Medieval studies minor in jeopardy

Following the spring 2012 retirement of Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Bill Cook, the future of Geneseo’s medieval studies minor hangs in the balance. While both professor of English Graham Drake and Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Ronald Herzman offer courses that correspond to the minor’s curriculum, without Cook’s history-intensive course offerings, the minor essentially transformed into a study of medieval literature.

This situation is a manifestation of a much larger and more complicated issue, according to Joseph Cope, associate professor and chair of the history department.

“What the Cook case illustrates in a microcosmic sense is a much bigger problem with the [State University of New York] system as a whole,” Cope said. “The state of New York has disinvested in public higher education. What we’re seeing is holes open up due to faculty leaving or retiring, and we don’t have the resources on campus to fill those holes.”

In an attempt to fill this particular hole himself, Cook has begun to work with the nonprofit Friends of Florence to fundraise the $3 million necessary to create an endowed chair position. Friends of Florence, an organization Cook supports, raises money in the United States in order to preserve works of art in Florence, Italy.

According to Cook, the partnership with this organization would likely result in a full-time faculty position for an individual who specializes in the study of Tuscany during the Renaissance. This individual would also be required to dedicate a small part of their workload to helping Friends of Florence.

While Cope said that he would welcome an endowed medievalist position in the history department, he said the need for this measure “points to a deeper structural issue."

“When you have an endowed chair, you are basically asking donors to come up with the resources to hire a faculty member,” Cope said. “The fact that we have to look at that as an option to replace [Cook] is a symptom of the fact that the resources aren’t coming from the state.”

When Cook presented the idea of partnering to create this endowed chair to the trustees of Friends of Florence, board member for Friends of Florence and National Committeewoman for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania Christine Toretti expressed interest in helping the fundraising effort to target “big money contributors” from external organizations, according to Cook.

The next step of the process is for Toretti to meet with Vice President for College Advancement Bill Brower, Interim President Carol Long, Cope and Cook to draw up a contract about the role that Friends of Florence would play in creating and supporting the new position.

“We’ve got to turn idea into a plan,” Cook said.

The establishment of this endowed position could have added benefits for students. If income generated by the Cook Fund for Excellence in Teaching is attached to this chair position, the funds could be used to send student interns to Florence and to sponsor a student research assistant for the endowed chair, according to Cook.

“In a more perfect world, we would have robust state support for higher education so that we could be hiring faculty, and we wouldn’t have to ask a retired professor to go out and fundraise to replace themselves,” Cope said. “That’s a terrible way to run a college.”

While Cook said that this process is still an “uphill climb,” he hopes to see formal negotiations to create the position begin in spring 2014.