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Former Sanskrit Chair Remains Controversial

Students Grumble in Spite of Changes

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

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.

But reflecting upon his experiences, one graduate student in the department, an advisee of Witzel's, said Witzel lacked administrative and leadership skills.

"He's a good scholar," said the student, who requested anonymity. "He's not a good administrator."

Personality Conflicts

As chair and director of graduate studies of the department, Witzel played a major role in helping students plan their course of study.

But several graduate students cited personality conflicts with Witzel, call- ing him an academic who could not relate well with others.

Speaking with Witzel in his cluttered office, one is surrounded by a pile of books. He sits in the office with the lights turned off.

A graduate student, who requested anonymity, called the native of Poland a "tyrant."

"Witzel brought old European school attitudes," the student said. "The chair as tyrant. He could never adjust to the wider, more democratic, American approach."

When asked if he ran his department with a heavy hand, Witzel responded with a discussion of leadership styles.

One's outlook on a chair, Witzel said, "depends upon your individual perspective." Witzel, who was educated in West Germany, saw his chairs as "father figures."

Witzel, by all accounts, takes his academic pursuits seriously.

"[Witzel] is flexible if you work with him one-on-one," said a student who requested anonymity. "You have to come up with your own game plan, but he's very creative."

One graduate student relates the story of an attack Witzel made over the Indology Net-an e-mail subscription group that discusses Sanskrit studies-against a professor at the University of Chicago.

The graduate student said Witzel criticized the professor because they have had personal disagreements.

Witzel, however, said the dispute was entirely professional.

When asked about the incident, Witzel rushed for his bookshelf and pulled out a translation of a Sanskrit text and turned to a page covered with yellow dots.

Each dot, he said, represented a mistranslated word.

Witzel said many of the department's disagreements resulted from political witch hunts by students and faculty members.

"The point is [that] political games are played on all levels," Witzel said. "You must find out who uses whom."

Witzel added that he is "not a political person; on the contrary, I only defended myself. I was under constant attack."

Speaking of his resignation as department chair, Witzel said, "Certain people got what they wanted, and then there was peace."

December 1994 Meeting

Graduate student concerns became manifest in December 1994.

University officials asked the students to suggest possible improvements to the department, but they were afraid to respond, according to one graduate student.

But 17 students met at Dunster House on December 15 "to facilitate the preparation of an agenda of student concerns," according to minutes of the meeting taken by graduate student Sarah LeVine.

Although the minutes never explicitly blame Witzel for the department's problems, they are often critical of his decisions.

The minutes note that students must take an exam for which they translate a passage from the Mahabharata. Witzel, according to the notes, had designated the class a "hobby" and refused to accredit it.

The minutes were forwarded to administrators, prompting a stern warning written by Witzel in a department newsletter.

"Unfortunately, an immediate concern is one that mostly is of your own making. I refer, of course, to the Graduate Student meeting of December 15 and the so-called 'minutes' that your volunteer 'reporter' Ms. s. LeVine, has produced," Witzel wrote.

"The 'minutes' do more damage to the Department than the incessant rumor-mongering of the past two years," he wrote.

LeVine said Witzel threatened to sue her for taking notes during the meeting. Last night, Witzel said he could not clearly recall making such a threat, but added his attorney sent LeVine a letter.

Carlos A. Lopez, a graduate student and an advisee of Witzel's said the exchange marked a turning point in the department.

"I don't think that there were any issues that involved student when I first came to Harvard," Lopez said last week. "I knew before I came here that among the faculty in the department there were factions, but nothing that involved the students until last year."

Faculty Disputes

As tensions flared between graduate students and Witzel, disagreements among Sanskrit Department members continued raging.

When Witzel became chair of the department in 1987, he stepped into a department that was already highly political.

The department had been without a chair since 1984, and the search for a replacement was plagued with controversy, according to graduate students and Witzel.

The most explosive problem was the hiring of Enrica Garzilli as a lecturer on Sanskrit and Indian studies during the 1993-94 school year.

Last spring, Garzilli filed a lawsuit against Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion and of Indian Studies; Christoph J. Wolff, dean of the graduate school; Peter K. Bol, professor of Chinese history; and James W. Benson, former assistant professor of Sanskrit.

Garzilli alleged in the suit, which was amended and re-filed last week, that Eck and Benson made demeaning and harmful comments about her in departmental meeting and thus blocked her application to be a lecturer.

An exhibit in her complaint is a November 1993 letter from her attorney to Witzel, in which Witzel apologized for Benson's "uncollegial, disruptive, defamatory occurrences."

He wrote in a statement also filed in Garzilli's original lawsuit that the "defamed" Garzilli was a scholar of the highest ability, while Benson, the "defamer," had published noting but his dissertation and one article dealing with the same topic.

