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Open Letter Concerning the Recent Firing of the University of Pennsylvania Museum Researchers

January 8, 2009

I’d encourage everyone to go and sign the following petition:

Open Letter Concerning the Recent Firing of the University of Pennsylvania Museum Researchers


To whom it may, it should or it would concern,

We the undersigned, academics and graduate students who are engaged with the future of archaeology, are deeply troubled by the recent announcement of the termination of eighteen research specialist positions at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the abolishing of those research positions, and the shutting down of their associated laboratories and centers such as MASCA (the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology). We understand this gesture as a wholesale dismantling of the research mission of the University Museum, which has been at the forefront of international archaeological studies since the museum’s foundation in 1887. We would like to bring to public attention that this is a historic decision in the long-term history of the University Museum, and we reject that this is simply a strategic tightening of the belts at the time of a financial crisis, as it has been widely claimed by the Museum administrators in the popular media.

Our main concern is related to the long-term identity and mission of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. We are confident that University administrators are aware of the University Museum’s unique status as a research institution that has carried out many historically significant archaeological projects, most notably in the Middle East, the Mediterranean World, and Mesoamerica. In this way, like the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, the University Museum has uniquely characterized itself, as stated on the museum’s own website, as a research institution to “advance understanding of the world’s cultural heritage” (see the Museum’s mission statement). We understand the dismantling of the research infrastructure of the Museum as a drastic surgical gesture, a decisive act that will discontinue the possibility of future archaeological research in the above-mentioned fields. We hope that the Museum administration, the Provost, and the President understand the long term responsibilities and the consequences of this historic decision.

Many of these researchers, such as Patrick McGovern, Kathleen Ryan, David G. Romano, Simon Martin, Barbara J. Hayden, Philip G. Chase, and Naomi Miller are high-profile senior researchers in their respective fields. They have contributed to the intellectual environment of the University and the greater archaeological discipline with their research, their numerous publications, and teaching for many years. We feel that the firing of these researchers in this financially strained environment is unfair since they may not be easily employed elsewhere at this time with their laboratory and facilities needs. Additionally, the administration’s financially motivated decision not only violates academic ethics of respect to such scholarly accomplishments and intellectual labor, but also ignores the institutional memory of the University Museum all together. We urge the University of Pennsylvania and the University Museum administrators to reconsider their decision, to find ways to restore and fund the research positions, and to rehire for next year the research specialists who are now to be laid off.

We would like to remind the administrators that universities are not for-profit businesses, rather they are institutions of research and teaching whose component parts need to be supported and protected, especially in tough financial times. While calling for the reinstatement of the researchers, we also recommend the establishment of a Archaeological Research Grant Support Office in the University Museum. This will encourage the units to become more financially self-sustaining while at the same time provide guidance and grant-application support for the research specialists to alleviate some of the burden that comes with the arduous process of preparing grant applications. In addition, one of the criticisms directed at such research positions has been their disconnection from the teaching environment at Penn. We suggest then that it would be helpful to redefine these positions with greater interaction with students, some teaching responsibility, and greater public outreach.

We would like to reiterate that the discontinuation of eighteen research positions at the University Museum and the abolition of research centers and laboratories very well might be an irreversible decision for the future of archaeology both at Penn and in the broader field. Furthermore, this is undeniably a reversal of the original mission of the University Museum, as a research institution that supports both public intellectuals and contributes to the scholarly understanding of human past.


The Undersigned

Click Here to Sign the Petition

(HT: Ancient World Blogger Group)


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