This is How the Department Dies

This is How the Department Dies

The Life and Death of Academic Programs at Columbia

Published on September 20, 2016

Did you know that Columbia once had a geography department?

I didn’t.

I had no idea that a fully operational department—with tenure-track professors and course listings and both undergraduate and graduate students—had once existed.

And the loss of the department extends beyond the loss of a few faculty positions and classes:   When you search for “geography” in the Columbia library system, this is the message that greets you: “Because Columbia does not have a geography department, it does not collect geography materials generally. It does collect specific geography titles needed to support other disciplines, e.g., economics, government, area studies programs, history, etc.”

Yet we gather materials for both German and Germanic philology, as well as gerontology—the study of age. (That is, in addition to “aging” as a separate subject.) But no geography.

Imagine if, in 40 years, there were no traces of the economics department, and Columbia had therefore ceased collecting materials on economics. Wouldn’t that feel a little strange? Isn’t it unsettling that an entire department was swallowed into the shelves of Columbia, remembered only in the dusty corners of the Spectator archives? Think of the hours of work and months of sleep you would have lost working toward your major only for that area of study to disintegrate and be completely unknown to the student body 40 years later. Wouldn’t you care?

Take a moment and try to place yourself inside 407 International Affairs Building. The year is 1970. Imagine rolls of old maps pulled down from the walls, visual, tangible and aged evidence of the world we live in. Now, in 2016, the maps are gone.

Why did the geography department die? Who let it disappear?

The silent demise

I discovered the silent demise of the geography department by researching the death of another: Columbia’s linguistics department. As I sifted through pages of Spectator archives, trying to understand the collapse of linguistics, I found angry student and professor op-eds and news articles chronicling the collapse of Columbia geography. These two departments disappeared almost simultaneously.

Coincidence? I think not.

At the time, the school was still recovering from violent student protests that took place in the late 1960s. Robert McCaughey, a Barnard history professor and the school’s former dean of faculty, chronicles the history of Columbia in his book Stand, Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004.

He writes that by 1969, years of ineffective fundraising by alumni, a non-growing endowment, and the cost of being in New York City left Columbia gasping for air.

That, combined with Columbia President Grayson Kirk’s reliance on federal support and spending on the neighborhood rather than the campus put Columbia $15 million in debt and left the administration stingy and on the lookout for weak links.

The rise and fall of Columbia geography

The geography department was officially created in 1965. It operated as a smaller program of study that drew in professors from a selection of departments across the University before shifting to a larger central administration. The hope was to attract high class talent with its new status as an “autonomous unit.”

In only a few short years, the department began to visibly unravel.

In the fall of 1972, assistant professor of geography Ian E. Manners chose not to return to Columbia. Another professor, John E. Oliver, also planned to leave the following summer when his term of appointment expired. These staffing problems forced the remaining professors to hastily redistribute teaching load and key classes among themselves. Six geography courses were cancelled that fall as a result: The Middle East and Agricultural Systems—both of which had been previously taught by Manners—General Climatology, Applied Climatology, Hydrology and Water Resources, and a seminar in Geographical and Environmental Systems.

In becoming an “autonomous unit,” geography had severed its connections with other departments. They did not use professors from related areas of study nor share resources. They depended solely on the existing group of faculty and any extra funds that the University would give them.

That year—1972—William Hance, who taught classes in economic geography and was chair of the department, asked the Committee on Instruction to recommend that he be allowed additional budget lines for two non-tenured faculty positions. This request was denied.

Throughout the following decade, requests for additional staff and resources for the geography department were systematically refused.

In 1986, the Planning and Budget Committee, which assesses and allocates resources to various departments, evaluated the understaffed department—which had once again requested funds to hire an additional faculty member. The committee finally declared that geography needed more than just a few new professors to thrive.

The committee again denied the department’s request for an additional position and also chose not to renew two of the three non-tenured junior faculty positions. The geography department went from having five professors to just two. This was a fatal shot.

Donald Hood, who was vice president of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Planning and Budget Committee at the time, was the one who made the decision not to give geography their necessary resources. The main reason, he recalls, was because of poor reviews. Geography had dropped a substantial amount in the National Academy of Science’s annual review, which looked at multiple parallel departments throughout the country.

At the time, Hood was also evaluating whether or not to keep the statistics department for similar reasons. “But that would have been a huge mistake,” he says with a laugh.

“People start thinking about [shutting down departments] for quality and for saving money,” Hood says. “But in a place like Columbia, you don’t want weak departments around. So you should either build them up or shut them down.”

