Classics Threatened at Royal Holloway

I don’t know about others who have done Classics on this side of the pond, but while I was formally pursuing degrees in Classics, there always seemed to be a perception that Classics in the UK was safe and stable, and sort of a model for what Classics programs would like to be. In the past couple of years, however, it has become clear that departments in the UK are as increasingly fighting for their survival as their counterparts on this side of the pond are. In the past, we’ve mentioned the potential loss of paleography at King’s College, for example (although we note that KCL is advertising for someone to fill the post) and somehow missed mentioning (apologies to friends at Leeds!) the travails Leeds Classics was going through (they now appear to be in some sort of bureaucratic wait-and-see holding pattern). The latest, however, is possibly most surprising — Royal Holloway has just heard the dire news … here’s one version from the Orbital:

Less than one year after its formation, the Department of Classics and Philosophy faces dissolution.

College Council has proposed changes to discontinue the Classics BA degree and to cut over half of Classics staff. Under the plans, Classics degrees are expected to be phased out over three years, starting with a reduction in student numbers as of September 2012.There will be a 90 day consultation period before any changes go ahead.

Affected staff were briefed on the proposals prior to their discussion at College Council. They have also been offered counselling in ‘managing change.’

Remaining Classics staff would move to the History Department and Philosophy posts would be relocated in the Department of Politics and International Relations. Classics is expected to have a presence on Modern History courses. Those students presently enrolled will not be affected.

Head of Department, Anne Sheppard, earlier this year denied rumours that the Department may close. “I do not think there is any risk,” she said.

Mary Beard, professor in classics at Cambridge, believes the plans signal a ‘slow death’ for the department. “There will be no language teaching, which – in my view – always take the stuffing out of any classical enterprise,” she said.

“Royal Holloway is a good Classics department; and if you excise it from Royal Holloway, you impoverish and devalue all the humanities there.”

Academic Affairs Officer and Classics student, Carl Welch, believes the Students’ Union needs to campaign around the proposals. “The Classics department at RHUL is well respected, with pre-eminent scholars,” he said.“I find this decision to be vastly at odds with [Principal] Layzell’s plans as a whole.”

Anne Sheppard, the head of department, circulated a letter which appeared on the Classicists list which boils things down a bit more clearly:

Proposals for cuts affecting the Department of Classics and Philosophy at Royal Holloway

The College Council are setting up a formal consultation process over proposals for the following cuts affecting the Department of Classics and Philosophy:

1. From September 2012 student numbers will be reduced to 40 per year, for BAs in Classical Studies and Ancient History as well as Joint Honours. The Classics degree will be discontinued.

2. The Philosophy staff, including one Ancient Philosophy post, will move to the Department of Politics and International Relations.

3. A Research Professor, currently shared with English, will move into the English Department.

4. Of the remaining 11 posts, 6 will disappear by 2014, leaving 5 staff who will then move, as a unit, to the History Department.

The consultation, which has not yet started, will run for 90 days. The Department will be responding fully to the planning documents that are to be circulated. […]

Elimination of a pure Classics degree, of course, means no more Classical languages at Royal Holloway; along with that would go the only Classical versification course in the UK (according to a mention in the Facebook group … more on that later). Mary Beard’s initial reaction is bang on (inter alia):

Well I am hugely relieved for the people whose jobs were on the line. But dont cheer too soon; this looks to me like the slow death, rather than the quick death, model. There will be no language teaching, which — in my view — always take the stuffing out of any classical enterprise. What keen classics student would opt for this? And bet you anything, as soon as one of those classicists in history leaves or retires, they will be replaced by some one in British 19th century, or South East Asian post-colonial.

Mary Beard also made a followup post, digging for the real reasons for this attack … the whole thing should be read, but here’s her (again, bang on) conclusion:

So the proposal is to cut all study of Classics in the original language, and invest entirely in History and Classical Studies (‘where demand is still strong’…this is a demand economy obviously, not an EDUCATIONAL university). And the remaining ‘classicists’ will move to History, ‘to enable the shared teaching of ancient history, leverage of research leadership and shared administrative support’. (‘leverage of research leadership…’? what does that mean — especially when you are cutting the whole linguistic side of this operation.)

Now, I know that outsiders like me can never really understand what is going on inside another institution. I have no idea what the student questionnaires are like, or the potential research submissions to the next Assessment Exercise. There will be all kinds of things going on that I know nothing off.

All the same, it doesnt take much to smell a commercial argument for academic change here.

That said, I’ve mentioned the existence of a facebook group for all this (I’ll give a link at the end), which already boasts over 3000 members and has generated about 30 pages of discussion/debate. Interestingly, the principal of RHUL felt a need to comment on the existence of the Facebook group in a post relayed via Sophia Haque:

This is a message from Royal Holloway’s Principal, Professor Paul Layzell:

“I am concerned to see this debate on Facebook and would like to add my contribution.

Classics has a strong tradition at Royal Holloway, and I believe it plays an important part in the academic portfolio of our institution. It is for this reason that we are currently exploring options to ensure that we can continue to include Classics in our programme of teaching and research. It is not our intention to ‘close Classics’ as some have interpreted our proposals, but to retain it in a form that is sustainable in the long-term.

‘Do nothing’ is not an option. As things stand, the department runs at a considerable deficit which we cannot address through growing student numbers because of the cap government places on our total student numbers. This situation will be made worse if proposals in the HE White Paper remove around 7% home/EU undergraduate numbers from institutions.

As a relatively small institution, we cannot afford heavy cross subsidies that might undermine the financial sustainability of our institution as a whole. Instead, we must find ways to ensure that each of our subject areas delivers research and teaching of a sufficient quality, that is popular with students, and affordable to us and them. We have put forward proposals to enable Classics to do just this, and we have invited our staff to put forward their own ideas. Our intention is protect a discipline that we value, and secure its long term future within our College.

I had hoped that we would be able to have those discussions within our community, rather than in the public domain. I am concerned that public debate will only worsen the situation; prospective students could easily misunderstand our proposals to sustain Classics with the incorrect impression that ‘closure’ was imminent. Such an impression would almost certainly result in the failure to attract students, with dire consequences.

I invite staff, students and alumni to engage with us in the debate within College. By Monday, we will have a site within our intranet, that will allow us to debate these issues amongst ourselves, and work out the best solution together. We are at the stage where we have identified a problem, and I would urge you to work with us to solve it, rather than challenge us publicly and exacerbate the situation beyond remedy”.

You can read some reactions to this in RHUL’s student newspaper: Principal asserts public debate over Classics proposals ‘will only worsen situation’. FWIW, I always get suspicious when powerful folks ‘don’t want to argue in front of the children’ …

Subsequent inquiries about this ‘discussion’ to take place on Monday (for how long?) suggests ‘outsiders’ won’t be allowed to voice their concerns thereon. Until then, the head of department has requested (in the same letter mentioned above):

Letters of support will be very welcome. These should be addressed to the Principal, Prof. Paul Layzell, but should be sent in the first instance NOT directly to him but to the Department, so that we can collect them to use as we see fit.

… they seem to be thinking primarily of actual paper-based letters, but Anne Sheppard’s email address is available here. The folks on facebook seem to be adamant that Mr. Layzell should not be mailed directly at this point.

An online petition has not been started near as I can tell, but other channels to voice support and/or monitor the situation would include the aforementioned facebook group:

… and on Twitter:

… not sure how the #SOSRHUL hashtag is working out …

We’ll keep monitoring events as they unfold …