Section: archive

An Uncertain Future

An Uncertain Future

By Sam Colt

Earlier this year, Professor of Humanities Tim Shutt took the stage to deliver the annual baccalaureate address to the graduating Class of 2013. Family, friends, faculty and administrators listened as Shutt congratulated the seniors, who would receive their degrees the next day ラ and then immediately launched into an impassioned defense of the Integrated Program in Humane Studies (IPHS), which he directs.

“I find myself teaching in what, to my regret, is widely regarded as a fading discipline and in a program to some degree, at least, under fire, and, so it seems at times, in decline ラ a program, indeed, which at least some of my colleagues claim to feel has long outlived its usefulness, and cannot decline quickly enough,” he said.

Defenses of the liberal arts and the Western canon are not rare at Kenyon, but Shutt’s speech came at a pivotal moment for the program, which, after suffering from a war of attrition driven by personality clashes and complaints from the administration over staffing costs, is facing new questions about its future.

Indeed, as Shutt gave his speech that day, he was surrounded by administrators and faculty members who may have a hand in deciding the future of the program he loves. At that moment, as he spoke in academic robes in the spring heat, he stood alone, confronting the impression that Kenyon’s great books program isn’t that great anymore.

The Toll of Infighting

Founded in 1975 by Professor Michael Evans, IPHS draws from departments such as English, philosophy, art history and political science to examine Western texts in a broad context.

Typically, first years enrolled in IPHS 113-114, Odyssey of the West, attend lectures three times a week and a weekly seminar for which they are divided into small groups to discuss their readings in greater detail. First years are also expected to submit papers through a tutorial system in which the student’s professor and a classmate critique their work after reading it aloud. That first-year experience was touted by admissions to Kenyon applicants as a signature educational experience at the College.

But a combination of infighting, administrative pressure and bad luck has taken its toll on staffing within the program. In 2010, IPHS was a department of five: Professors Shutt, Joshua Levithan and Katherine Elkins all taught exclusively for IPHS. Professors Timothy Spiekerman and Matthew McGuire taught political science and history, respectively, in addition to IPHS.

McGuire was the first to leave the department, during the summer of 2011. He now teaches history at DePaul University in Chicago. The College hired Visiting Assistant Professor of History Andrew Ross to replace McGuire, but Ross joined the faculty full time in the History Department, taking the IPHS headcount down to four.

“The priorities of the History Department did not seem conducive to finding an effective joint hire,” Shutt said.

Spiekerman was next to leave the department, after the 2011-2012 academic year, though his full return to the Political Science Department was planned by the administration.

It was Levithan’s departure last spring that came as a surprise and intensified staffing pressures within the program. After receiving tenure from the College at the end of last year, Levithan quickly announced his resignation. He now writes fantasy novels instead of teaching, according to Shutt.

Levithan did not respond to the Collegian‘s multiple requests for an interview.

Levithan’s departure followed years of tension with other members of the IPHS department.

“Previous members of the department wanted to be more demanding than my experience shows is appropriate,” Shutt said.

“He wanted to be a hard ass, in all kinds of ways,” Shutt said of Levithan specifically, “and it was inappropriate, and the result was that people didn’t do [the work].”

In addition to demanding more of his students, Levithan refused to teach the program’s senior seminar once every three years, according to Elkins.

“If I hadn’t done it, the senior seminar would have disappeared,” Elkins said, adding later, “Josh wasn’t a good fit either for IPHS or for Kenyon. Unfortunately [his resignation] happened at the same time as we were having outside pressures.”

Although Elkins left IPHS last summer to lead the concentration in Comparative World Literature, which emphasizes the study of literature in a global context, she makes clear her concerns about the quality of teaching she could have provided in an understaffed department.

“If the program were adequately staffed, I would love to teach in the program,” she said. “I would not have been happy teaching 25 students in the first-year course and feeling like I needed to sacrifice the quality of the experience I was giving the students.”

Staffing concerns do not fully explain Elkins’ decision to leave the department. Tension between Elkins and former Provost Nayef Samhat, now president of Wofford College in South Carolina, also contributed to her departure.

Although Shutt claims to have had a workable relationship with Samhat, he suggested that other IPHS faculty did not. “I try to avoid conflict,” Shutt said. “[Other IPHS faculty] thought that [Samhat] was trying to destroy the program or wanted to minimize it to extinction.”