Rejecting the new

The linguistics department had a similar moment of unraveling as geography, and at the heart of it was Robert May, a professor in Barnard’s linguistics department during the time of its collapse. I spoke to May over the phone to try and understand what a dying department looks like in its final years.

His recollection of the department’s old-fashioned leadership in the late ’70s and ’80s was almost comical.

Uriel Weinreich, a highly respected Polish-American linguist who came to Columbia’s linguistics department in 1952, had helped it flourish by promoting a contemporary outlook for the department’s educational vision. The department boasted one of the only Ph.D.-granting programs in the country. Weinreich died early in 1967, and his successors—William Diver, Robert Austerlitz, and Marvin Herzog—led the department into the ’70s and ’80s.

The department’s growth stunted under its new leadership. A department that was once distinguished for its modern outlook became distinctly old-fashioned. “They had no interest in contemporary developments of linguistics and, if anything, were quite hostile to it,” May says.

Diver, Austerlitz, and Herzog’s aversion to this more contemporary, interdisciplinary form of linguistics widened the divide between the linguistics department and other departments at Columbia and fostered a dysfunctional atmosphere between the department and administration.

The department was stuck in the past. “They had no interest in seeing the department grow,” May says.

The death of linguistics didn’t look very different than the death of geography: It, too, started with budget cuts and ended with the flight of professors.

In the spring of 1971, the University was no longer allowing the linguistics department to take on new students.

A set of administrative decisions made in the following year severely crippled the department. Its budget was cut drastically, leading to several professorial resignations. The Arts and Sciences administration subsequently decided not to replace Diver, Austerlitz, and Herzog upon their retirement and refused to hire any more junior faculty.

The undergraduate department officially flatlined in 1972, though the graduate program fought on with its three stubborn leaders leading the way.

While Diver, Austerlitz, and Herzog had no respect for the administration, May feels that the University, too, had no respect for them in return. This was shown in the way the University criticized the department for not providing a range of academic possibilities to interested undergraduates.

Diver, Austerlitz, and Herzog may not have spoken up for the undergraduate department, but in 1989, when former Dean of the School of General Studies Gillian Lindt openly accused them of being “ten years out of date” in a Spectator article from 1989, they had something to say: They felt that the limits pressed upon them in 1972 kept the department from excelling.

“Our right hand was cut off in 1972,” Austerlitz said in response. “And now in 1989 they say we can’t play piano with only our left hand.”

This comment highlights how difficult it is to determine a single cause of death.

The administration undoubtedly made it difficult for the the linguistics department to succeed post-1972. And there seems to be validity behind their reasoning. Ultimately, none of that alleviates the frustration felt by people like May, who were committed to keeping linguistics alive at Columbia. They watched their department wither away slowly under the pitchfork of the Columbia administration.

Ultimately, May’s perspective is valuable beyond the first hand experience he offers.

May is known as a “generativist” in the field of linguistics. Generative linguistics is derived from the theory that language is a system of rules that necessarily generates grammatically correct sentences. Generative linguistics is what links the subject to other disciplines: neuroscience, computer science, psychology, philosophy.

Both then and now, the study of generativist linguistics was essential in making a linguistics department legitimate and reputable.

Barnard’s elimination of May’s position in 1984 was the department’s kiss of death. Not only because May was a key faculty member—he taught the introductory course in linguistics—but because he was Columbia’s only generativist. Without May, the linguistics department lost any opportunity to become truly “interdisciplinary.”

This is how a program is born

“We didn’t have any real push back from the administration. Quite the contrary,” Ruth DeFries, a professor of sustainable development and of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology (also known as E3B), says of her department at Columbia.

I spoke to three professors from the sustainable development program; each of them responded with either a laugh or a tone of surprise when I asked if they had faced pushback in getting the program approved.

Steven Cohen, now the executive director of the Earth Institute, helped create the sustainable development program at Columbia. It started as a special concentration in 2007 and became an official major in 2010. Today it boasts around 150 students.

Cohen explains that, of course, the fact that climate issues are now at the forefront of our political discourse helped make the program possible.

“When I was studying environment in graduate school it was a fringe issue. When I told my parents that this is what I was focusing on, they thought it was cute,” he says. “But now it’s a central issue. It’s moved from the fringes to the center.”

But there are other reasons why it has grown so rapidly. Unlike the traditional autonomy of geography and linguistics, sustainable development is structured on interdependency.

The department’s best move was utilizing the resources already at Columbia.

Sustainable development functions with the help of Columbia’s departments of earth and environmental sciences, E3B, and earth and environmental engineering. Most vitally, the program is housed by the Earth Institute, which provides its funding, professors, and research opportunities to students.

