The Columbia Slavic Department,
or What Happened to the Good Old Days

By Harold B. Segel

Educators often lament the disinterest in history on the part of American students. But when it suits them, the same educators exhibit a similar disinterest. Take, for example, the situation in the Slavic Department at Columbia University. From the historical viewpoint, Columbia has certainly been one of the leading centers of Slavic studies in the United States. More than that, it has been a pioneer in Slavic studies in this century. After World War II it had endowed chairs in Polish and Czech, and eventually the Bakhmeteff professorship of Russian studies. Since the endowed chairs in Polish and Czech were founded by the communist governments of Soviet-occupied Poland and Czechoslovakia, they fell victim to the McCarthyism of the early 1950s. By the time I joined the Columbia faculty in January 1959, both the Polish and Czech chairs had been phased out. My predecessor in Polish literature had been the late Professor Manfred Kridl. His death a few years before my arrival gave Columbia the opportunity it was by then eager to have to ring the curtain down on the Adam Mickiewicz Professorship of Polish Studies. Before the chair was formally abolished, and before I arrived on the scene, Polish literature was kept alive by other members of the Department who were not Polish specialists but had some knowledge of the language and literature. Needless to say, it was not the most satisfactory arrangement.

The decline of Slavic Studies at Columbia began with the campus revolution of 1968 when the requirement to take a second Slavic languge was abolished owing to the efforts of a militant group of departmental "revolutionaries."

Apart from the fact that Columbia became suspect in the McCarthy era because of its two academic chairs established by communist governments, there were bad feelings about the Polish chair in the Polish American community for much the same reason. That Manfred Kridl was a distinguished Polish literary scholar whose scholarship and teaching stood above politics seemed at times to get lost in the shuffle. From the point of view of many people in the Polish American community, Columbia University, by accepting the Adam Mickiewicz Professorship of Polish Studies, was providing the Polish communists a platform from which to disseminate propaganda. The waters were further muddied by the late Arthur Coleman, who had taught Polish at Columbia for several years before Kridl and deeply resented Kridl's appointment.

With Coleman out of the way, Kridl dead, and the Adam Mickiewicz Professorship effectively abolished, my own appointment in January 1959 seemed to signal Columbia’s desire to turn a corner in Polish studies. It remained committed to the preservation of a graduate program of Polish studies, but absent the Adam Mickiewicz chair, Polish would be offerred on the same basis as other Slavic languages and literatures; in other words, no mystique would attach to it. Furthermore, as a native American of non-Polish background, with a PhD in Polish from Harvard, and a student of Wiktor Weintraub's, my appointment in a sense de-Polonized the status of graduate instruction in Polish at Columbia.

The situation in Czech was somewhat similar, but not entirely. The Thomas Masaryk chair was in history and was held by a distinguished Czech historian. Czech literature was taught by the now retired Professor William Harkins, who also taught Old Russian literature and Russian folklore. In my own case, though I was hired primarily for Polish, I was asked from the very beginning to balance my Polish offerings with a program in Russian consisting of courses in eighteenth-century Russian literature and Russian drama. South Slavic studies were taught at Columbia for years by the late Professor Stavo Skendi, a Yugoslav Albanian with a strong interest in folklore. No chair in South Slavic studies ever existed at the University, as far as I know.

Until the campus revolutions of 1968, which hit Columbia with particular force and attracted nationwide attention, the Slavic Department required a second Slavic language for both the MA and PhD degrees. As today, the majority of graduate students were Russian majors, but Polish was the most popular second language. In the full range of courses I taught in Polish literature from 1959 to 1968, enrollments were generally quite good numbering per course anywhere from a dozen to around twenty-five students (few at the time of a Polish American background; those came later).

The campus revolution of 1968 is the point at which the collective memory of the Slavic Department seems to break down. A militant group of departmental "revolutionaries" had two primary goals. They demanded, and eventually won, two major concessions from the Department: a reduction in the number of required courses in Slavic linguistics, and the abolition of the second Slavic language requirement. Since the majority of graduate students were majors in Russian literature, they were anxious to lighten their load in linguistics, in which few of them were interested; and since they were Russian majors, they really didn't see why they had to "waste time" on a second Slavic language.

