect of hiring in the 1980’s was that it was driven more by people’s scholarship than by a critical mass of people interested in the workings of a department,” he said. “There was not a lot of enthusiasm about it from the middle generation, and the older generation of tenured faculty was beginning to feel it was time for other people to take up their burden.”

Typically, the department and the administration found themselves torn between making high-profile hires that would attract attention and students, and creating an organizational base that would service students.

“People who write to us” as graduate applicants, said another department member, “say they’re eager to work with Edward Said or Gayatri Spivak. But in the workaday world of the department, I wouldn’t say that Professor Said is involved in day-to-day life. David Kastan and Jean Howard are the really great figures that keep the department going.”

Mr. Kroeber agreed. “If you’re spending all your money on people like Simon Schama, David Dinkins and now we’ve got Al Gore, you’re not going to be a very good academic judge.”

About two years ago, university officials realized the department was close to a crisis. When the faculty failed to agree on a replacement for exiting chair David Damrosch from within its own ranks, the administration finally stepped in.

The ensuing series of measures, which some department members described as “shocking,” “baffling” and “extraordinary,” started with the appointment of a search committee for the chair outside of the university.

“The department had difficulty making decisions,” said Columbia vice president David Cohen, explaining why he felt he had to get involved. “And there was no obvious individual who had the combination of skill to lead and sufficient support within the department.”

The search committee was composed of Columbia professors, as well as scholars from Yale and Northwestern. Two candidates emerged, Oxford University professor Kate Flint and Pittsburgh Americanist Jonathan Arac, with the committee preferring Ms. Flint. However, Mr. Cohen, to whom the committee reported, selected Mr. Arac.

Temporary chair Martin Meisel stepped down in protest, replaced as acting chair by a professor from the classics department, Mr. Bagnall, whose official biography lists papyrology and late antiquity as specialties.

Mr. Arac, a former tenured professor at Columbia and a well-connected scholar in American academia, will oversee a series of senior hires in the next few years (five is the current target), with the search to be performed by a committee of five professors who have been culled from outside of Columbia.

Mr. Cohen declined to call the series of measures a “receivership,” but others said the term is semantically correct.

“The department really is in receivership, whatever the university calls it,” said medievalist and longtime tenured professor Robert Hanning. “It lost a substantial amount of autonomy in making decisions about who’s going to lead it. The process is not in any way what it usually is. The members of the department elect the chair– that’s the touchstone. Here, the ultimate choice was not in the hands of the department, but in the hands of the vice president.”

Yet the imminent arrival of Mr. Arac was largely greeted with relief. “It’s like a slap in the face of the department,” said one professor. “But sometimes I wonder if the department doesn’t need to be slapped in the face.”

Or, as Ms. Douglas put it, “It was overdue, but it came just in time. We had become a department that couldn’t function, and I was simply happy last spring when it became clear the administration would step in.”

In a world united by Modern Language Association meetings and nationwide conferences, however, news travels fast, and one professor expressed a degree of humiliation.

“The fact we were not able to self-govern is unfortunate and embarrassing–but the department needs to be rebuilt, and be rebuilt now,” the department member said.

Yet the junior faculty members worry about other fallout. “We’re all afraid we’re not going to get tenure,” said one, “because the administration is so fed up with the English department.”

Several junior faculty members have admitted to looking around for jobs, despite Columbia’s location in New York City and the appeal of the university’s bright, driven students. “Everyone has it on their minds,” said one. “Whether they’ll act on it or not is a different thing.”

Mr. Cohen said that concern is justified. “There has been an erosion of confidence in the department’s decision making,” he said. “If they can never come to strong supporting votes on the quality of their candidates, it undermines their reputation.”

But beyond leadership, some mundane issues have to be addressed. Mr. Arac said he has insisted, during his negotiations, that the university provide more space for junior faculty. “It’s a matter of collegial respect,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Arac will head the five-person faculty search committee and has already asked for suggestions from department members. “It’s not as though these people are going to be imposed on us as colleagues,” said Mr. Hanning. “And these five scholars are very reputable. It’s not as if the wrecking crew came in–quite the reverse.”

Mr. Arac would not commit to specifics, but said he would have to hire “both stars and people at the one- or two-book stage.

“Some people of, broadly, my generation will be useful to the department,” he said, “but if we don’t hire senior colleagues at the two-book stage, we’ll miss out on an opportunity.”

The internal pressures for ethnic and gender diversity, for younger senior faculty and for specialists in fields like 18th-century literature have not gone away. But, he said, “there are now so many needs that everybody can be sure their needs will be heard and hopefully acted on.”

Within the department, the mood is cautiously optimistic. “The danger here,” said Mr. Kroeber, “is spending a lot of money and not doing good. If you’re hiring a lot of people rapidly, you’re taking a big risk. I would not want to be in that position.”

Mr. Arac, however, expressed hopefulness. “These are not people who are incapable of making reasonable arguments, and of speaking respectfully about differences of opinion.” Crisis at Columbia: English Department Is in Receivership