Gisela Striker’s Exit Casts Program In Doubt

Philosophy and Classics Professor Gisela Striker—who attempted to foster an interdisciplinary graduate program in the study of ancient philosophy during her nearly two decades at Harvard—will retire after the end of this academic year.

Striker said that the program “never really got going” because it required more faculty members who were never hired. As a result, she said, the program has had only six Ph.D. students in the past 20 years—four in the classics department and two in the philosophy department.

And these low enrollment figures, she added, are due to the limited number of Harvard faculty capable of teaching ancient philosophy at the graduate level. Aside from Striker, only Rusty Jones, a newly hired assistant professor in the philosophy department, and her former doctoral student Mark J. Schiefsky, the classics department’s director of undergraduate studies, specialize in the field.

“Graduate students prefer to go to places where there are four, not just one-and-a-half people,” Striker said, referring to Princeton’s four senior faculty members in the field of ancient philosophy.

According to Schiefsky, Harvard’s graduate program in ancient philosophy currently has no students enrolled, either on the philosophy or classics side. Peer institutions across the country, though, boast stronger enrollment figures.

According to Josephine Kelly, graduate administrator for Princeton’s philosophy department, 12 students are currently pursuing Ph.D.s in the field of ancient philosophy, while Yale has four ancient philosophy graduate students, according to Yale Professor Verity Harte.

“At Harvard, I appreciated the fact that I could work in the original languages of Latin and Greek, and the students here are the best in the world,” Striker said. “But what this illustrates is that so-called interdisciplinary programs which are always said to be welcome don’t have much of a chance because they tend to be understaffed.”

Schiefsky expressed concern about the future of Harvard’s program after Striker’s departure.

“If there’s to be a really thriving program, there needs to be another person, ideally with a joint appointment in both departments,” he said. “I don’t think many prospective graduate students in ancient philosophy will choose Harvard if there are only two of us here.”

He also voiced regrets over the departure of a friend, fellow colleague, and former dissertation advisor. In the 1990s, Striker had supervised his research on ancient medicine, specifically on the ways in which Hippocratic texts influenced Plato and Aristotle. And since Schiefsky earned tenure in 2007, the two had taught together in the ancient philosophy program.

“For me, it’s a tremendous loss, just personally,” said Schiefsky.

For her part, Striker—who will officially retire in June 2011 after spending the spring on sabbatical—said she is contemplating a return to her native Germany.

“I’m not quite sure what comes next,” she said. “I thought there might still be some students I would work with, but that is clearly not the case. I may go back to Germany because my children live there and my grandchildren, and that’s the place where I want to die.”

—Staff writer James K. Mcauley can be reached at mcauley@fas.harvard.edu.

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