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Small but acclaimed BU institute fears for its future

A dispute is stirring a sleepy corner of Boston University, where leaders of a unique institute for scholarly editing fear the administration plans to shut down their world-renowned program.

The co-director of the Editorial Institute, noted T.S. Eliot scholar Christopher Ricks, resigned last month in protest over what he says is a covert attempt to let the institute wither and die.

The controversy has drawn Ricks and his counterpart, Archibald Burnett, out from behind the verses of Philip Larkin and Eliot and into a back-and-forth with university administrators about whether the institute will continue to exist at BU.

“If [the college] abolishes degrees in editorial studies then we have reached the point of no return,” Ricks said in a recent phone interview from his native England, where he spends the summer.


The new dean of BU’s College of Arts and Sciences, which oversees the institute, has not announced the program’s closure. But in December, Dean Ann Cudd forbade the institute from admitting doctoral students this fall and, in an unusual move, convened a special committee to evaluate the institute. She has not said whether the program may accept students next year.

This is not a death knell for the program, administrators said, simply a one-year hiatus because they believe that with 21 students, the institute is overcrowded.

“I am fully supportive of the work of the Editorial Institute,” Cudd said in a statement e-mailed by a BU spokesman.

But alarm about the institute’s future has prompted outrage not only from students and professors but literary scholars and publishers around the world, who have written to Cudd asking for a reversal.

Ricks doesn’t think that will help. On June 7, he announced his resignation to the provost and trustees. He will continue to teach at BU, as he is a tenured professor.


“I believe that we have lost,” said Ricks, who is also a Bob Dylan scholar.

On a recent afternoon, Burnett worked quietly in his sunny office overlooking the Charles River, his couch crowded with red folders filled with 700 photocopies of periodicals containing articles by Eliot. He and Ricks are baffled about why a dean who arrived at BU less than a year ago would take aim at the institute. But they speculate.

The move, they say, might suggest tepid support for the humanities by an administration focused on science and technology — an allegation Cudd’s office vigorously rebuts. Possibly, they think, it’s about money.

“It’s like why I like works of art,” Ricks said. “There’s never a single reason why I think they are magnificent and moving . . . and that goes for bad things, as well.”

What is the Editorial Institute and why does it matter? Small but well respected, the center teaches students of all disciplines — from law to music to journalism — the scholarly discipline of editing. Many students later work in publishing, teaching, and bibliographic work.

Students collaborate with professors from across the university to assemble and annotate never-before-created editions of everything from musical scores of Johann Sebastian Bach to the radio broadcasts of the BBC’s Alistair Cooke about race in America.

Ricks, who previously taught at the University of Cambridge in England, fears he may be a casualty of an effort by some leaders to eradicate vestiges of former president John Silber, the polarizing figure who brought Ricks to BU 30 years ago and is credited with growing the university’s stature — if by autocratic rule.


Also at play is a relatively new policy about doctoral student funding that BU implemented three years ago. In an ongoing attempt to compete with universities of higher stature, BU announced that all PhD students would receive free tuition plus health care and a stipend for five years.

Now, professors say, word has trickled out that the policy is too expensive.

The BU spokesman, Colin Riley, declined to respond to questions from the Globe about the policy and whether it is being scaled back.

Whatever the university’s aims, Ricks and Burnett said they are most concerned by the way it was handled, announced suddenly with what they view as little room for discussion.

“They simply say that ‘I’m not sure that the doctorate will continue.’ But it’s six months of not being sure,” Ricks said.

In the meantime, the uncertainty worries students.

“People don’t know what’s going on and we haven’t even been promised that we’re even going to be able to finish our degrees,” said Ryan Patten, an organ player editing Bach’s copy of organ music by French composer Nicolas de Grigny.

Other professors fume that BU has threatened a program that encourages the type of cross-discipline collaboration the university touts.

“Christopher Ricks is the single best thing at Boston University,” said Loren J. Samons, a classics professor at BU. Axing the institute, Samons said, would be “simply willful masochism.”


Laura Krantz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.