“Our undergraduate students take classes that might traditionally be considered engineering, other natural sciences, social sciences, management, economics; there’s a lot of different perspectives that the students are given as undergraduates students in sustainable development,” says Jason Smerdon, a Lamont associate research professor who studies ocean and climate physics.

In addition to using every corner of related academia at the University, sustainable development also took advantage of Columbia’s resources in research. The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, founded in 1949, fosters research from some of the top environmental scientists in the world. “The Earth Institute now has over 100 climate scientists,” Cohen says. “It’s the biggest collection of climate scientists anywhere in the world.”

The sustainable development program has tethered itself to different parts of the University. It made itself sturdy this way. Even if one area may comes under administrative scrutiny, the program can continue on. This has been the key to the department’s birth.

“There is nothing sacred about the department structure”

That’s what William Theodore de Bary, the executive vice president of academic affairs in 1971, told Spectator when the linguistics department was dealt its crippling blow.  

Forty-five years later, Hood echoes this statement.

We tend to think there’s something holy and pure about these departments,” he says. “They existed not because knowledge still falls necessarily comfortably in those divisions, but because they become governance units. I mean, how do you govern a university?”

He pauses, then answers his own question. “Just like how do you govern a country. So instead of splitting it up into states, we split it into departments for certain kinds of purposes.”

His point is that the departmental structure is not necessarily something to be preserved. And perhaps the success of the sustainable development program—strung between a variety of different departments and institutes, drawing resources from all of them—is testament to that. It represents the essence of what is commonly referred to as “interdisciplinary learning.”

As Hood explains, “The reason why all these interdisciplinary programs and new departments pop up is because knowledge is no longer in these simple categories.”

Columbia’s comparative literature program is another example of a highly successful program that has made itself sturdy by subverting the conventions of the traditional departmental unit.  

Stathis Gourgouris is a professor of comparative literature and served as the director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society until last year. He explains the major as involving different languages and literatures but also of “different modes of thinking and knowing, different epistemologies.”

The program has secured its place at Columbia by creating a web of connections across the University.

According to Gourgouris, the institute calls in professors from “practically all the social science departments, plus the School of Architecture [Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation], and recently the Law School and even the Medical School [College of Physicians and Surgeons].”

The two programs are emblematic of the recent shift we have seen in educational structures being built on the foundation of interdisciplinary learning.

But what is critical to note here is that the importance of being interdisciplinary isn’t just a modern concern.

Interconnectivity, or lack thereof, did not help the linguistics and geography departments when they were being evaluated in the 1970s and 1980s: Hood stated that the geography department was being reviewed and evaluated based on how well it integrated with other programs and departments in the University.

In 1986, Charles Olton, the vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty of Barnard in the late 1970s to ’80s explained: “One of the criteria for determining the amount of support the college will give a particular department is the amount of interdependence that the department has with other departments in the school.”

“The reason why all these interdisciplinary programs and new departments pop up is because knowledge is no longer in these simple categories.”

—Donald Hood, former vice president of the Faculty of Arts and Science

It is no trivial thing that the those at the head of linguistics were unwilling to modernize and accept the inherently interdisciplinary nature of contemporary linguistics. Ultimately, the department’s inability to prove itself to be capable of interdependence lead to its dissolution.

What about the big fish?

But does this discussion only concern small, nontraditional departments—the small fish in the big pond—that need to prove themselves to a stingy administration? Where do the larger, traditional departments fit into this story?

Charles Armstrong, who has taught history at Columbia for the last 20 years, acknowledges that larger departments, such as his own, have privileges that smaller departments do not.

One good example: Larger departments are able to feed faculty into important administrative positions. This gives them the power of representation in the administration, while small departments risk being are forced to rely on the grit and charisma of the few individuals in charge.

“We’ve been lucky,” Armstrong says. “We are a very weird department that contributes a lot to the administration, and we tended to do well and a number of people in the central administration have been members of our department.”

But even the history department has been forced to evolve by the same forces that shuttered the linguistics and geography departments.

Just as sustainable development grew as a result of recent environmental issues and comparative literature developed from an interest in global literature and theory, history too has progressed from its traditional scope to one that caters to what the contemporary world is demanding.

In 1942, Columbia’s history department completely reorganized its curriculum. In the wake of World War II, nine new courses on the historical background of the war were offered. 1968 student demonstrations worked to establish a joint faculty-student committee a year later. The next year was the first course on African-American history, taught by Eric Foner. 1989 marked the establishment of a new multi-year fellowship program to recruit teaching assistants for Latin America, Soviet, and Japanese history.

More recently, history has adjusted its curriculum to account for today’s push toward an interdisciplinary education.

