Anthropology departments instructed to form combined unit

James Ferguson tapped to lead the planned organization

Nine years after a split triggered by conflict over resources and intellectual direction, Stanford's two anthropology departments have been told to create a new, combined department by next September. James Ferguson, chair of the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology (CASA), has accepted an offer to head the reconstituted unit, to be called, once again, the Department of Anthropology.

Faculty will be given the choice of remaining in their previous department or joining the new one or even a different one, according to Sharon Long, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S). New faculty searches will take place only in the new department, and existing staff members will be assured continuing employment at Stanford, she said.

John Rick, chair of the Department of Anthropological Sciences, said he learned of the news on Jan. 22. "To the best of my knowledge," he wrote in a Feb. 11 e-mail, the decision was made by "the provost and at least some deans of H&S."

According to Rick, no blueprint has been provided to help guide the move. "The 'how' issue is precisely what we don't know," he wrote. "No details nor [a] written version of the decision or implementation has been presented. Thus far, we have nothing at all in writing informing us in any way about the decision or implementation." Rick said he was concerned that senior university administrators made the decision without input from the affected department chairs or faculty members.

"I'm afraid you'd have to ask the decision-makers why they felt such a course of action was in keeping with the situation, the solution or Stanford academic administrative practice in general," he wrote. "I find it surprising." Rick was in Guatemala until late Feb. 13 and could not be reached for further comment.

Long, who is dean of H&S until March 31, sent a statement about the plan to the Stanford Daily, which broke the story Feb. 1. According to Long, last spring her office asked both departments for outlines of their plans and future strategies. As mandated by the Faculty Senate, the undergraduate majors in both departments were up for their periodic review this year, she wrote. Each department prepared a study of its major program, which the H&S Curriculum Committee then reviewed. "One theme that struck us, in terms of research and education, is how much stronger the overall program would be if the strengths of both programs were combined and integrated," Long said in the statement. "For example, we have archaeology in both departments, and this is a very strong group. In a united department, it would become more than the sum of the two parts."

Long acknowledged that each department has "distinct and different" areas of research but also noteworthy "shared topics and strengths." Long pointed out that several departments, such as Biological Sciences, Psychology and Political Science, have a wide range of research interests and distinct disciplinary approaches, which allow students to train in a multi- and interdisciplinary manner. "I have come to believe that the wide span of work and approach in the two anthropology departments would better benefit students—undergraduate and graduate alike—if the two departments were reunited in one integrated department," Long said.

As for the timing of the announcement, Long said, "One important factor is the recent loss of several faculty." To maintain strength in the overall field of anthropology, she explained, open faculty billets should not be assigned to one department versus the other. Long noted that University of Chicago anthropology Professor Tanya Luhrmann, the wife of incoming H&S Dean Richard P. Saller, will join CASA when the couple moves to Stanford this spring. Saller, the provost at the University of Chicago, takes over as dean of H&S on April 1.

Last December, CASA Associate Professors Akhil Gupta and his wife, Purnima Mankekar, left faculty positions following 17 years at Stanford after they were invited to join the University of California-Los Angeles. Gupta, whose own highly publicized quest for tenure at Stanford was caught up in the tensions surrounding the 1998 split, expressed skepticism that the plan will work. "I don't think it is a good idea," he said. "The underlying causes of conflict that caused the split in the first place are unresolved." In general terms, Anthropological Sciences is oriented more around science while CASA leans toward culture.

Gupta criticized Stanford's decision to announce the move without first consulting the departments. "It would have worked better to bring the departments into the process earlier," he said. Otherwise, "It makes departments feel they are not in charge of their own governance."

The 50-year-old anthropology department split apart in 1998 because faculty members could not agree how new positions should be assigned, Gupta said. Furthermore, some faculty members were frustrated that they were not assigned graduate students. Failing to assign faculty billets to a specific discipline within the reconstituted anthropology department will only cause problems, Gupta said, just as they did nine years ago. "These issues will still cause conflict," he said. "The merger has to be planned for so these conflicts don't reemerge."

According to Gupta, after the split both departments prospered academically because faculty were able to spend time doing research instead of coping with administrative conflict. "The senior faculty—their [research] time is gone" now because they will have to focus on the new department, he said. "It's a disaster in that sense. I wish both departments well."

Several faculty and staff members in each department declined to speak to Stanford Report about the new department. But anthropological sciences Professor Arthur Wolf said he is "absolutely appalled" by the news. "Suddenly, like a thunderbolt, this came from the dean's office," he said. "We haven't received a single written document about it." Wolf said he has initiated a request that the Faculty Senate discuss the issue at a future meeting. The senate's steering committee was expected to consider the issue Feb. 13, as Stanford Report went to press.