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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 10:39 a.m.
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Petition appeals for Latin

674 rebuke Kennedy’s April decision on dead language

Beth Kevit | The Maine Campus

A Jan. 24 letter from University of Maine President Robert Kennedy to Faculty Senate President Michael Grillo indicates that three majors — Latin, German and women’s studies — are a step closer to the chopping block.

In response, fourth-year Latin and history student Jeremy Swist, with the help of faculty members, has circulated and submitted to administrators a 674-signature petition urging the university to “preserve a commitment to the liberal arts by maintaining full faculty positions in the Classics and courses in Latin and Greek grammar, literature and culture from the introductory to the 400-level.”

The petition features influential signees, including former UMaine President Peter Hoff, former Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, Yale University ancient history professor Donald Kagan, British classical scholar Peter Green and Irish classicist and philosopher John M. Dillon. It also features the signatures of a number of UMaine professors and students, as well as from individuals in Asia and Europe.

“Basically, it’s just a network of history professors, classics professors, [people from] various departments, well-wishers — a lot of connections,” Swist said.

On the petition, Dillon called the situation at UMaine “a sad descent into barbarism.”

Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Jeffrey Hecker said the wording of the petition could be somewhat misleading, directing signees to make untrue assumptions about the situation.

“There are some misconceptions there. We don’t have a department of classics,” Hecker said. “We have a single faculty member in our budget for teaching classics. We offer a Latin major and we offer courses in classics and offer classes in Greek.”

Hecker said the notable scholars on the list make him take the petition “very seriously,” but the misconceptions in the letter and the current budgetary situation override their pleas.

“I’m supportive of the spirit of the letter, but no university, at least I don’t think a university, would respond to a group of outsiders by making a commitment to whether people would be hired or not hired,” Hecker said. “That’s just not a reasonable way to run the place.”

Last semester, the faculty senate passed a resolution to support recommendations made by the four-person Program Creation and Reorganization Review Committee to continue with Kennedy’s suggestions to suspend bachelor’s degree programs in theater, forest ecosystem science, wood science and technology, and aquaculture made in April 2010.

However, the PCRRC also supported a one-year delay of April’s final recommendations by Kennedy to suspend majors in German, Latin and women’s studies.

“Unfortunately, I cannot endorse the PCRRC recommendations with respect to the suspension proposals relative to German, Latin and women’s studies,” Kennedy wrote to Grillo. “I believe that the decision I reached last spring at the conclusion of the university’s inclusive, comprehensive review process, although painful, is the correct decision under our current circumstances.”

Those involved directly with the Latin and classics fields are wondering how a major with one administering faculty member, Associate Professor of Classical Language and Literature Tina Passman, and a mere six degree students would save enough money to warrant the axe.

“I just think it’s a utilitarian outlook that doesn’t see the immediate benefit of these academic languages — German and Latin,” Swist said. “It’s the point of view that these disciplines won’t earn you money upon graduation. You don’t go to college to earn money. You go to college to become a well-rounded citizen and develop your intellectual capacity.”

Hecker said the decision to eliminate the major was strictly based on low enrollment and student retention. There are currently six students majoring in Latin at UMaine. In the last six years, Hecker said, there have been anywhere from zero to six students seeking majors in that field.

Only one student in the last five years, he said, earned a Latin degree. Lower-level courses, he said, have “reasonable enrollment” and are viable options to be kept.

“In essence, by retaining the major, we are committing Dr. Passman’s time to do that in the future. When I looked at it, it’s very hard to justify that resource for such a small number of students,” Hecker said.

Passman, reached Friday, said she has been the only person teaching Latin on campus for 25 years, “except for an adjunct or two.”

She said she does not understand why Kennedy would move to suspend the major now, as she has tenure and will not be asked to stop teaching even upper-level Latin courses due to the retention of a Latin minor.

“Why doesn’t he just wait until I retire?” she said. “I’m tenured and I’m going to be teaching Latin until all the current students receive their degrees. … The minor will necessitate that many of the same courses be available for students.”

“There’s not one cent that is saved — not one cent — by eliminating the Latin major,” Passman continued.

Passman said Hecker has been very supportive throughout the process and that he does not want to burden her with teaching Latin, as she also teaches classics and will serve as the director of the minor in peace and reconciliation studies next semester.

“The short-term savings are very small,” Hecker said in response to cost-savings concerns. “In the long-term, though, if we in fact move toward suspending it now … professor Passman will at some point retire or take a position somewhere else and we can then make our hard decisions within that sort of framework.”

Jay Bregman, a professor of ancient, intellectual and jazz history, echoed Passman’s sentiments about cost-savings and was strong in opposition of Kennedy.

“There’s one professor here — Tina Passman. That’s the major. It costs nothing … as a major. [Kennedy] just basically wants to do it because he’s basically a perverse S.O.B. who seems to have a hang-up about it,” Bregman said. “This guy is bad news.”

In 2001, Bregman said, Kennedy wanted to eliminate German and Latin to much opposition from faculty. Phi Beta Kappa, the history honors society, threatened to leave because of a bylaw within its national guidelines at the time that said any university with a chapter had to have a Latin major, he said.

“He was stopped,” Bregman, a 35-year veteran of UMaine, said. “Then, he got to be president. Because, basically, what this character does is find ways to amass power.”

Bregman called Kennedy “by far the worst president I’ve ever seen at this university by a mile.” He also said the president has moved the university in the direction of a technical school.

In the petition, James Warhola, a professor of political science, wrote it is “simply not acceptable for a state university to lack courses in the classical languages of Greek and Latin. The University of Maine is just that — a university, not a technical-vocational school.”

Michael Palmer, also a professor of political science who teaches political philosophy, wrote that until now, he has “never seen liberal education held [in] such low repute” at UMaine.

Bregman said the effects of losing the Latin program at UMaine could have a devastating impact on state education.

“It has been an old prophecy that this was going to happen,” he said. “But when it happens in a state like Maine, the place can really get hurt. It’s a small school.”

Passman said there are approximately 60 high school Latin programs in the state. She said she would continue to work with these programs and deliver her classes online, a process made easier as she converted her curriculum into an electronic format in the late 1990s.

“Nothing has changed except for the fact that we won’t have a major at the flagship institution,” she said. “It also means that anyone who wants to be a Latin teacher in this state will have to go elsewhere.”

Kennedy, through UMaine spokesman Joe Carr, declined a request for comment, citing time constraints.