May 5, 2010

Russian Program Faces Upheaval

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The undergraduate Russian major may be discontinued next year and the department of Russian may be consolidated into the comparative literature department, according to Prof. Gavriel Shapiro, Russian.

Russian department faculty received word Monday that the Russian major will be frozen in the fall as part of administrative efforts to restructure resources.

Senior Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Walter Cohen, a professor of comparative literature, declined to provide details about the proposed changes to the Russian major and department.

“Since the start of the semester, we in the College Dean’s office have been in extended discussion with Slavic studies faculty in Arts and Sciences, both those in the Russian Department and those in other departments — specifically, Comparative Literature, Government, History, and Linguistics,” Cohen said in an e-mail. “A committee of those faculty is now considering the future of Slavic studies at Cornell.”

The committee is debating the establishment of “an undergraduate Slavic Studies major and a Ph.D. program in Slavic Studies,” Cohen stated. He said he would give no definitive answer to the fate of the undergraduate Russian major or the future of a potential graduate program “until [the administration] can review and discuss the committee’s report.”

The chair of the committee, Prof. Matthew Evangelista, government, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

The Bylaws for the Faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences state that it is the “duty of the college faculty” to “perscribe and define courses of study … determine the requirements for such degrees as are offered to students under their jurisdiction … and in general to exercise jurisdiction over the academic interests of students and all other coeducational matters.”

“We [the Russian faculty] were not presented with the idea — as far as I know — of suspending the Russian department or getting rid of the Russian major but we were presented with the suggestion of creating a new interdisciplinary major,” said Nancy Pollak, chair of the department of Russian. Earlier discussions involved preserving the Russian major and creating an interdisciplinary major, she said.

The Russian department currently provides instruction in Russian literature and language, as well as several other Slavic languages, including Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Ukrainian, according to Prof. Slava Paperno, director of the Russian language division. Shapiro said the committee is considering appending the Russian department to comparative literature, citing an e-mail communication from Neil Saccamano, chair of the department of comparative literature. Saccamano declined to comment for this story.

“I have nothing to say right now about this topic, since Comparative Literature has nothing to do with the Russian major and our relationship to the faculty in Russian has not yet been decided,” Saccamano stated in an e-mail.

According to Shapiro, Pollak, Paperno and other members of the Russian faculty, the department was not directly informed by the administration of impending changes.

“In a bizarre turn of events, the Russian department actually learned of the decision to freeze the Russian major from a communication that came from the dean’s office to the department’s manager,” Paperno stated.

The e-mail — dated May 3 — from Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences Jane Pedersen to Russian department manager Phani Love stated: “My understanding is that the Russian majoris being frozen for now (current majors finish, but no new ones admitted).”

Pedersen’s e-mail cited the approaching deadline for the 2010-2011 Courses of Study Catalog for Arts and Sciences as the reason for the seemingly-abrupt decision.

“I heard about the changes indirectly at first, and I later got confirmation from Dean Walter Cohen,” Pollak verified. “Once I confirmed what was going on, I called other department members.”

Professors in the department have reacted unfavorably towards the University’s efforts to restructure the Russian department and major.

Prof. Savely Senderovich, Russian, had heard nothing of administrative decisions on the Russian department until he was contacted by The Sun shortly after Pollak confirmed the news.

Shapiro expressed disappointment with what he called the administration’s apparent lack of transparency.

“The interesting thing about the administration is that they don’t tell us anything,” Shapiro said. “We learn things in a very roundabout way.”

Shapiro called for transparency in the administration, urging an open meeting with faculty members in the Russian department to lay all the options on the table.

Paperno agreed. “You would expect decisions of this sort to be made by the faculty, or at least by the administration in consultation with the faculty, but that was not the way it was done this time,” he stated. “It is very unclear to the Russian faculty why the Russian major had to be frozen. What can possibly be gained from this?”

Faculty in the Russian department said they have still not received a formal announcement from the Office of the Dean.

“I was not consulted by the college administration — after 33 years at Cornell and having made a name for Cornell in the international field of Russian literature and culture,” Senderovich stated.

According to Shapiro and Senderovich, the literature division would be difficult to continue on its own without hiring new faculty.

On Jul. 1, Senderovich and Prof. Patricia Carden, Russian, will retire, leaving only five faculty members in the Russian department: Shapiro and Pollak in the literature division and Paperno and Prof. Viktoria Tsimberov, Russian, and Prof. Raissa Krivitsky, Russian, in language.

