Stanford scholar with an international voice

Russell Berman, a professor of German studies and of comparative literature, is the chair of the Faculty Senate. He is an international voice for foreign language study and for reforming PhD programs in the humanities. He also is an expert on cultural and political relations between Europe and the United States.

Russell Berman

Professor Russell Berman has played a prominent role in undergraduate education and in faculty governance at Stanford. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Three weeks before departing on a senior year abroad, Russell Berman found out he would be spending his last year of high school in Austria, and staying with a family that spoke only German – a language he didn’t then know.

Berman said his “teenage brain” helped him quickly learn German and settle into daily life in Salzburg, an old European city known for its baroque architecture. It was an experience that awakened intellectual interests that led to a PhD in German literature at Washington University in St. Louis, and eventually, to Stanford.

Berman, a professor of German studies and of comparative literature, is an expert on cultural and political relations between Europe and the United States. He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, which published his 2010 book, Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad. He also is editor of Telos, a quarterly journal that serves as an international forum for discussions of political, social and cultural change.

Over the years, Berman has played a prominent role in undergraduate education and in faculty governance at Stanford.

This year he is wielding the gavel as chair of the Faculty Senate, which sets academic and research policies, awards degrees, hears regular reports from the provost and the president, and discusses matters important to the entire university community.

Berman served in the senate for eight years before becoming chair. He served for four years on the senate’s steering committee, which sets the senate’s agenda and reviews undergraduate and graduate programs.

“The strength of a university is a function of the quality of its faculty governance, and thankfully, Stanford has a vibrant tradition in this regard,” said Berman, who joined the faculty in 1979.

“The senate structures degree-granting programs and monitors their success,” he continued. “This educational dimension is a primary function of the university. In addition, the senate is the venue for the elected representatives of the faculty to make their views known on a much wider range of issues.”

It’s serious work, but Berman has been known to have a little fun as well. In a 2012 send-off for the then outgoing chair, geophysicist Rosemary Knight, Berman played Sam-I-HUM, a reference to Sam-I-Am in the Dr. Seuss classic, Green Eggs and Ham, and to Stanford’s “Introduction to the Humanities” program, or I-HUM.

Berman recited rhyming verse that poked fun at I-HUM, a program he had long directed. He wore a floppy top hat with red-and-white-stripes – like the pesky cat in another Dr. Seuss classic, The Cat in the Hat.

He now directs Thinking Matters, I-HUM’s successor. The program is designed to help freshmen develop the ability to ask rigorous and genuine questions – a fundamental skill that is indispensible for success in college. Faculty members from across the university teach Thinking Matters courses, which provide gateways to scientific experimentation, literary interpretation and social policy analysis.

Berman attributes the success of Thinking Matters – it has received high marks from students and faculty – to several factors, including its wide variety of courses, its pedagogical agenda and its low student-to-teacher ratio.

“Thinking Matters lectures and sections are much smaller than those offered under I-HUM, and we can offer the students much more individualized attention,” he said. “The learning environment overall is much improved.”

Crossing paths with Europe

Berman said his earliest trips to Europe coincided with memorable moments in history.

“The way I tell the story is that Central Europe and I crossed paths at four historic moments – Austria in 1968, Munich in 1972, and Berlin in 1977 and 1988,” said Berman, who grew up in a town near Boston.

At the end of the school year in Salzburg, the high school exchange students toured Prague during the period of political liberalization known as the “Prague Spring.” A few weeks later, Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the fledgling movement.

Berman arrived in Munich soon after the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games. He returned to Berlin in 1977 – to begin two years of dissertation research – at the beginning of West Germany’s “autumn of terror,” when militants kidnapped a prominent industrialist and hijacked a commercial airplane. He returned to Berlin in 1988, the final year of the Berlin Wall.

During his 2001 sabbatical, Berman and his family lived in Paris, and his two children – then in middle school and high school – followed in his footsteps and enrolled in French language schools.

Two weeks into the school year, the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place in the United States. Berman watched the evolution of the French response. His 2004 book, Anti-Americanism in Europe: A Cultural Problem, grew out of his experiences in Paris.

Advocate for educational reform

Berman’s commitment to improving the academic experience is not limited to Stanford.

As the former president of the Modern Language Association, which has more than 26,000 members in 100 countries, he called for providing greater access to second-language programs for American youth, an issue close to his heart.

At the beginning of his 2011-12 term, he outlined his position in a provocative essay titled “The Real Language Crisis,” in which he said the United States was becoming a nation of “second-language illiterates” and that draconian cuts to language programs in colleges and universities were exacerbating an already serious problem.

To become competitive with educational systems in Canada and Europe, Berman wrote, the United States needed to commit to building language programs that start in kindergarten, continue through elementary, middle and high school, and lead into opportunities for advanced study at the college level.

“We have to understand education, especially K-12, in a holistic manner,” he said. “Learning a second language strengthens one’s skills in the first language.”

At Stanford, undergraduate students have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a foreign language and culture through the Bing Overseas Studies Program, which Berman led as director from 1992 to 2000.

“Living and studying overseas is an extraordinary experience, because it involves learning that goes beyond the initiation into the mores of a discipline,” he said. “It opens the mind and enables new kinds of questioning.”

Berman said undergraduate students in every discipline can benefit from spending time overseas, even if it takes them away from the focus on their major.

“What we want to do is offer an animating liberal arts education that serves people well when they leave the university and go on into far-flung careers that may have nothing to do with their disciplinary major,” he said.

When his term as MLA president ended, the association recruited Berman to chair a task force to address urgent structural problems that threatened the survival of PhD programs in modern languages and literatures, and, more broadly, in the humanities.

In its 2014 report, the task force urged universities to redesign PhD programs from the ground up. Among its recommendations: Create programs that can be completed in five years; make preparation for teaching a central component; and prepare students for careers outside academia, in addition to the traditional academic paths.

Berman said the report was well received because it defended the core substance of humanities education while providing guidance on how to adapt to a changing environment.

“The report insists on the importance of maintaining accessibility to doctoral programs, and that depends on affordability, both to the student and to the institution,” he said. “There is a growing recognition that humanistic knowledge can contribute to society in many different ways – in many different careers – and there is enthusiasm to redesign programs that meet this challenge.”