Sanskrit Merger Abruptly Dropped

Faculty vote against move

The Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies voted unanimously on Friday against merging with the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, despite prior indications that its faculty members supported the move.

Both departments had previously voted unanimously to propose the idea of a merger to Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles. The merger won the Faculty Council’s endorsement two weeks ago, and before Friday’s decision it was scheduled for discussion at the full Faculty meeting tomorrow.

The merger has been taken off the agenda and will not be discussed in the future unless Sanskrit makes a new proposal, according to Peter K. Bol, chair of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

Knowles expressed disappointment at the vote.

“I am sorry that so much work by so many colleagues who had hoped to strengthen our presence in South Asian humanities should have come to naught,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Bol said that he was surprised at the outcome of the vote, which he learned from an e-mail the department sent to Knowles and copied to him, and that Sanskrit had given him “no reason at all” for its decision.

According to Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies Diana L. Eck, one of three senior members in the department, Sanskrit’s initial vote in favor of the merger was simply a proposal to explore the possibility of joining the two departments. The position was taken well before Knowles had developed the specifics of his plan for the idea’s execution, Eck said.

She said Sanskrit voted to explore the possibility because Knowles had told the department that he would grant two new appointments in South Asian studies only if it merged.

After reviewing the proposal in detail, Eck said, department faculty felt that emphasis on South Asian studies might be lost in an Asian Languages and Civilizations department that is structured—as East Asian Languages and Civilizations now is—according to methodological discipline rather than by region.

“It seemed that it might dilute our own energies by merging with a much larger faculty in East Asia, a faculty that also is trying to overcome its regional emphasis towards a more disciplinary emphasis,” Eck said.

In addition, once the proposal became well known, a number of Sanskrit concentrators and faculty in other departments expressed strong concern over the merger.

“It seemed to be a proposal that implied the way to strengthen smaller departments was merging them with larger ones,” Eck said. “Both departments would have had to give up their identities. The issue had not been discussed widely outside of Sanskrit and East Asian. It seemed that the breadth of consultation on the wisdom of this had not been sufficiently wide to go ahead at this time.”

Some professors in other small humanities departments—many of which share some intellectual interests with the Sanskrit department—said they should have been informed earlier in the process.

“I would have thought my Department might have been brought more into consultation, and I am very concerned about the manner in which this arrangement has proceeded,” Classics chair Richard F. Thomas wrote in an e-mail.

The two appointments in South Asian studies that would have gone to the merged department are no longer allocated, leaving Knowles’ successor to determine whether to grant the autonomous Sanskrit department additional faculty slots.

Bol said that “the fact that Harvard might not be able to have [new professors studying South Asia] is a loss to all of us.”

But Eck said Sanskrit felt that gains in new appointments would be outweighed by the loss of its independence.

“In the last analysis, even students seemed unswayed by the promise of new positions under a merger and the withholding of positions without a merger,” she said. “We think it is wiser to negotiate a stronger South Asian department that would give full intellectual recognition to the complexity and significance of South Asia.”

An e-mail sent to Sanskrit concentrators by Sanskrit student representative Meghan C. Howard ’04 said Associate Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies Stephanie W. Jamison suggested at the meeting that Sanskrit might follow the path of the Linguistics department. Since Knowles appointed a committee to explore dissolving Linguistics in 1993, the department has hired multiple senior professors.

The e-mail also suggested that the department’s name might be changed to South Asian Languages and Civilizations, bringing it into line with the nomenclature used by most regional studies departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Bol said that despite the unexpected reversal, East Asian Studies concentrators for the upcoming academic year will not be affected.

Leonard van der Kuijp, chair of the Sanskrit and Indian Studies department, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

—Dan Rosenheck can be reached at rosenhec@fas.harvard.edu.