The last time Harvard abolished a department was four decades ago, when the Department of Geography went defunct. If the University wants to resume this practice, it had better explain why.
This past summer, Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles appointed an advisory committee charged with determining how to restructure Linguistics from a department to a committee. The Advisory committee will likely make its recommendation to the faculty this spring.
The University's explanations for considering disbanding Linguistics have been thin at best. The administration points ambiguously to "problems" in the department. Knowles said cryptically that "the department is not serving the students' best interests."
The administration also claims that linguistics is really an interdisciplinary field, and that students would be better served by a committee that draws faculty from other departments. But as students and linguists point out, the discipline of linguistics embodies concepts and theories that aren't shared by other fields. If linguistics students are to receive a grounding in the discipline, linguistics experts must teach them the fundamentals.
The administration would have student believe that the change will leave the quality of instruction undiminished. But making Linguistics a committee would drastically reduce Harvard's chances of recruiting top academics in the field.
Because committees cannot support tenured professors, a linguist would have to join Harvard with a joint appointment in another field. It is not at all clear that other department, such as Philosophy, Computer Science or Romance Languages, will be willing to bear the financial burden of hiring professors who want to teach linguistics.
It is clear that the Linguistics Department has had its problems; currently, the department's chair is a professor of music. And the last time the department hired tenured professors was more than two decades ago. In addition, linguistics only has 30 concentrators. But neither its tenured faculty shortage nor the department's size are reasons for disbanding it. Instead, Harvard ought to try harder to revitalize its Linguistics, Department by bringing in some new professors. Rebuilding not wrecking, is the answer to the Linguistics Department's woes.
The University is obviously not obligated to maintain all fields of study as departments. Committee status is a reasonable compromise that makes sense for some academic fields.
But the University has yet to make the case for demoting Linguistics, and it has not responded adequately to the concerns of students in the department. Linguistics students--and anyone with a stake in Harvard's academics--deserve far more explanation than Faculty officials have been willing to provide.
Deciding to disband a department is a serious undertaking Unfortunately, the administration seems to be taking it far too lightly.