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Its future in doubt,
NELC rallies support

Yale’s department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC)—stellar by some accounts but troubled according to others—may be on the chopping block, and alumni and colleagues worldwide are rallying to its defense.

More than 600 people have signed an online petition headed “Yale University: Don't Restructure NELC.” The signers, whom supporters call an “international Who’s Who” of scholars in the field, are responding to the appointment of an ad hoc committee charged with recommending whether the department should remain intact, be disbanded—with faculty assigned to other departments—or take on some new configuration.

“My answer is an emphatic NO to any restructuring,” says the petition, written by NELC alumna Alice Slotsky ’92PhD. “The optimal configuration is what NELC has been, and would continue to be, given the administrative support it has long sought and richly merits.”

The committee, appointed last fall, is due to report by April 1.

Tamar Gendler ’87, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, says in an e-mail to the Yale Alumni Magazine that she and other administrators share an “unwavering commitment to Yale’s continued leadership in teaching and research in the areas covered by NELC,” which include Egyptology, Arabic studies, and Assyriology.

At the same time, “we face an unprecedented opportunity to think broadly and imaginatively about the optimal configuration for pursuing research and teaching in these areas,” Gendler says.

She declines to explain why this unprecendented opportunity exists or whether it is connected with a scandal two years ago, in which Egyptology professor John Darnell was suspended from the university and ousted as NELC chairman after acknowledging that he had an affair with one of his students, then participated in NELC decisions to hire and promote her. All of those actions violated faculty rules.

At the time, some graduate students complained that the relationship between Darnell and the junior colleague, Colleen Manassa ’01, ’05PhD (who have since married), created a hostile environment. The couple are the department’s only two Egyptologists.

NELC has operated under acting department chairs for the past two years. The current acting chair is Christina Kraus, a professor of Latin from the classics department. Darnell, who has returned from his suspension, is banned from administrative positions until 2023, and the Egyptology program is barred from admitting new graduate students until fall 2016.

What’s more, the administration has unilaterally reduced the number of Arabic language instructors and denied NELC permission to replace—even temporarily—a full professor who left last year, complains Karen Foster ’76PhD, a NELC alumna and lecturer.

“The department’s right to self-determination is the fundamental issue,” Foster says. “These kinds of things are just not supposed to happen in an academic community.”

Foster and Slotsky say the Darnell scandal should have no bearing on NELC’s future. Besides, the administration’s “indifference to NELC”—sometimes edging into “overtly hostile” attitudes—long predate those events, Foster says.

Gendler declines comment, except to say, “These concerns precede my administration.” She took on the newly created Faculty of Arts and Sciences deanship last July.

Asked whether other departments should expect a similar examination, she replies: “Yes, we hope to undertake a series of thoughtful and constructive reviews of departments and divisions in the coming years.”

The ad hoc committee on NELC “has been widely consultative in its activities, and has held one-on-one interviews with every member of the NELC faculty, with its staff, its graduate students, and many others,” Gendler adds.

She instructed the committee to consider “the advantages and disadvantages” of keeping NELC as it is; of redistributing NELC’s seven ladder faculty positions to existing departments; and of creating “one or more new departments/programs, focused around an historical period (e.g.: ancient world), geographical region, linguistic community, disciplinary practice, or otherwise.”

“We have encouraged the members of the committee to be bold and imaginative in their thinking,” Gendler says in her message to the Yale Alumni Magazine. “We are open to the possibility that the current configuration is better than any other possible alternative, and open to the possibility that there will be other configurations that would be even better.”

To Slotsky, who recently retired from teaching at Brown University, the possibility of restructuring NELC is “so very unacceptable and unthinkable” that she started the petition “to make sure that the committee knew how much support there was to keep NELC intact,” she says by e-mail.

In addition to the petition, some NELC alumni and allies have written directly to Gendler, Provost Ben Polak, and President Peter Salovey ’86PhD. One letter, from Mark Smith ’85PhD, focuses on the department’s “intellectual importance for the university today.”

“All periods in the human history are covered by this department,” writes Smith, a professor of bible and ancient Near Eastern studies at New York University. “The long view of the world’s literatures can be understood only with faculty instruction in ancient Near Eastern literature. The same may be said for the understanding of religion and God [and] the origins of democracy.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

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