Former Sanskrit Chair Remains Controversial

Students Grumble in Spite of Changes

During the 1994-95 school year, the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies was mired in turmoil.

A former lecturer had filed suit against three professors and the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for unspecified damages, students had met to discuss a litany of complaints and the chair of the department had threatened to sue one of the students in retaliation for her role in the meeting.

The department chair, Wales Professor of Sanskrit Michael E.J. Witzel, was at the heart of the controversy.

Witzel, in consultation with University officials, stepped down as department chair on January 30, 1995, but has retained his role as the department's only tenured professor of Sanskrit.

In the fall of 1995, the University chose Khan Professor of Iranian Studies P. Oktor Skjaervo--who was a member of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the time--as the Sanskrit Department's next chair.

His job? To put the department back together again.

Most observers feel Skjaervo has been successful in brokering a peace. But latent tensions remain.

Many of them concern Witzel.

Stepping Down as Chair

Witzel quickly rose to the top of the Sanskrit Department, becoming its chair after spending only one year as a visiting professor.

In the tiny department, which never had more than seven professors and lecturers during Witzel's tenure, he soldiered all of the administrative duties and rarely had adequate support staff, according to Witzel.

Witzel said he drew little satisfaction from chairing the department. He is pleased to have returned to his scholarship and his classroom duties, he said in an interview last week.

"Do you think I wanted to be chair for longer than six years?" Witzel asked.

"I am quite content if I can do my research and my teaching," Witzel said. "I don't relish the chair, I regard it as a duty."

During his tenure, the department's size grew from about five graduate students in 1987 to about 25 this year.