Although hardly a soul today remembers the concessions made to the students in the wake of the upheaval of 1968, that in fact was when the long decline of Slavic studies at Columbia actually began. Since a second Slavic language was now one of a few available minors required for the MA and PhD degrees–the others were Russian history, comparative literature, or a non-Slavic European literature–students still took courses in Polish, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian. Enrollments inevitably declined, but there were still students attracted to Polish, including a few who came to Columbia in order to take their MAs and PhDs in Polish literature. Some of the students came from the Slavic Department, others came from the regional studies program of the Institute on East Central Europe, which together with the Russian Institute (now the Harriman Institiute) in the School of International and Public Affairs constituted a government-supported Center of Soviet and East European Studies. Also helping the cause of Polish compared, let's say to Czech and Serbo-Croatian, was the fact that for a long time Columbia offered courses in Polish history.

When over time the rage and stridency of 1968 faded from memory, a few of us in the Department committed to a full graduate program of Slavic languages and literatures tried, on several occasions, to reopen the case for a second Slavic language requirement. We got nowhere, and the status quo has remained to the present. Over the last dozen years, the position of the other Slavic languages in the Department has clearly eroded. With the retirement of Stavro Skendi, no regular instruction in the South Slavic literatures was maintained. The now retired linguist Rado Lencek, a native Slovene, did offer tutorials and directed reading in South Slavic cultures for interested students; but the number of such students was very small and Lencek himself, while always encouraging and helpful to students, did not want to be thought of as a teacher of South Slavic literatures. His own position as a linguist, after the retirement of Profesor George Shevelov, was compromised by the Department's dropping the PhD in Slavic linguistics, a move that had been prepared as far back as 1968 with the extorted reduction in departmental requirements in linguistics. With the retirements of Skendi and Lencek, and the death of the Ottomanist, Professor Tibor Halasi-Kun, Columbia has nothing in South Slavic and Balkan studies except an introductory and intermediate course in Serbo-Croatian.

The cause of Polish literature was helped by the fact that for a long time Columbia offered courses in Polish history. This support disappeared when Polish history itself disappeared from the curriculum as a regular offering.

Although Polish long maintained its position as the second most popular Slavic language after Russian, though with fewer and fewer students taking courses, the support it drew from enrollments in Polish history courses disappeared when Polish history itself disappeared from the curriculum as a regular offering. Polish history in general has fared badly at Columbia. Professor Andrzej Kamiaski, now at Georgetown, taught Polish history for several years but was not given tenure despite his popularity as a teacher. He was succeeded by a young Columbia PhD in Polish history, Dwight Van Horn, who was given to understand that a tenure-track position in Polish (or Polish and East European history) had been approved by the Department of History. When Van Horn also was denied tenure, and left the University, support for any regular instruction in Polish history went with him. Now no one says anything anymore about a Polish line in the Department of History; it simply doesn't exist. The only East European history taught on a regular basis (a course every other year) at Columbia is Hungarian, and what will happen to that after Professor Istvan Deak's retirement is easy to imagine. On a few occasions Professor Stanley Blejwas has been brought in as a visitor from nearby Central Connecticut State University to teach a course in Polish history. But this is a once in a while, available funds-dependent appointment that in no way represents a commitment on the part of the University to a program of regular instruction in Polish history and of course negates the possibility of advanced degree studies.

Last spring, I had occasion to bring up the matter of Polish history at Columbia in a meeting with a vice president of the university whose own field is English. When I complained about the lack of regular instruction in Polish history, the administrator replied that well, the University has a very competent person teaching East European Jewish history. My own reply to this was that however interesting and important the history of the Jews of Eastern Europe may be, courses on the subject hardly take the place of regular instruction in Polish history. I also mentioned that the "specialist in East European Jewish history" happens to be primarily a historian of Russian Jewry and makes no pretense to great expertise on Eastern Europe. The vice-president closed the discussion muttering something about the University no longer being in a position to cover all fields.

An effort was made to undermine Polish studies by dissuading students from enrolling for advanced work in Polish and by discouraging them even from taking courses in Polish.

