Columbia seeks peace in English department

14-year controversy leaves ranks of professors depleted

April 04, 2002|By Karen W. Arenson | Karen W. Arenson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - It has been 14 years since the outbreak of civil war in Columbia University's English department, a war that sent some professors scurrying for more congenial settings, turned feminists and multiculturalists against traditionalists and left a fifth of the permanent positions in the department unoccupied. By some combatants' standards, an empty office was better than one filled by the unqualified candidates supported by the enemy.

One visiting scholar recently likened the department to `'a deserted village." At full strength, it would employ 46 tenured or tenure-track professors, but just 37 work there now; a revolving cast of visiting professors and graduate students has filled out the teaching ranks. And some of those who remained in the department did not talk to one another.

Now, in the academic version of a third-party peace proposal, the department has ceded key decisions about its future to a posse of outsiders from five competing universities, who are picking candidates for the open senior positions.

But that is a step forward in one of the longer-running battles in a profession infamous for intellectual trench warfare. Since the 1960s, fights to bring the perspectives of women, ethnic minorities and gay people into the academy have consumed colleges, and particularly English and literature departments. At Columbia, the political debates turned personal, with each side accusing the other of no longer being able to distinguish the quality of a candidate from his or her ideology.

With the outside committee making hiring decisions and a new department chairman - also brought in from outside - the department, whose sparkling reputation was once the envy of colleges throughout the country, is trying to regain its luster.

The five outside referees - from Princeton, Cornell, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern - have so far approved three professors and are likely to recommend three more senior faculty members when they meet again. But the department's problems are far from over. It will take time to fill the nine open posts. And the number is likely to grow, since the department has five professors older than 70 and six more in their 60s.

English department professors say that turning over hiring decisions to outsiders has reduced the departmental quarreling.

"We are not squabbling among ourselves over issues over which we don't have control," said John D. Rosenberg, a professor who specializes in Victorian poetry and 19th-century autobiography. "Our main problem now is severe understaffing."

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