The Harvard Crimson

A Proposal to Merge Harvard’s Small Language Programs Has Fallen Flat. What’s Next for the Humanities?

An internal document and interviews with professors and Arts and Humanities Dean Robin E. Kelsey suggest new directions for Harvard’s humanities. But a proposal that would combine four language programs has faced resistance from some faculty.
By Sami E. Turner

A Proposal to Merge Harvard’s Small Language Programs Has Fallen Flat. What’s Next for the Humanities?

An internal document and interviews with professors and Arts and Humanities Dean Robin E. Kelsey suggest new directions for Harvard’s humanities. But a proposal that would combine four language programs has faced resistance from some faculty.
By Rahem D. Hamid and Elias J. Schisgall

A new chapter may be coming to humanities education at Harvard.

A committee within the Arts and Humanities division has proposed a range of potential substantial changes, including the introduction of a concentration in Ethnicity, Indigeneity, Migration and the consolidation of three language concentrations and one secondary field into a new concentration, according to an internal document obtained by The Crimson.

The document, which was circulated among divisional faculty last spring, is part of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ three-year strategic planning process, which aims to examine the resources needed to improve education, financial stability, and faculty support.

In response to feedback from the faculty, however, the divisional strategic planning committee is unlikely to move forward with the language consolidation proposal, according to a member of the committee who was granted anonymity to discuss the committee’s private deliberations.

That proposal would create a new concentration, termed “Languages, Literatures, and Cultures,” which consolidate concentrations in Germanic Languages and Literatures, Romance Languages and Literatures, and Slavic Languages and Literatures as well as the secondary in Celtic Languages and Literatures.

The proposed LLC concentration has drawn significant backlash from faculty within the affected departments, who claim it would unfairly target small departments.

The document is provisional, and the Arts and Humanities strategic planning committee is “still very much in the midst of the planning process,” according to its chair, Arts and Humanities Dean Robin E. Kelsey.

Nonetheless, the document, which has not been previously reported, signals a fresh direction for the Arts and Humanities division, whose structure has been left largely unchanged even as concerns over the health of the humanities — at Harvard and throughout higher education — have grown.

“Our planning process has been motivated by a sense that interests of students and scholars no longer align as well as they once did with our curricular structure,” Kelsey said in an interview. “Our primary aim is to open up new pathways for both faculty and students in the curriculum.”

The specifics of these “new pathways,” however, remain a source of deep uncertainty — and, in the case of the language proposal, fervent contention — within the division, as the strategic planning committee enters its final year.

Boylston Hall houses Harvard's Department of the Classics, one of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' 18 Arts and Humanities concentrations.
Boylston Hall houses Harvard's Department of the Classics, one of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' 18 Arts and Humanities concentrations. By Aiyana G. White

The Rise and Fall of ‘Languages, Literatures, and Cultures’

The committee’s document proposes new courses of study for undergraduates in the division, focused largely on interdisciplinary fields of research. They include the expansion of the Ethnicity, Migration, Rights secondary into a full concentration, dubbed “Ethnicity, Indigeneity, Migration,” which comes amid sustained calls for a degree-granting ethnic studies department at Harvard.

It also proposes a new secondary field in “Integrated Humanities,” which includes tracks in “Medical Humanities,” “Civic and Legal Humanities,” and “Environment and Design.”

But the creation of LLC, one of the document’s most major — and most contested — proposals, may have already been scrapped.

According to the document, the LLC concentration would merge “the concentration of our ‘Language and Literature’ departments.” It would not include concentrations like East Asian Literatures and Civilizations or Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, which “encompass an even wider scope of historical matters, including governance and politics.”

The new concentration would include internal tracks and joint concentrations, allow for the study of languages outside existing departments, and serve as “a stronger platform from which to promote language study,” the document states.

But four faculty from across the affected departments told The Crimson they felt the proposal targeted their concentrations for having low numbers of undergraduate concentrators and appeared to be a stepping stone to consolidating the departments themselves.

The faculty said there was no compelling intellectual justification for the selection of concentrations included in LLC, which excludes similar concentrations in English and Comparative Literature.

