A Response from Hodges (and my response to it)

On Friday I received a letter from Richard Hodges in response to my letter protesting his dissolution of MASCA (see here). His letter was clearly tailored as a direct response to my letter, but some paragraphs seem to have been boilerplate. If so, I take this to mean that mine was one of many such letters received by the Museum. The tone of his letter was cordial, and it revealed no secrets, but out of respect for his privacy I won’t be posting its contents. I do, however, wish to highlight a few points raised by it:

  • Hodges maintains that the Museum will maintain its dual mission as both a center of archaeological research and as a world-class museum, despite the changes.
  • MASCA, in particular, was targeted for elimination because of its failure to generate revenues to offset its cost, or to effectively provide services to the rest of the Museum.
  • Hodges takes issue with the media coverage of the layoffs, stating that the position of “Senior Research Scientist” has been eliminated, and that those who are losing their positions may still be eligible for employment in different positions in the Museum.
  • He also reasserts that the decision was, in no uncertain terms, driven by financial considerations.

You can take these points however you wish, but I must comment on a few of them.

First, I believe that everyone involved is still supportive of the dual mission of the Museum. Most archaeologists, such as myself, who have spoken up against these layoffs feel that they will gravely damage its reputation and efficacy as a research institution. Hodges, clearly, thinks otherwise.

Second, the lack of interest or integration of MASCA with the rest of the Museum is news to me; during my time at MASCA, it was deeply involved in a wide range of expeditions and even put together a successful traveling exhibition (Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change). But, if it has since lost relevance to the rest of the Museum, I suspect that this is because, during the past few years of churn in the Museum’s administration, the proper political pressure to ensure communication and cooperation between departments was absent. (The Museum, as much as I love it, can be a seriously factional institution with petty little turf wars.) Stuart Fleming, MASCA’s last scientific director, was a master of making his department relevant, but since his retirement that role has not been adequately filled. But if we are to grant Hodges his point about MASCA’s current isolation from the rest of the Museum, would it not have been better (given the talent and resources there) to have instead tried to rehabilitate it or improve intra-departmental contact and collaboration? Powerful people within the Museum have long sought to disband MASCA. It seems that Hodges, at the helm only briefly, was an easy mark for them.

Third, if the Senior Research Scientists are not placed in comparable positions within the Museum, Hodges’ complaint about the media coverage of the decision is just a distinction without a difference. These people will still have lost their jobs.

And finally, I actually admire Hodges for sticking to his guns about this being a financial decision. Financial decisions can be assessed by looking at the numbers. Dire financial straits can be softened through improved operating efficiency and improved fundraising. But, again, this decision was sprung as a fait accompli. There was no public discussion prior to the announcement of the decision—suggesting to me a very weak attempt at reaching a decent solution to the problem. Hodges’ defense of this as a financial decision also reasserts the confusion between his and Amy Gutmann’s public statements. All in all, the whole process still seems shamefully amateurish.

Update 2/12/09
I just heard from an old friend who also received a response from Hodges. As I suspected, his letter is almost identical to the one that I received and blog about above. So, since it’s clearly not a very personal letter, I may yet post it for others to consider.

2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Louise Krasniewicz #

    As one of the researchers terminated at the museum, I appreciate your comments and the letter you sent. But as I fear we all know, no protests will change this decision. But I thought some additional background info might be interesting to you. The researchers terminated included all the cultural anthropologists doing research in the museum, not just the archaeologists. This is interesting because the stated goal of the new administration (said publicly and in writing numerous times) is to publish old archaeological projects digitally. The failure of the museum over the years to do this publication of past projects (going back 100 years) is considered an outrage and this digital publishing has top priority in terms of funding and personnel. Outreach to the public, which was an activity carried out by many of the terminated researchers, is not currently the priority. I find it odd that this part of the story is never brought up, I suspect because it wouldn’t make sense to most people to put resources into such a digital publishing program when do many other interesting things could be done. Just a view from the inside.

  2. 2

    Thank you, Louise, for your comments. Most of my information “from the inside” comes from a single source—so it’s always interesting to hear from others, and to get a more complete picture of what’s going on. My focus on the archaeologists (and MASCA, in particular) isn’t meant to detract from other researchers and departments affected by the decision; it’s simply a reflection of my own experience in the Museum.

    One thing that particularly irks me, which I hadn’t in any way linked to the firings, is the strong lead that the OI has taken in publishing old works freely and electronically. Actually, I’m pleased as Punch that they’ve done so, and wish that they had done so a few years earlier (when it would have done my own studies more good), but am embarrassed that UPM Publications hasn’t followed suit. I feel that if the OI can do it, we should be able to as well. So, if I’m reading you right, the push to publish is actually (in my view) a positive step, but is being done at the expense of the Museum, as a whole.

    Now, of course, nothing can be done without the money to back it—and Hodges is firm in his position that this is a financial decision—but I still have seen no real effort to avoid the crisis. So to me it seems increasingly as if money is simply the excuse given to restructure the museum quickly while preemptively shutting down any protests. It’s a shame that Hodges doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to see the big picture of the Museum’s mission, and I fear that we’ve seen the end of UPM as a world class institution.

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