“A program in a scholarly discipline is not a corn field: it cannot be kept fallow until you decided to sow it again,” Senderovich said in an e-mail. “A scholarly discipline must have a continuity; if a tradition has been developed, it must be kept up. Today, there is no base for the cultivation of Russian literature at Cornell.”

Pollak added that he was still unsure about which specific courses would be cut.

In order to restore Cornell’s Russian literature program to a competitive standard, the University must hire a senior scholar from an outside institution in addition to assistant professors to begin rebuilding, Senderovich said.

“This [scenario] is a utopia,” he stated, in light of the University’s past decisions and current financial struggles.

“Cornell has lost a discipline — a major discipline in the humanities in which it was a leader,” Senderovich stated.

Laura-Nicole Sisson ’11, an undergraduate Russian major, chose to pursue her major due to “a specific interest in Russian literature.”

“This narrowing of focus was critical to my college search, there are not many Universities that offer majors in Russian — or Russian Area Studies/Slavic Languages and Linguistics — and Cornell was one of them,” Sisson said in an e-mail. “I had never even considered applying to Cornell before discovering this.”

Sisson and the other six current Russian majors will be allowed to continue their studies and graduate with degrees in Russian, Pollak said.

Sisson, a double major in Russian and psychology, cited the advantages of the learning experience gained from small Russian language and literature classes, expressing hope that the department would not be absorbed into a larger one.

“Most of the students I’m studying with in my Russian 3304 class right now I’ve been studying with since the beginning of my freshman year and the same goes with our teachers,” Sisson stated. “In my Russian courses I feel like I have an identity, that the professors know who I am and that I am part of a community; I’m more than just Laura-Nicole Sisson, ID number 2001062, class of 2011, I’m Лера, and even though that isn’t close to my real name, I feel like it means more in Russian class than my real name does in any other part of the University.”

She continued, “You can’t have a liberal arts education without the humanities, and I personally believe that study of language is critical not only for the sake of being well-rounded, but as an important part of a modern education.”

Gavriel Shapiro — who, along with Nancy Pollak, has been teaching Russian literature at Cornell since 1987 — referred to departmental changes made back in 1997 whose repercussions, Shapiro said, are being felt today.

At the time, the administration was considering appending Russian literature to comparative literature and, at the same time, eliminated a graduate program in Slavic studies, which had been under the Russian department.

Dimitri Nabokov, son of famed author and former Cornell professor Valdimir Nabokov, wrote an open letter in The Sun at the time, criticizing the administration for its opinions towards programs that “should be sources of pride, not objects of corporate cost-cutting.” Due to negative backlash, the plans for combining the Russian literature program with the comparative literature department were tabled.

“The destruction of Russian department was a long-term project of the Arts and Sciences administration launched by the Dean [of Arts and Sciences] Philip Lewis with the support of the then Dean of Graduate School Walter Cohen about 20 years ago,” Senderovich stated.

“First they closed a thriving and perhaps the best in the country graduate program in Russian literature,” he continued. “Other universities had Slavic departments within which Russian literature was only a part — no one had such a comprehensive program as was developed by Prof. Patricia Carden and me at Cornell; we were unique.”

Senderovich explained that certain qualified undergraduate Russian majors were permitted to take courses at the graduate level when the Slavic Studies Ph.D. program was in place.

The major “has never been the same since,” he added.

With Senderovich and Carden retiring at the end of this spring semester, Senderovich and Shapiro both said that the administration may have chosen to move ahead with the proposed changes due to the retirement of Senderovich and Carden at the end of this semester.

“All [this] was foreseen … [These changes are] a result of consistency in the policies of a number of successive administrations which have been equal to each other in their arrogance and lack of understanding of the mission of the university to be a home for traditional fields of knowledge,” Senderovich stated.

If the changes are implemented, Shapiro said, “Cornell will have the dubious distinction of being the only Ivy League school without [an undergraduate] Russian department.”

Shapiro urged the administration to reconsider its decisions.

“[The administration] treats us like we are some sort of pawns that they can move us without consideration … for any academic respect,” Shapiro said. “It’s unconscionable,” he continued. “I cannot really digest that.”

“I am here to teach,” he continued. “I am here to have research and scholarship. If [the administration] attempts to undermine that, I will be fighting with whatever modest means I have.”

Original Author: Dani Neuharth-Keusch