Witzel later withdrew the letter.

Benson now teaches at Oxford University and refused to comment about the incident.

One graduate student, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Benson left because he "could read the writing on the wall" and wanted to leave the department.

Eck, meanwhile, had not taught a course in Sanskrit since 1989, according to a 1994 letter from Witzel to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles.

"Faculty friction is old," Lopez said. "Somebody is always saying Eck doesn't necessarily get along with Professor Witzel."

Witzel said any disagreements were related to academic matters, not personality politics.

In their December 1994 meeting, graduate students asked the administration to clarify "the status of Ms. Garzilli."

"Though no longer a faculty member, she remains a fixture in the office, where she expends considerable sums on photocopying, long distance and overseas telephone call and the United Parcel Service," the minutes read.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Office of the General Council served Garzilli with a letter informing Garzilli she could never return to the department, according to University Attorney Allan A. Ryan Jr.

Garzilli and Witzel, however, continue their professional relationship.

Together they edit two on-line journals. Garzilli has also received an affiliation with Harvard Law School, though her exact position is unclear.

One graduate student complained that though the University has a no trespass order against Garzilli, "she has been around throughout the year."

Witzel disputed the accusation, saying Garzilli has obeyed the no-trespass order.

"She's very careful not to step inside. If she has to meet me, she calls the secretary."

Moving into the Future

Over the past year, graduate students said, Skjaervo has been largely successful in resolving the problems of the department, particularly those of the graduate students.

All of the five issues of "immediate concern" which the students raised in their December 15, 1994 meeting have been addressed by Skjaervo, students said.

Skjaervo said he sought to address student complaints about the vagueness of the department's requirements and insistence that a thesis prospectus, reading list and other general requirements be spelled out.

The new department chair met with each student to offer advice and provide them with "a better framework for their studies."

"[W]e have intensively occupied ourselves with our students," Skjaervo said.

Since Skjaervo became department chair, the department hired professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Leonard Willem J. van der Kuijp, who will become department chair next spring.

"Everything has been in a state of quiet," said one graduate student.

"Professor Skjaervo tightened things up a lot, and Professor Witzel receded into the background," said another.

One graduate student said some problems remain unsolved because Witzel remains a tenured professor in the department and sits on the oral exam committee before which all students must appear in order to obtain their dissertation.

"You ask if things are okay," the student said. "I would have to say they aren't."--Jonathan A. Lewin contributed to the reporting of this story.

I am quite content if I can do my research and my teaching.  Michael E. J Witzel

You ask me if things are okay. I would have to say they aren't.  a Sanskrit graduate student

He's a good scholar. He's not a good administrator.  a Sanskrit graduate studen

Speaking with Witzel in his cluttered office, one is surrounded by a pile of books. He sits in the office with the lights turned off.

A graduate student, who requested anonymity, called the native of Poland a "tyrant."

"Witzel brought old European school attitudes," the student said. "The chair as tyrant. He could never adjust to the wider, more democratic, American approach."

When asked if he ran his department with a heavy hand, Witzel responded with a discussion of leadership styles.

One's outlook on a chair, Witzel said, "depends upon your individual perspective." Witzel, who was educated in West Germany, saw his chairs as "father figures."

Witzel, by all accounts, takes his academic pursuits seriously.

"[Witzel] is flexible if you work with him one-on-one," said a student who requested anonymity. "You have to come up with your own game plan, but he's very creative."

One graduate student relates the story of an attack Witzel made over the Indology Net-an e-mail subscription group that discusses Sanskrit studies-against a professor at the University of Chicago.

The graduate student said Witzel criticized the professor because they have had personal disagreements.

Witzel, however, said the dispute was entirely professional.

When asked about the incident, Witzel rushed for his bookshelf and pulled out a translation of a Sanskrit text and turned to a page covered with yellow dots.

Each dot, he said, represented a mistranslated word.

Witzel said many of the department's disagreements resulted from political witch hunts by students and faculty members.

"The point is [that] political games are played on all levels," Witzel said. "You must find out who uses whom."

Witzel added that he is "not a political person; on the contrary, I only defended myself. I was under constant attack."

Speaking of his resignation as department chair, Witzel said, "Certain people got what they wanted, and then there was peace."

December 1994 Meeting

Graduate student concerns became manifest in December 1994.

University officials asked the students to suggest possible improvements to the department, but they were afraid to respond, according to one graduate student.

But 17 students met at Dunster House on December 15 "to facilitate the preparation of an agenda of student concerns," according to minutes of the meeting taken by graduate student Sarah LeVine.

Although the minutes never explicitly blame Witzel for the department's problems, they are often critical of his decisions.

The minutes note that students must take an exam for which they translate a passage from the Mahabharata. Witzel, according to the notes, had designated the class a "hobby" and refused to accredit it.

