Public debate on future of Classics department ‘will only worsen situation’, principal claims

The principal of Royal Holloway, University of London, has been accused of attempting to stifle public debate about the future of the college’s Classics department.

July 1, 2011

In a statement posted today on Facebook, Paul Layzell tells those behind a group titled “Save Classics at Royal Holloway” that “public debate will only worsen the situation”.

The Facebook group was set up in response to planned changes, which could see the Classics Department replaced with a new department for Classics and History.

The university said this was just one of a number of options being considered.

However, Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, warned that such a change “looks to me like the slow death, rather than the quick death, model”.

Professor Beard writes in her Times blog: “There will be no language teaching, which - in my view - always take the stuffing out of any classical enterprise.”

In his Facebook statement, Professor Layzell, who is a software engineer, writes: “Classics has a strong tradition at Royal Holloway, and I believe it plays an important part in the academic portfolio of the institution. It is for this reason that we are currently exploring options to ensure that we can continue to include Classics in our programme of teaching and research.

“It is not our intention to ‘close Classics’ as some have interpreted our proposals, but to retain it in a form that is sustainable in the long-term.”

He says the department runs at a “considerable deficit” which cannot be addressed through an increase in student numbers, because of the cap imposed by government.

On the Facebook campaign, Professor Layzell writes: “I had hoped we would be able to have [these] discussions within our community, rather than in the public domain.

“I am concerned that public debate will only worsen the situation; prospective students could easily misunderstand our proposals to sustain Classics with the incorrect impression that ‘closure’ was imminent.”

He said the college was setting up an intranet site “to allow us to debate these issues amongst ourselves”, again voicing concerns that the Facebook campaign risked “exacerbating the situation beyond remedy”.

In a string of comments posted in response to Professor Layzell’s statement, Richard Rawles, a lecturer in Greek at the University of Edinburgh, says: “The principal’s feeling that he would prefer discussion to remain within the college is understandable.

“However, perhaps it reveals that he does not understand the significance of Royal Holloway’s Classics department within a broader UK Classics community.

“Because Classics is a relatively small subject in the UK, the loss of one or two strong departments causes serious damage to Classics as a subject in a way which is not true (or not as true) if one were dealing with a subject which is more widely taught.

“As for ‘protecting Classics’ rather than closing it: it is clear that the principal does not understand the position of teaching and studying the ancient languages and reading texts in the ancient languages as part of the repertoire of classicists’ core activities.

“If these reforms are carried out, they will certainly cause the kind of reputational damage which the principal fears; nobody will take a Classics department seriously which does not teach Latin and Greek to students at all levels, because they will conclude (correctly) that the subject area is not taken seriously within the college and that the department has not succeeded…in retaining one of its core academic functions.”

Greg Woolf, professor of ancient history in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews, told Times Higher Education: “The proposal to end teaching Greek and Latin at Royal Holloway and to in effect remove half the department is an extraordinary one given its international reputation for teaching and research.

“Professor Layzell’s attempt to stifle on-line debate among students, alumni and external supporters of Classics at Royal Holloway is disgraceful, as well as ill-judged.”

Royal Holloway statement:

A spokeswoman for Royal Holloway said: “Any concern that we are trying to stifle public debate is completely misplaced.
“We have plans in place to consider the challenges that Classics faces with all our staff, our students, alumni, subject associations and a range of other bodies.
“Unfortunately, this Facebook group was set up before we had even had a chance to confirm plans for consultation with staff who may be affected.
“We ask only that we are allowed to work with our community on these important issues, rather than engage in a public debate on Facebook.
“Nevertheless, since the debate began, we have been fully engaged and it is quite unfair to say that we are stifling debate.”

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