Students Mourn Dept.

Linguistics' Future Appears Uncertain

A Harvard department is dying for the first time in almost four decades, drawing the expected ire of students and faculty while generating uncertainty about the future of a discipline that has existed for just 36 years.

The Department of Linguistics, now slated to become a committee, is at the center of a debate over whether linguistics should be treated as a distinct field or as part of an interdisciplinary approach to education.

The administration's decision last spring to change the status of the department is now facing strong defiance from students and faculty as well as national experts on linguistics, raising questions about how difficult it can be to kill a department.

The Yale powers-that-be tried to kill their linguistics department last year for budget reasons, only to fail after suffering continued attacks from students and faculty. Other schools are actually expanding their linguistic departments, reflecting the field's increasing popularity nationwide, scholars say.

And at Harvard, top deans say the linguisticsmove was pushed by ideology, not budgetaryconcerns.

In part for this reason, perhaps, even ifHarvard's department has only two seniorprofessors and 30 concentrators, the din ofprotest will not be quiet.


Yesterday, top administrators met withconcerned linguistics students about the future ofthe department.

Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles, Dean ofthe Graduate School of Arts and Sciences andacting chair of the department Christoph J. Wolffand Dean of Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buelleach had meetings with Genevieve Roach '94, JoelL. Derfner '95 and Glenn Davis '95.

Derfner and Roach say they wanted to find outwhy the administration made the decision totransform the department, and to explain why theyand the 28 other undergraduate linguisticsconcentrators are opposed to the decision.

"[Buell] was certainly receptive to us," saidRoach. "I think he understands what linguistics isa lot more now...why it's not an interdisciplinaryfield."

The interdisciplinary nature of linguistics hasbeen one of the main issues of contention over thedecision.

The administration has said that "thefundamental interdisciplinary nature oflinguistics suggests that an instructional programin linguistics conducted under theauspices of a more broadly based faculty committeerather than a small department."

But scholars in the field have denied thatlinguistics is "inherently interdisciplinary,"saying instead that it has its own independentacademic validity.

"The administration doesn't get it straight,"said Treasurer-Secretary of the LinguisticsSociety of America (LSA) Frederick Newmeyer. "Itis true that linguistics has implications in otherfields, but that doesn't mean [it] is not adepartment on its own."

The LSA, which is the largest linguisticssociety in the world, sent a letter Wednesdaycriticizing the administration's decision.

Knowles, who had not yet received the letter,presented the administration's defense of thedecision that same day, saying that the bestinterests of the students are their main concern.