“[The decline in student interest] has forced us to rethink what we do and how we do things and how to adjust our teaching to fit the perceived needs of our student body,” Armstrong says. “There are many ways in which we’re doing that, and perhaps the most important way is to connect to other units of the University. To other disciplines. Other departments.”

Rather than organizing courses solely by nations, the history department is offering an increasing amount of classes on the subjects of scientific, medicinal, literary, international, intellectual, migratory, and philosophical history, and in doing so, it is reaching out to other departments.

“We tend to think there’s something holy and pure about these departments. They existed not because knowledge still falls necessarily comfortably in those divisions, but because they became governance units. I mean, how do you govern a university? Just like how do you govern a country. So instead of splitting it up into states, we split it into departments for certain kinds of purposes.”

—Donald Hood, former vice president of the Faculty of Arts and Science

Pablo Piccato, a history professor who has taught at Columbia since 1997, believes that the history department will continue to adapt to the needs of society, but in order to do so, the strengths and benefits of studying history must be communicated.

“[There must be] greater emphasis on the methodological tools that the discipline can provide for those who do not plan to become historians,” Piccato says.

It is within those links of communication that departments like linguistics and geography failed. But when a department is able not only to evolve, but also to communicate its importance to outside fields, it has the capacity for longevity.  

“I think we’re still in the process of evolving and always will be,” Armstrong says. “But certainly we can’t stay the same.”


The years between 1987 and 2000 were truly the dark ages for linguistics at Columbia.

But the resolution of a small handful of determined leaders brought it out of the shadows. In 2000, professors from the Slavic department set up an introductory linguistics course, which, by 2004, had up to 75 students. Today, that class is taught by John McWhorter and regularly has around 140 to 150 students.  

Professor John McWhorter teaches Introduction to Linguistics every fall. (Anna Alonso/Senior Staff Photographer)

Throughout the last decade, those same resolute professors—Boris Gasparov and Alan Timberlake—began adding courses in semantics, historical linguistics, syntax, phonetics, and phonology.

In 2004, two students successfully petitioned the Committee on Instruction for a special major in linguistics.

“We had two majors the first year, one the second, four the next, and until two or three years ago when we had a dozen majors last year,” Timberlake says.

Today, linguistics functions as a program rather than an independent department. And it gets by with three unofficial faculty members: Timberlake from Slavic, McWhorter from American studies, and Teresa O’Neill, an adjunct linguistics professor based at the Graduate Center of CUNY.

The linguistics program still struggles, however.

“A typical linguistics department has a good nine or 10 faculty [members]. … There are also funds, typically, for frequent guest speakers,” McWhorter says. “Here, there are really only about two and a half linguists on site, meaning fewer courses and heavier thesis responsibility for Alan [Timberlake] and me.”

But the program is still failing to successfully connect with other disciplines. Lingzi Zhuang, who graduated Columbia College in 2016 with a linguistics major and computer science minor (he is interested in natural language processing, a field that lies at the intersection between computer science and linguistics), explains that his computer science professors had no idea that Columbia had an undergraduate major in linguistics.

Zhuang believes that linguistics is inherently meant to be studied in an interdisciplinary way. “Linguistics itself is a field at the crossroads of everything,” he says. From computational linguists or computer scientists to philosophers, sociologists, or anthropologists, Zhuang expresses the far-reaching possibilities of linguistics.

He describes himself as “a very good case of someone who really would have appreciated a fully developed linguistics major that had cross-disciplinary connections with other departments.”

McWhorter similarly acknowledges the work that still needs to be done “forging bonds” with other programs, institutes, and disciplines. He promises to work on building those connections over the next few years.

“I think we’re still in the process of evolving and always will be. But certainly, we can’t stay the same.”

—Charles Armstrong, a history professor at Columbia

Both the student and teacher’s vision for linguistics is one that unknowingly follows in the footsteps of sustainable development and comparative literature: By forging connections with other disciplines, programs, and departments, Columbia’s linguistics program could find itself flourishing again, though perhaps not within the confines of the departmental unit.

Farewell to the map room

Today, 407 IAB is a windowless lecture room with seats arranged in a small semi-circle around the front. It has grey paneled walls, fold-down chairs, and an overly matted carpet. What was once the map room has successfully modernized into drab simplicity.

As I stand there, however, I can imagine the maps hanging from the walls of this two-story room. It is spacious and bright, despite the lack of windows, and the size and shape of the seating arrangement seems to invite discussion.

I remember something Cohen mentioned partway through our discussion: “Geography has become more important again. We don’t create a separate department, but we put it somewhere where it makes sense in the contemporary world.”

So perhaps we can expect geography to reappear someday, too, in some form or another.

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