In 1988 I gave up my ten-year directorship of the Institute on East Central Europe, a regional studies program appointment of little or no real power and remunerated from the beginning of Columbia's regional institutes at a salarly supplement of $2,000 a year and with no time off from teaching. Around this time, the decision was apparently made in the sanctum sanctorum of the Slavic Department—independently of the Administration, or with the collusion of the Administration; I have no idea to this very day–to phase out graduate instruction in the non-Russian Slavic languages. This was to be accomplished through natural attrition (death, mandatory retirement) and encouraged early retirement (defined as age 55 and older). The deaths of Professors Rufus Mathewson and Leon Stilman, both Russian specialists, and the retirements of Professors Stavro Skendi, George Shevelov, William Harkins, and Rado Lencek, "freed up" funds for new appointments to tenure-track positions. Whatever monies became so available were used wholly for new appointments in Russian. Four appointments were made, three in Russian literature and one in the teaching of Russian, not linguistics so much as practical language instruction and the administration of the Russian-language teaching program. All four appointees have since been tenured. Whether or not the Department needed all these appointments at the time they were made is another matter. The Department obviously has the right to look ahead to the future; but in two instances the new appointees cover fields then well represented in the Department by faculty nowhere near retirement.

Where the Department once had two senior linguists (Shevelov and Lencek), it now has none, so to all intents and purposes the retired linguists have not been replaced, and as I mentioned, the Department no longer offers an advanced degree in Slavic linguistics. Hence the funds made available for new appointments went entirely into Russian. For the foreseeable future this has closed the door on any new tenure-track appointments in the other Slavic languages. What then is the current status of these languages at Columbia?

When Profesor William Harkins, who taught Russian and Czech literatures, retired, he was not replaced with someone either in Czech or with his dual competence. Czech language and literature now exist at Columbia on the level primarily of language instruction, taught by a long-time language teacher who has no regular professorial position and is not empowered to conduct graduate studies. The vacancy created by the retirement of Professor Lencek, who was not replaced by a linguist or a South Slavist, has meant the virtual demise of both Slavic linguistics and South Slavic studies in the Department. Only the Serbo-Croatian language is taught, again by a language instructor with no professorial appointment.

Until my own early retirement in July 1995 (after nearly 37 years at Columbia, preceded by three and a half at the University of Florida), Polish was the sole remaining non-Russian Slavic language in which graduate degrees were still offered by the Department. Assuming that the goal of the Department has been the reduction of the non-Russian Slavic language presence to the level just of language instruction, then Polish was all that stood in the way of the desired transformation of the Department into a department principally of Russian language and literature. Although nothing was done overtly, or indeed could have been as long as I was a member of the faculty, to bring about the reduction of Polish to the level of Czech or Serbo-Croatian, it became obvious after a while that an effort was in fact being made to undermine Polish studies by dissuading students from enrolling for advanced work in Polish and by discouraging them even from taking courses in Polish. Who was in a position to so dissuade students from pursuing Polish studies? The chairman of the Department at the time when he met with prospective or incoming students, and the departmental director of graduate studies (also a dedicated Russicist) who assumed responsibilty for guiding students in making up their course programs.

The Columbia specialist in East European Jewish history happens to be primarily a historian of Russian Jewry and makes no pretense to great expertise on Eastern Europe.

Let me give you a concrete example of what I'm talking about, the most glaring case of such friendly dissuasion since it involved misrepresentation. While I was on leave one semester, and far from New York, I received a call from Paris from a young woman who introduced herself as a prospective new graduate student and one with a strong interest in Polish and German, both of which she had studied in Europe. The reason she was calling was to clarify the actual status of Polish studies in the Department by talking directly with the professor in charge of those studies. On a visit to New York, during a meeting with the then chairman of the Department, she had been told by him that he didn't think there was a PhD program still offered in the Department and that in any case the student would do better majoring in Russian with a minor in Comparative Literature so as to accommodate her interest in German! The student had wanted to major in Polish. Once apprised of the fact by me that a graduate program in Polish through the doctorate level was alive and well at Columbia, the student came to the Department and became one of its best students. But despite her work in Polish, from the time she entered the Department she was pressured into taking Russian courses, which of course limited the amount of time she could devote formally to Polish.