The minutes were forwarded to administrators, prompting a stern warning written by Witzel in a department newsletter.

"Unfortunately, an immediate concern is one that mostly is of your own making. I refer, of course, to the Graduate Student meeting of December 15 and the so-called 'minutes' that your volunteer 'reporter' Ms. s. LeVine, has produced," Witzel wrote.

"The 'minutes' do more damage to the Department than the incessant rumor-mongering of the past two years," he wrote.

LeVine said Witzel threatened to sue her for taking notes during the meeting. Last night, Witzel said he could not clearly recall making such a threat, but added his attorney sent LeVine a letter.

Carlos A. Lopez, a graduate student and an advisee of Witzel's said the exchange marked a turning point in the department.

"I don't think that there were any issues that involved student when I first came to Harvard," Lopez said last week. "I knew before I came here that among the faculty in the department there were factions, but nothing that involved the students until last year."

Faculty Disputes

As tensions flared between graduate students and Witzel, disagreements among Sanskrit Department members continued raging.

When Witzel became chair of the department in 1987, he stepped into a department that was already highly political.

The department had been without a chair since 1984, and the search for a replacement was plagued with controversy, according to graduate students and Witzel.

The most explosive problem was the hiring of Enrica Garzilli as a lecturer on Sanskrit and Indian studies during the 1993-94 school year.

Last spring, Garzilli filed a lawsuit against Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion and of Indian Studies; Christoph J. Wolff, dean of the graduate school; Peter K. Bol, professor of Chinese history; and James W. Benson, former assistant professor of Sanskrit.

Garzilli alleged in the suit, which was amended and re-filed last week, that Eck and Benson made demeaning and harmful comments about her in departmental meeting and thus blocked her application to be a lecturer.

An exhibit in her complaint is a November 1993 letter from her attorney to Witzel, in which Witzel apologized for Benson's "uncollegial, disruptive, defamatory occurrences."

He wrote in a statement also filed in Garzilli's original lawsuit that the "defamed" Garzilli was a scholar of the highest ability, while Benson, the "defamer," had published noting but his dissertation and one article dealing with the same topic.

Witzel later withdrew the letter.

Benson now teaches at Oxford University and refused to comment about the incident.

One graduate student, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Benson left because he "could read the writing on the wall" and wanted to leave the department.

Eck, meanwhile, had not taught a course in Sanskrit since 1989, according to a 1994 letter from Witzel to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles.

"Faculty friction is old," Lopez said. "Somebody is always saying Eck doesn't necessarily get along with Professor Witzel."

Witzel said any disagreements were related to academic matters, not personality politics.

In their December 1994 meeting, graduate students asked the administration to clarify "the status of Ms. Garzilli."

"Though no longer a faculty member, she remains a fixture in the office, where she expends considerable sums on photocopying, long distance and overseas telephone call and the United Parcel Service," the minutes read.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Office of the General Council served Garzilli with a letter informing Garzilli she could never return to the department, according to University Attorney Allan A. Ryan Jr.

Garzilli and Witzel, however, continue their professional relationship.

Together they edit two on-line journals. Garzilli has also received an affiliation with Harvard Law School, though her exact position is unclear.

One graduate student complained that though the University has a no trespass order against Garzilli, "she has been around throughout the year."

Witzel disputed the accusation, saying Garzilli has obeyed the no-trespass order.

"She's very careful not to step inside. If she has to meet me, she calls the secretary."

Moving into the Future

Over the past year, graduate students said, Skjaervo has been largely successful in resolving the problems of the department, particularly those of the graduate students.

All of the five issues of "immediate concern" which the students raised in their December 15, 1994 meeting have been addressed by Skjaervo, students said.

Skjaervo said he sought to address student complaints about the vagueness of the department's requirements and insistence that a thesis prospectus, reading list and other general requirements be spelled out.

The new department chair met with each student to offer advice and provide them with "a better framework for their studies."

"[W]e have intensively occupied ourselves with our students," Skjaervo said.

Since Skjaervo became department chair, the department hired professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Leonard Willem J. van der Kuijp, who will become department chair next spring.

"Everything has been in a state of quiet," said one graduate student.

"Professor Skjaervo tightened things up a lot, and Professor Witzel receded into the background," said another.

One graduate student said some problems remain unsolved because Witzel remains a tenured professor in the department and sits on the oral exam committee before which all students must appear in order to obtain their dissertation.

"You ask if things are okay," the student said. "I would have to say they aren't."--Jonathan A. Lewin contributed to the reporting of this story.

I am quite content if I can do my research and my teaching.  Michael E. J Witzel

You ask me if things are okay. I would have to say they aren't.  a Sanskrit graduate student

He's a good scholar. He's not a good administrator.  a Sanskrit graduate studen

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