“All members of the IPHS program were well aware of my support for the mission and purpose of the program, and I conveyed that to them in person and in email on repeated occasions,” Samhat said.

“I was reassured repeatedly that the program would exist as long as I wanted to teach it,” Shutt said.

A Battle of Ideologies

Shutt thinks some of IPHS’ detractors within the College are motivated by the idea that Kenyon should emphasize other disciplines and move away from studies of the Western canon. It is true that in recent years, the College has seen the introduction of several programs that emphasize non-Western works, including African Diaspora Studies and Latino/a Studies. So in May of this year, Shutt made his case at the baccalaureate ceremony.

College administrators deny that recent decisions regarding IPHS were ideologically motivated.

“I don’t think calling IPHS an intellectual dinosaur ラ if some are saying that ラ is a fair characterization,” said Interim Provost Joe Klesner, who served under Samhat as associate provost. “In the academy there are people who are advocates of newer approaches to the humanities or who might think that other kinds of knowledge ought to be privileged. This is not an intellectual tradition that ought be thrown out by any means, and I have told Professor Shutt and Professor Elkins that.”

Still, Elkins acknowledges criticism from Kenyon faculty over IPHS’ relevance. “There are a number of people who are now relatively senior at Kenyon who have told me that they don’t think there’s a place for IPHS,” she said.

Lobster Rolls and Hamburgers

If the content of IPHS doesn’t drive the program’s opponents, its staffing costs do.

“Whatever his intentions may be, it is a fact that under the leadership of Professor Samhat, the number of people involved went from five to, depending on how you count it, one to two,” Shutt said. “This doesn’t suggest strong support. Though he said he was supporting the program, his actions belie that.”

Samhat thought IPHS was “too expensive given we did not have a major,” according to Elkins.

“It was like offering lobster rolls and hamburgers at the same price,” Shutt said. “And that was unsustainable.”

“About a dozen years ago, the program expanded in terms of the staffing allotted to it,” Klesner said, “and became a concentration. It’s not inconceivable that one could devise a major out of [IPHS] ラ probably a joint major ラ but that requires cooperating departments. Or it could continue being a concentration. If you’re looking at it from outside and say that there are three faculty members or four faculty members offering a minor, then it does look expensive.”

But Klesner refrained from characterizing IPHS as unsustainably expensive. “One of the reasons I don’t want to say it’s too expensive is because not everybody who does 113-114 [the first year course] decides to do the concentration,” he said. “And the 113-114 is the piece that has the longest history here, and I would argue would be the greatest loss if we didn’t have the program at all.”

Following Beatrice

In Shutt’s baccalaureate address, he spoke on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the work to which he has devoted most of his professional life.

“Revelation for Dante came in the guise of Beatrice,” Shutt said. “He believed that everyone was granted a Beatrice ラ grace and revelation sufficient to save them ラ and the choice to follow was their own.”

Associate Professor of Political Science Lisa Leibowitz is slated to teach IPHS beginning next fall, according to Provost Klesner.

Shutt will take a sabbatical next year, meaning that unless the College hires an additional professor before next fall, Leibowitz will be the only faculty member in the department.

“I think [the College] probably will hire a replacement for me. I have someone in mind of my own,” Shutt said.

A College official with knowledge of the situation expressed doubts in Shutt’s ability to aid in restaffing the department while on sabbatical.

Also up in the air is whether or not the department will apply for the tenure-track position vacated by Levithan. When a department wants to staff a tenure-track position, it must apply to the Resource Allocation and Assessment Subcommittee of the faculty Executive Committee. When this happens, the position is opened up to all departments for applications, meaning IPHS could lose it permanently, as they did McGuire’s spot.

IPHS needs at least three professors to staff the first-year program and upper-level courses, according to faculty members in and outside the program. Assuming current enrollment levels, that would mean seminars with enrollment in the high teens.

For now, the 46 students enrolled in IPHS 113 will be taught exclusively by Shutt, which has forced change in the course’s structure.

“What I have had to modify is tutorials,” he said. “I can’t do 150 tutorials each semester, so that we’ve had to scale back on.”

Still, the consensus among faculty members interviewed for this article was that IPHS cannot sustain itself at current levels of staffing. Sooner rather than later, the program will have to find its Beatrice.

[starbox id=”sam colt”]


Comments for this article have closed. If you'd like to send a letter to the editor for publication, please email us at