Another young woman, a native Pole whose strong interest in Polish literature became known to me only much later, was majoring in Russian but was employed part time as an assistant to the Polish language instructor in the Department. Once my desire to take early retirement became known, the woman came to me to confess her suppressed desire to major in Polish and her unhappiness over my imminent departure. For some time I had been curious as to why the student seemed to shy away from me despite my casualness and friendliness. Obviously very uneasy, she confided in me that she had been told by the chairman that there was no future for her in Polish studies and that if she wanted to get anywhere she had to concentrate on Russian. Since my retirement, both women, after expressing their wish to have some graduate instruction in Polish, were told either to transfer to Harvard or to commute to Cambridge to study with Professor Baranczak. A third student, who completed her MA in Polish with me before I retired, was given similar advice.

Since Columbia's Russicists were determined to transform the Department primarily into a department of Russian language and literature, why then tolerate even the greatly reduced presence of Czech, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian? Easy. Without other Slavic languages, the department could no longer be a "department of Slavic languages and literatures." In view of the illustrious history of the Department, this would apparently be regarded as an intolerable compromise of its prestige. Of no less importance, the elimination of Czech, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian would in turn undermine the University's status as a Title VI-funded Center of Russian and East European Studies. For years the salaries of the language instructors in Czech, Polish, Hungarian and the other East European languages offered at Columbia were paid, in whole or in part, out of the budget of the Center. A separate accommodation existed for Serbo-Croatian that would take too much time to explain at this point.

Thus the Slavic Department at Columbia, once a pioneer in teaching Slavic languages and literatures in the United States, has been reduced to a Department of Russian.

So where are we today? Columbia no longer offers graduate programs in Czech, Polish, and South-Slavic literatures, only in Russian. The Czech, Polish, and Serbo-Croatian languages, and an occasional course in literature, are offered by former language instructors whose titles have been upgraded to that of Adjunct Assistant Professor. They do not have regular professorial appointments and are non-tenured. Czech, Polish, and Balkan history no longer exist at Columbia. Hungarian history will disappear with Istvan Deak's retirement.

The one bright spot (if one can call it that) in this otherwise gloomy picture is the so far successful effort to raise money for Ukrainian studies. A well-organized group of Columbia and Barnard students of Ukrainian ethnic origin raised money in the past for visiting professors in Ukrainian language, literature, and history. This laid the foundation for Ukrainian support of Ukrainian studies at Columbia. The present director of Columbia's Harriman Institute, an authority on the history of the Red Army, has retooled himself, at least in part, into a specialist on Ukrainian history and is spearheading the effort to raise "serious" money for Ukrainian studies at the University. The time may not be far off when Slavic studies at Columbia will resemble the situation at some Canadian universities where a Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures consists mainly of Russian and Ukrainian with little or nothing of consequence in Czech, Polish, and South-Slavic. So much for relative cultural values.

Columbia is now dropping the teaching of Serbo-Croatian. They may try to revive it, and possibly also bring in a junior appointment in Polish, if they can get people who can combine these languages with Ukrainian. But the only thing definite at this point is that Serbo-Croatian is being dropped as of the 1996-97 academic year.

When all is said and done, Columbia has turned away from East European studies, thereby spurning its own history, the memory of which will continue to fade as time goes on. Why, is anyone's guess. The usual argument advanced is that in an age of declining income and greater expenses the University cannot be all things to all people and must therefore pursue a policy of "selective excellence." But one wonders why at a university that is certainly wealthy and in the midst of an extraordinarily ambitious, and so far successful, fundraising campaign, non-Russian Slavic and East European studies are accorded such a very low priority.

Harold B. Segel is Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author, translator and editor of numerous books including Renaissance Culture in Poland: the rise of Humanism, 1470-1543 (1989) Polish Romantic Drama: Three Plays in English Translations (1977), and The Major Comedies of Alexander Fredro (1969). His most recent books are Pinocchio’s Progeny: Puppets, Marionettes, Automatons, and Robots in Modernist and Avant-Garde Drama (1995) and Stranger in Our Midst: Images of the Jew in Polish Literature, forthcoming from Cornell University Press.


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