PLU professor argues classics study more than 'discipline of dead white men'
Things got emotional halfway through my interview with Pacific Lutheran University classics professor Eric Nelson.
“You feel utterly betrayed. You feel really dispirited and devalued,” Nelson told me, tears beginning to well in his eyes.
That was Thursday morning at PLU, where I went to talk with the professor about what might become of his classics department.
It was not an easy conversation.
By Christmas, the university’s board of regents could vote to do away with the classics at PLU, potentially leaving, at the very least, Nelson and another full-time colleague out of a job.
That would be a gut punch to those two professors, to be sure.
More disheartening on a larger scale would be gutting a program that’s long been a staple of the liberal arts.
The prospect stinks. It would be a tragedy Sophocles could have written.
You feel utterly betrayed. You feel really dispirited and devalued.
Pacific Lutheran University classics professor Eric Nelson on provisional recommendations by the school’s Faculty Joint Committee to eliminate the classics program
All told, 31 faculty members are facing the grim prospects of being let go at PLU. A number of disciplines would feel cuts. But the classics — at least at this preliminary juncture — are staring at complete extinction.
That PLU is forced to contemplate such a difficult move marks an unfortunate sign of the times, both at the school and academia in general. With enrollment down at PLU since the Great Recession, faculty cuts are necessary to ensure sustainability at the nearly 130-year-old institution.
After speaking with numerous sources, it became apparent that no one at PLU is relishing this responsibility, and that the weighty decisions aren’t being taken lightly.
Still, it is a sad indictment of the state of higher education that the liberal arts and humanities — and staples like the classics — have increasingly been forced to prove their worth at universities far and wide.
And that they often have trouble doing so is a big part of the problem, especially when judged by cold metrics like enrollment numbers and shortsighted assumptions about whether or not a course of study has an easily identifiable path to the job market.
“As an institution grounded in the liberal arts, if you don’t have a classics program, you’re adrift,” Nelson said. “Because you don’t have that context that helps tie you to your past.”
Context is a word Nelson returned to time and time again during our conversation.
Because that’s what the classics offer, and why they’ve long been a cornerstone of a liberal-arts education.
Focused on ancient Greece and Rome — and the civilizations’ languages, culture, philosophy and history — the classics can help provide students with “a toolkit for addressing human suffering, human validation, human expression, and critical thinking,” Nelson said.
Nelson pointed out that while very few of his students become classicists, he believes employers see the value in the well-rounded thinkers the field fosters. Nelson’s students have gone on to professional careers in law, archeology, medicine and tech, among other things.
Keith Cooper is a professor in PLU’s philosophy department and co-chair of the school’s 20-person Faculty Joint Committee, which crafted the provisional proposal that put the classics on the chopping block.
It’s clear from speaking with Cooper that the long process that led to this point was fraught with anguish.
While he declined to go into detail of the discussions that led to the committee’s provisional recommendations, and how some programs were identified for more cuts than others, Cooper was able to generally describe the process. He said it involved looking at quantitative data, like the number of credit hours offered by a program,and an academic unit’s financial contribution to the university — areas where, one can argue, the classics at PLU struggle — and at qualitative data, in the form of explanatory reports from department chairs.
Job-market prospects did not weigh heavily in the decision, Cooper explained, though he acknowledged that “PLU faculty are very aware of the loans that most of our students take out, and the need to have good careers, both for their personal satisfaction and just to pay for college.” He said the committee saw one of its most important objectives as “preserving the strengths of a liberal arts education.”
Specifically, Cooper said ,classics majors “are very well prepared for various kinds of careers.”
Yet, here we are.
Every program that is being considered for reduction or elimination is, in our judgment, a high-quality program that serves our students well. Anything we need to stop offering, or offer less of, will be a loss to the university. And that will include classics, if the board of regents ends up eliminating that program.
Keith Cooper, a philosophy professor at PLU, and co-chair of the school’s Faculty Joint Committee
“We can’t continue to do everything (PLU) is doing now, educationally,” Cooper, a 33-year employee of the school, said of the financial realities. “So difficult decisions need to be made about how we best serve our current students.
“Every program that is being considered for reduction or elimination is, in our judgment, a high-quality program that serves our students well. Anything we need to stop offering, or offer less of, will be a loss to the university. And that will include classics, if the board of regents ends up eliminating that program.”
For Ashley Mindnich, a 21-year-old senior at PLU, such an outcome would be heartbreaking.
Originally from Bellingham, Mindnich arrived at the college unsure of what she wanted to study.
Today, Mindnich is in her final semester at the school, planning to pursue a law degree once she polishes off a double major in philosophy and classical studies.
She recalled the Latin class that helped solidify her decision to pursue her course of study.
“It was the hardest class I ever took, and the rigor gave me so many skills — for philosophy, for writing and for reading,” Mindnich said. “Learning Latin and Greek, it’s like math with words. It’s very calculated, very intense and detailed. I felt like I could perform better as a student after taking Latin.”
Taking that first Latin class, Mindnich said, was “the best decision I ever made.”
Now PLU has a difficult decision about whether future students will have the same opportunity. I don’t envy the university. There are no easy answers.
But here’s hoping the classics get a reprieve.