The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Students and faculty fight to save classics department at Howard University

The university said classes offered in the department will be dispersed to other academic units

Howard University has moved to dissolve its classics department, frustrating students and professors connected to the program. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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When Camille Ross arrived at Howard University in the fall of 2019, she thought her passion was in computer engineering.

But after what she called a “scheduling fluke,” she ended up in Howard’s classics department, studying Latin. Ross loved the class and her professor so much she switched degree tracks, opting instead to pursue an interdisciplinary humanities degree with a specialization in ancient and modern history.

“I was really taken with the department,” Ross said about the classics division.

Ross said she was disappointed to learn recently that Howard is planning to dissolve the classics department. A handful of classes taught within the division will be absorbed into other liberal arts departments, university officials said.

The decision has left students and professors scrambling to save the department, saying Howard is the only historically Black university with a classics department. A spokeswoman for the university did not immediately confirm that.

The decision has frustrated those within the department, who argue that in a field dominated by White scholars, it is important to keep the stand-alone classics division at the school.

Classical history is also Black history, said Anika Prather, an adjunct professor in Howard’s classics department.

“In most college classics departments, they will read these texts and will skip right over the fact that they’re from Ethiopia. The world of the ancient times was a really integrated, diverse society,” Prather said. “If we lose it, we lose a piece of all of us.”

The decision to dissolve the department comes after a three-year review of Howard’s academic programs, said Alonda Thomas, a spokeswoman for the university. Officials determined the classics department, which does not offer a major, could be disbanded and its courses dispersed to other academic units, “which will allow the university to function more effectively and efficiently,” Thomas said.

Officials in a report also said that demand for the minors offered within the department — Greek, Latin and classical civilizations — has remained relatively flat. They advised university leaders to dissolve the unit, but encouraged investments in other areas of the humanities, including English and philosophy.

Ross said it is difficult to watch classics dissolve while other departments, particularly in the science and math fields, get a boost.

Harvard University professor Cornel West, in an op-ed he co-wrote for The Washington Post, said that by removing the department, the university is “diminishing the light of wisdom and truth” that inspired freedom fighters such as Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ross and others have also rallied around professors, four of whom without tenure will be let go once their contracts expire, said Rubin Patterson, dean of Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences. Four professors with tenure will be placed in other liberal arts departments.

“There are plenty of students here who care deeply about the classics,” said Sarena Straughter, who is studying political science and Latin. “It’s really necessary to keep the focus on Black students in the classics and making sure that they have the same chance of attaining that as any other student does in the U.S.”

Straughter, in a final attempt to persuade Howard to keep the classics department intact, has spent the past several days monitoring a petition that has garnered more than 5,000 signatures and endorsements from students, faculty, alumni and classics departments at universities around the world.

Several faculty from the University of California at Santa Barbara have signed on, said Dorota Dutsch, chair of the school’s classics department. The university in 2019 invited four Howard students to the campus to study Greek — first on campus and then on a two-week excursion in Greece. Dutsch said the students are still involved in classical studies.

“We really are eager to welcome students of color and graduate students of color because we really want faculty to be more diverse,” Dutsch said. “Howard was absolutely crucial for this change within the discipline to occur.”

The community of scholars in classics is small but tightknit. Dutsch said she is worried about what will happen to that community at Howard.

“It’s a delicate fabric,” Dutsch said. “These people need to be together.”

Prather, who started teaching humanities courses at Howard last fall, said she will leave the university when her contract with the university expires in May.

“To get rid of classics or the study of the canon is to disconnect this current generation from any connection to understanding the theories that undergird activism as we know it today,” Prather said. “The classics department, although small, is a center for classics studies. Outside of that, just spread out, it loses its place.”