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October 3, 2018

Last year the Classical Studies Department at the University of Michigan announced the launch of its Bridge MA, a fully funded program designed to prepare scholars from diverse backgrounds for entry into one of Michigan’s Ph.D. programs in Classical Studies or related fields. There are few programs like it, particularly at public universities. One of its architects, Professor Sara Ahbel-Rappe, recently received a competitive award for her diversity efforts. I connected with her along with Dr. Young Richard Kim, the Onassis Foundation’s new Director of Educational Programs, to discuss Michigan’s diversity efforts and its partnership with the Onassis Foundation.

As they informed me, Bridge MA students have three semesters of full funding, two of which carry no teaching requirements. They also receive Onassis Distinguished Diversity Scholarships, which provide supplemental funds for research or travel related to their Classics education. For example, funds might be used for additional language study, participation in an archaeological dig, or internship opportunities at the Onassis Cultural Centre in Athens. There is currently one Bridge MA student, and another three are expected to enroll next year. Although Bridge MA students must reapply for admission to one of Michigan’s Ph.D. programs, their application process is streamlined, and once admitted, students are guaranteed full funding.

The Bridge MA works in tandem with Michigan Humanities Emerging Scholars (MICHHERS), an intensive summer program for undergraduate students, offered by the University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School. MICHHERS aims to recruit promising undergraduates from diverse backgrounds for graduate study in the humanities. Classical Studies hosted four MICHHERS students this past summer, from the University of New Mexico, Wayne State University, Bryn Mawr College, and California State University, Los Angeles.

Serious conversations about diversity began at the University of Michigan four years ago, when Dr. Mark Schlissel became its president and launched a Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity initiative. Diversity work is never easy, and it is uniquely challenging in Michigan, whose state constitution bans solely race-based hiring or admissions. Thus, as Professor Ahbel-Rappe noted, “we need to build equality, economic diversity, social outreach, and intellectual diversity into the admissions process. In that way, however, we are looking for students and faculty who are interested and invested both in the disciplines, but also in social change and social justice.” A number of administrators and Classical Studies faculty worked together to advance this diversity initiative, including Professors Debby Keller-Cohen (formerly, Associate Dean of Rackham for the Humanities), Sara Forsdyke, and Artemis Leontis.

When asked why it was important to diversify Classics, both Professor Ahbel-Rappe and Dr. Kim noted that the face of Classics is changing. Professor Ahbel-Rappe recognized that “Classics in the 21st century…belongs to all of us.” Dr. Kim saw diversity in Classics as essential to the survival of the field: “Personally, I think it’s an existential crisis...Classics simply won’t survive as an academic discipline unless it reimagines what its parameters are. We need as much diversity in subject matter as we do in our students and faculty. Students, especially underrepresented students, need to see in their professors (and administrators) greater diversity. There is, of course, the ‘pipeline’ problem, a major and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and we know just how hard it is to get minority students interested in Classics, let alone graduate school, tenure-track, tenure. There is a systemic problem that needs to change. As I’ve heard some good colleagues (Professors Sasha-Mae Eccleston and Dan-el Padilla Peralta) say, it’s not just a matter of importing people of color into academic positions. The structure needs to change.”

Diversifying Classics involves multiple challenges. Recruitment is definitely a big piece of the puzzle. But so is the more difficult and less quantifiable work of ensuring that people from underrepresented groups feel completely welcomed, that they belong in spaces that have traditionally not included them. Various fellowship funds for Bridge MA students do not guarantee complete or perfect inclusion. But the hope is that these dedicated funds will at least signal that inclusivity is a priority and a goal to which Classical Studies at the University of Michigan is committed for the long haul.


Arum Park is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies & Classics at the University of Arizona, where she has worked since 2015. She has also held positions at Amherst College, the University of Oklahoma, Washington and Lee University, and Brigham Young University. Her primary areas of research are Archaic and Classical Greek poetry, but she has published on a range of authors, including Ovid and Longus.