The Crimson granted anonymity to these faculty members to speak candidly about a controversial internal matter without fear of retaliation from administrators.

The faculty also said the strategic planning process has been opaque and insufficiently open to faculty input. Some said they believed the LLC proposal was moving forward but did not know for certain because of sparse communication from Kelsey and the committee.

Kelsey again presented the proposal at a faculty retreat held in late August at the Science and Engineering Complex in Allston, which several faculty members said they took as an indication that the committee was moving forward with the proposal.

But a member of the committee said the LLC proposal was unlikely to move forward due to feedback from within the division.

In the interview, Kelsey said he presented the LLC proposal at the retreat “with hesitation,” due to the evolving nature of the committee’s discussions.

During several “lively” discussions with faculty in the spring, Kelsey said, “there was definitely more resistance from some quarters to the LLC concentration.”

“The strategic planning committee is now considering some other possible recommendations based on what we have learned,” Kelsey added. “So that’s the state of play.”

In an interview with The Crimson, Arts and Humanities Dean Robin Robin E. Kelsey said the proposal for an LLC concentration faced some faculty opposition during discussions.
In an interview with The Crimson, Arts and Humanities Dean Robin Robin E. Kelsey said the proposal for an LLC concentration faced some faculty opposition during discussions. By Ellis J. Yeo

In a follow-up email, Kelsey defended the intellectual basis of the LLC concentration, writing that the four constituent fields were “united by the commonality of their declared aspiration: the study of language and literature.” He said the English concentration focuses more on creative writing, and that there were “arguments for or against including Comparative Literature, which distinguishes itself by virtue of methodology.”

Kelsey also wrote he has been “communicating on a regular basis” with divisional faculty and that the committee has conducted “extensive outreach,” adding that it would be “absurd” to share a “blow-by-blow account” of every committee meeting. He reiterated that the strategic planning committee “welcomes proposals from FAS colleagues.”

Missed Opportunities

The committee’s proposal comes as the humanities face declining interest, both at Harvard and nationwide. Over the past 10 years, fewer and fewer students at Harvard are concentrating in the Arts and Humanities division as School of Engineering and Applied Sciences concentrations rise in popularity. Across the country, some small and underfunded universities are slashing humanities departments entirely.

David M. Stern, a professor of Comparative Literature, said the decline of the humanities — which he called “a very serious loss to American culture” — demonstrated “a real tendency towards professionalization that is certainly very anti-intellectualism.”

He also pointed out that undergraduate concentrations in the humanities are still seen as preparation for future graduate studies in that field and, ultimately, a position in academia — a conception he said ought to be abandoned as careers in academia become increasingly unattainable.

A report released by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences last week — also as part of the strategic planning process — highlighted the need for FAS graduate programs to be realistic with their students about an academic job market that has grown significantly more competitive.

Wesley M. Jacobsen, the director of the Japanese Language Program and a professor of the practice of Japanese Language, attributed the drop in interest in the humanities to the false perception that the job market outside of academia has soured for graduates from these fields.

“In fact, the kinds of skills that you’ve gained, perspectives that you obtain, are going to apply to any kind of career that you eventually enter,” he said.

Still, Kelsey said the strategic planning process was not launched “out of some panicked response to numbers,” but to facilitate new, interdisciplinary courses of study within the humanities.

Kelsey’s sentiment mirrors that of the document’s introduction, which says that the committee’s work “has not been a reaction to a perceived crisis in the arts and humanities at Harvard.”

“Rather, it has been a way to address a growing sense among certain faculty leaders that we are missing out on opportunities to draw more students and emerging scholars into our pursuits, and that more could be done to ensure that the arts and humanities thrive at Harvard and beyond in the decades ahead,” the document states.

For some faculty, however, the focus on working within the Arts and Humanities division may hinder the strategic planning committee’s ability to truly facilitate interdisciplinary academics.

Gojko J. Barjamovic, a lecturer in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, said proposals to restructure the humanities should focus on the “really interesting new stuff” taking place on the borders between the humanities and the sciences or social sciences.

