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Together Again

Anthropologists will regroup.

Photo: Rod Searcey

FERGUSON: The merger came abruptly, "but I think it can succeed."

John Rick studies prehistoric highland states in the Peruvian Andes. James Ferguson is examining poverty in 20th-century South Africa. Although they’re both anthropologists, Rick and Ferguson are housed in separate departments that inhabit different buildings. But they get along just fine, says Rick. “We were in conversation before the announcement, and we’ve been in conversation since.”

He’s referring to the decision made by the provost and deans in January to reconstitute the department of anthropological sciences and the department of cultural and social anthropology (CASA) into a new department of anthropology. (The two departments split off from a single department nine years ago.) It was a decision that “came out of the blue” for Ferguson, who chairs CASA. “There was a kind of shock when the word was handed down.” Rick, who chairs “anthro sci,” says, “There was no consultation with my department.”

Sharon Long, then dean of Humanities and Sciences, acknowledged that “concerns about inadequate communication of these plans are very real” when she answered questions about the decision February 22 at a Faculty Senate meeting. She added that she would meet individually with faculty members to address those concerns.

According to Long, the new department will launch on September 1, with Ferguson as its chair. Faculty will have the choice of remaining in the two current departments, or moving to the new entity. However, those who elect not to move will have no funding for future graduate students. Long told senators, “No new appointments will be made in the older two departments,” and nodded when asked if that meant they ultimately would be “sunseted.”

The move to reunify the anthropology faculty “means that, all of a sudden, old history has been revisited, and I’m hearing lots of accounts that I’d never heard before about the bad old days,” Ferguson says. He’s referring to the decision in 1998 by then-provost Condoleezza Rice to divide the 50-year-old department of anthropology. The division was attributed to tensions about methods and theory, and also was influenced by a controversial tenure case.

“From our point of view, the split was really philosophical—how do you approach data, and what are legitimate means of proof?” says Rick, one of the few current tenured anthropology faculty who were on campus at that time.“It was based on epistemology, which is why we carry the name we carry—anthropological sciences.”

Anthropology as an academic discipline in the United States has evolved in four separate subfields: physical/biological anthropology, social/cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. Outside observers assumed that when Stanford’s department split, there would be a division along biological vs. cultural lines, but that didn’t happen. Instead, faculty with similar areas of specialization are billeted in both departments. “In anthropological sciences there are people who do sociocultural, linguistics and biology—and we have a similar diversity on the CASA side,” says Ferguson.

At the Faculty Senate meeting, Long cited “a great deal of overlap” in faculty expertise and “tremendous opportunities for synergy” as reasons for the merger. In recruitment of new faculty, Long says, “there will be the advantage of having more voices and diverse views at the table when choices are debated.” Students will have more choice in classes, and “a unified and broad anthropology department will create new alliances and teaching and research partnerships with other colleagues in the school” who may have perceived two anthropology departments as “a subtle barrier” to proposing ventures.

Ferguson, who joined the Stanford faculty four years ago, says it has taken him a while to “digest” the decision. “But I think it can succeed,” he adds. “That’s the way I’m looking at it: this is what has been done, and what I want to do is look to the future and see how we can make it work.”

Ferguson and Rick expect that most of the faculty in their departments will move to the new department. “I think the mood is one of recognizing that there’s nothing we can do, realistically, about what’s happened,” Rick says. “Therefore, we’d be wiser to try to think about how we can produce a more successful single department.”

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