In a packed classroom in Howard University's Locke Hall, Dr. Arti Mehta is teaching students about city-states, in a course called "Cultures of the Ancient Mediterranean."
"What is it that makes a city-state?" she asks.
"I think it comes down to the independence," a student answers. "And also perhaps to its location and like the villages around it and things like that?"
"As they say, 'Location, location, location,'" Mehta replies with a laugh.
"Cultures of the Ancient Mediterranean" is a brand new offering at Howard University. The course is part of the Department of Classics -- or, as the department may soon be known, "Ancient Mediterranean Studies."
And here's why: not long after Dr. Sidney Ribeau became Howard's president in 2008, he instituted an academic renewal program. His goals included breathing new life in to the university, which had experienced its share of turmoil prior to his selection, and enabling Howard to go toe-to-toe with the nation's other HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).
To do this, Ribeau created a commission of more than four-dozen faculty members to examine Howard's 180-some academic programs and "figure out which were going to be viable, which were going to be important for the future of the university," says commission member and classics associate professor Dr. Norman Sandridge.
Last summer, the commission recommended to the administration that certain Howard programs be merged, transformed, or all-out eliminated.
The commission zeroed in on the classics department as one in need of some transformation. Sandridge says the classics staff decided to expand its offerings beyond the usual ancient Greece and Rome stuff, "and study the ancient Mediterranean in its totality, with all of its fluidity and continuity and also think very seriously about its relevance for today."
And actually, that "relevance for today" is another key part of academic renewal, says Dr. Wayne Frederick, a Howard alum who now serves as provost.
"As the fields change, as technology advances, we have to get to a point where we're doing as many relevant things as is possible," Frederick says. "And even the things that we're offering that are still relevant, we have to make sure that we're offering them in a way that is still relevant as well."
A prime example, Frederick says, is the proposed reorganization of the School of Communications.
"The undergraduate program now puts several of the majors into two groups," Frederick explains. "One being 'media journalism and film,' and the other being 'strategic, legal and management communications.'"
Prior to academic renewal, he adds, "there were departments of 'journalism, radio, TV and film' and 'communications and culture.' As well as 'mass communication,' 'media studies' and 'communication and culture.' And so they brought those in and developed these two undergraduate programs."
Frederick says when people ask him about academic renewal, they often ask, "Would there potentially be some financial gain?"
And the answer, he says, is maybe.
"But it's not one that was a calculated decision in the process," he explains. "I think what's more important is that the allocation of resources is more attuned to what we feel the contemporary needs are of our students and faculty."
And again, at Howard, some of that allocation has led to program elimination, including many degrees in the School of Education, as well as the masters programs in philosophy, and art history. The criteria for the cuts, Frederick says, were based on the number of applicants, and the number of successful graduates.
But despite the program cuts, Frederick says there haven't been any faculty cuts, just fewer adjunct hires.
At this point, academic renewal is in different stages all over campus. The classics department, for instance, won't fully morph into Ancient Mediterranean Studies until a final vote by Howard's Board of Trustees. But Rudolph Hock, associate professor and chair of the Department of Classics, is full of hope that the vote will pass.
"We have eight full-time faculty, two of whom are year-to-year appointments," Hock says. "So I think it's fair to say that if the administration had wanted to send us a bad signal, they would not have reappointed our two year-to-year appointees, nor would they have given [Norman Sandridge] tenure!"
Norman Sandridge, who received tenure in August, says he's thankful for academic renewal, because it isn't just breathing new life into Howard's programs, but into its faculty -- faculty who can be, sometimes, a bit averse to change.
"I was trained primarily in ancient Greek," he says, "reading a lot of different ancient Greeks and trying to figure out how they relate to one another.
"But as part of this academic renewal, I'm taking a much more serious look at the way Greeks interacted with ancient Persians or modern Iran. And so that's both challenging and exciting for me as a scholar to branch out."
And Sandridge hopes that excitement is contagious, and students will flock with newly restored vigor to the Department of Classics. Or, fingers crossed, the Department of "Ancient Mediterranean Studies."
[Music: "(Just Like) Starting Over" by The String Quartet from The String Quartet Tribute to the Beatles]
Photos: Howard University