“If you were to say, ‘Okay, we need to restructure because we need to accommodate change,’ why would you then limit that to the humanities?” Barjamovic said. “If you were to go through with that argument, in my view, you would have to say, ‘Okay, but then we also have to include all the other disciplines.’”

Derek Miller, a professor in the English department, said he wished the whole divisional strategic planning process “had been far more bold.”

“My instincts personally were that we would be better off starting with something that was big and broad and reaching as wide as possible, rather than keeping our questions within the division,” he said.

“I think this institution has the reputation and resources to afford to take greater risks in how we do things,” he added. “And then if we fail, we can go back to doing things the old way or try another model.”

In his emailed statement, Kelsey acknowledged the criticism that a true strategic planning initiative for the Arts and Humanities should extend beyond the division itself, calling it a “reasonable concern” that he has discussed with FAS Dean Hopi Hoekstra and the committee.

“Ultimately, I would like to see a combination of finding new ways to support cross FAS curricular initiatives and of hosting concentrations or secondary fields within the Arts & Humanities that accept courses in other Divisions and in SEAS,” he wrote.

Seth Robertson, a lecturer in the Philosophy Department, said while he is concerned about declining interest, he still feels “optimism about the humanities.”

“There’s so much fascinating, important work going on now,” he said. “It just expands what we’re doing, what we’re talking about, who we’re talking to, who we’re reading, who we’re listening to, and who our ideas are helping.”


The Arts and Humanities division, Kelsey said, is based on an antiquated organizational structure — one he said will need to adapt to the changing nature of the humanities.

“The department structure in the FAS was largely set in place between 1890 and 1969, and the world has changed a lot since then,” Kelsey said. “Environmental threats to planetary well-being, historical reckoning with social justice, the emergence of the digital era, the uncertain future of democracy — it just strikes many of us that it’s time to rethink how we organize what we do.”

Similarly, the planning document argues that for decades, the University has “shoehorned efforts to move into new areas of inquiry” into old infrastructure or “relegated them to standing committees reliant on fewer resources and volunteered ladder-faculty time.”

“Today, we need to become adept at metamorphosis and not simply accretion,” the document reads.

The document’s final section, itself titled “Further Metamorphosis,” proposes a “one-semester intensive review” every five years to consider additional changes to the divisional structure, including the possibility of changing departments, adding concentrations, and “combining/sunsetting existing concentrations.”

Several of the faculty members whose concentrations would have been rolled into LLC said they felt it could be the start of a slippery slope to more radical changes, including eliminating their small departments altogether.

While restructuring small departments is a “possibility,” Kelsey said, he would not “come very quickly to that conclusion,” citing the ongoing deliberations of the committee.

“It’s a wonderful thing to have small programs that are meeting the needs of students who are devoted to them, but we do have to keep our eye on the student body as a whole and making sure that we are delivering the experience of the arts and humanities that will best prepare our students as they go forth into the world,” he said.

Kelsey added that a preponderance of small departments and programs poses administrative burdens of its own. For instance, departments need to ensure compliance with governmental regulations, maintain digital presence, and administer their own programs.

Kelsey announced the approval of new administrative personnel in an email to Arts and Humanities affiliates last week as one of the first substantive changes resulting from the strategic planning process — a move he said was met with “widespread enthusiasm.”

Though the LLC proposal is not likely to move forward, some faculty say that some form of restructuring will be required.

“There has to be the flexibility in there to allow research to flourish and education to flourish, and in new fields that do not fit the traditional structures,” said Jacobsen, the Japanese Language Program director.

Kelsey acknowledged that potential restructuring will make some faculty anxious or frustrated about the status of their department, but he described this as an unavoidable aspect of implementing necessary changes.

“Anytime you pursue institutional change, people are going to be anxious about the uncertainty. There is no way to eliminate that anxiety, as much as one can regret its occurrence,” Kelsey said. “I’m confident that when all is said and done, we will have recommendations that will represent an effort to listen intently to the entire community.”

“Does that mean everyone’s going to agree with the recommendations? Absolutely not. But that’s the nature of the process,” he added.

—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at Follow him on X @eschisgall.

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