With a scholar of German studies under siege, medievalists mobilise

Bristol's plan to cut post would harm UK expertise, warn colleagues worldwide. Simon Baker reports

December 2, 2010

Dozens of scholars in medieval German studies are running an international campaign of support for a University of Bristol academic threatened with redundancy.

After 18 years of service, Anne Simon, a specialist in medieval and early modern German literature, has been told that her post is at risk as the university disinvests in the field.

Fellow medievalists from across the world have flooded Bristol with letters and emails criticising the decision, which, they say, will severely undermine study of the subject.

Students have also joined the protest, and there is anger over claims - denied by the university - that academics have been warned not to speak out.

Elizabeth Andersen, a senior lecturer in German studies at Newcastle University, said there had been an "overwhelming response" from medievalists, particularly those who know Dr Simon through a biannual Anglo-German colloquium.

Noting that Dr Simon was "highly regarded" for her research and dedication to teaching, she said that specialists in German literature could not understand why Bristol was cutting back in an area in which it was held in "high esteem".

The university has a renowned Centre for Medieval Studies - which Dr Simon co-founded - and its work would suffer as a result, Dr Andersen said. Bristol's move had "touched a nerve" with fellow academics, she added. "If I were in Bristol, I would be delighted that the university was held in such high esteem, but would also be distraught about what it was doing."

About 150 scholars from across the world have signed a letter of support for Dr Simon, among them eminent figures from German, Austrian and Swiss higher education.

They include Peter Strohschneider, chairman of Germany's Council of Science and Humanities and professor of medieval studies at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

A shrinking enclave

Henrike Lahnemann, chair of German studies at Newcastle's School of Modern Languages, said the "vehemence" of the reaction from scholars reflected great concern about the erosion of German medieval studies in British universities.

If Dr Simon left Bristol, there would be only 11 permanent staff in seven institutions dedicated to the subject, she said.

Ian Tompkins, a fourth-year student in German at Bristol who has been supporting Dr Simon, said there was anger about where cuts were hitting while huge sums were spent on projects such as refurbishing the students' union.

By removing its specialist teacher in medieval and early modern literature, Bristol "completely undermined" the curriculum, he said.

A Bristol spokesman said its decision was "not taken lightly".

"This proposal, made at a time when most, if not all, universities have to cut costs, is part of a university-wide programme where most of the required savings have been secured by early retirements and voluntary severance," he said.

"Moreover, should the proposal go ahead, then, despite protestations to the contrary, the material effect (beyond those on the individuals concerned) would be minimal."

Bristol also plans to axe a lecturer post in the department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American studies, despite advertising for a new chair.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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