No Latin? Then no ‘classics’ at UMaine

Posted Feb. 14, 2011, at 7:05 p.m.

How can you have a good university without Latin and Greek?” asked then-University of Maine President Arthur Johnson in 1984. He then initiated a replacement of the retiring Latin professor in our Department of Foreign Languages and Classics.

When he came to UMaine as provost, Robert Kennedy tried to end the Latin major. The faculty stopped him then with some outside help from Phi Beta Kappa. Now, years later, even as a lame duck president, Kennedy is insisting the major be ended without even allowing for a period of discussion and re-evaluation.

He has completely ignored appeals by the Classical Association of New England, as well as some of the world’s most distinguished scholars, both in personal letters and included on an international petition to save the classics at UMaine, with 674 signatures and pointed comments, including those from Dale Sinos of Howard University and Amherst College and John Dillon of Trinity College, Dublin, who have visited UMaine several times, Peter Green and Donald Kagan of Yale, to name only a few. Dillon characterized the move as a “a sad descent into barbarism.”

One administrator suggested that no university would respond to a “group of outsiders” on policy decisions. Is UMaine then a hermetically sealed operation, for which there is no outside funding, evaluation, ratings of professors and determination of the quality of programs? Indeed, I was actually hired here a long time ago because an outside group of evaluators made it clear that a History Department with a respectable Ph.D. program needed a historian of the ancient world.

If Latin is ended, there will be no Latin major anywhere in the University of Maine System. And those students who cannot afford Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges will not be able to study classics. The field remains attractive to students; enrollments for my Greek and Roman history courses are higher than ever. In addition, classics is a seminal field for general education. And education is not the same thing as training.

The Latin major continues to be delivered by only one professor with the help of adjuncts and enhanced by related courses in other departments. Tina Passman carries the bulk of the teaching and coordinates the program with excellence. As Passman is not ready to retire and the Latin minor continues to serve students in other classical fields, the exact same courses will continue to be taught. Not to mention that the university will not save any money at all.

So that cutting the major right now has merely symbolic (anti-humanities) significance. It suggests the (unfortunate) conclusion that UMaine will now be a vocational school.

David Konstan of Brown and New York University, who has also lectured here, wrote his letter to Kennedy as a former president of the American Philological Association. He pointed out to him that no state flagship campus has given up the classics major. Thus outgoing President Kennedy may add to his “accomplishments” that he has brought Maine the “distinction” of now being the only flagship of a state university system in the whole country without a Latin or classics major.

The argument from budgetary reasons is a weak argument. As I have already mentioned, course enrollments at UMaine and elsewhere strongly suggest that the study of ancient Greece and Rome has become very popular again. Thus I think that the major should be retained and that, when she does decide to retire, Tina Passman should be replaced. And more importantly, rather than being a matter merely of one or two single faculty lines in the future, the issue is primarily about a significant field and its role in higher education.

Another important lesson here is that faculty should determine the curriculum, rather than administrators. It is most unfortunate that because of Robert Kennedy’s unimaginative and myopic leadership, he leaves the University of Maine in danger of becoming a university in name only.

Jay Bregman is a professor of history and coordinator of the religious studies minor at the University of Maine.

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