Chairman of English Department Quits at SUNY-Albany as Turmoil Continues
By ROBIN WILSON
After years of infighting, the English department at the State University of New York at Albany seemed to be on the mend when it hired Tom Cohen as chairman two years ago. But this month, Mr. Cohen resigned the post after losing a power struggle with his dean, leaving the department once again in turmoil.
As Mr. Cohen explains it, the atmosphere in the English department was "poisonous" when he arrived at Albany in the fall of 1998. Two years earlier, the university had placed the department in receivership; faculty members did not get along well enough even to hold committee meetings. The struggle pitted literary theorists against professors of rhetoric and composition against professors of creative writing. In addition, two professors who had moved to Albany from Syracuse University and considered themselves classical Marxists joined with other English professors at Albany to launch a memo-writing campaign against the administration, which they believed was marginalizing their views. Everyone was fighting for influence over the department's doctoral program.
The university's provost asked Mr. Cohen to bring peace and luster to the department. Administrators promised him money for 12 new hires over three years, with a guarantee that the department would receive other perks as well, says Mr. Cohen. The goal was to make Albany's English department a flagship, not just in the region but nationwide.
English professors at Albany refer to the plan somewhat cryptically as "the project." Under it, Mr. Cohen calmed the warring factions in the department and made eight new hires. He also started a lecture series that brought in high-profile intellectuals, including Jacques Derrida.
But in July the administrator who had been the English department's strongest ally, Albany's provost, Judy L. Genshaft, left to become president of the University of South Florida. And Mr. Cohen had never seen eye to eye with his direct boss -- Richard J. Hoffmann, dean of Albany's College of Arts and Sciences.
The problem, says Mr. Cohen, is that the dean is a scientist with no love for the humanities. (Mr. Hoffmann, a former zoology professor at Iowa State University, arrived at Albany in 1998, the same year as Mr. Cohen.) In addition, says Mr. Cohen, faculty members in other disciplines were jealous about the money going to the English department and constantly pressured Mr. Hoffmann to direct some of it their way.
"Instead of turning my full energy toward new hires, I was trying to figure out whether this dean was going to let this project happen," says Mr. Cohen. "There were endless impasses."
The final battle between Mr. Cohen and the dean was sparked by a radical plan that Mr. Cohen and Ms. Genshaft began pushing last academic year -- to take the English department out from under Dean Hoffmann's purview. Under the proposal, the department would have been allowed to make hiring and spending decisions without the dean's approval.
Naturally, the dean balked. He says he told top university officials that "this was not an arrangement I could work under." The move, he says, would have effectively made the English department a separate college.
Ultimately, Mr. Hoffmann won out, and this month both university officials and Mr. Cohen agreed it was time for him to give up the chairmanship. Mr. Cohen will remain on the faculty, although he is on leave this year, writing and traveling abroad.
Mr. Hoffmann says he has always supported the idea of drawing new talent to the English department. And he doesn't like being labeled a foe of the humanities. He says he simply doesn't believe the English department should be prized above all others in the college. "I don't like to see departments who seem to be saying, I've got a corner on the market of intellectual ideas," says Mr. Hoffmann.
Some English professors say Mr. Cohen went too far in pressing his agenda and rubbed many people the wrong way. After a while, they say, he didn't want to share power with anyone.
"What we're talking about is a style of management," says Cary Wolfe, an English professor who came to Albany to be associate chairman of the department under Mr. Cohen two years ago but resigned the post last spring after the two clashed over new hires and other issues.
The question now is whether Albany can make its way out of the latest mess. University officials say the hiring blitz they asked Mr. Cohen to carry out is still under way, and the English department plans to make four more hires for the next academic year. "I think Tom accomplished a good deal for the department, and the administration remains committed to the project," says Randall Craig, who is serving as interim chairman.
But Helen Regueiro Elam, an associate professor of English who's been at Albany for 23 years, isn't so sure: "I give it a very low percentage that this intellectual project will be at all retrievable."