I remember receiving the letter from Western Michigan University’s admissions office like it was yesterday. We just returned from another security escort mission in Iraq’s Al Anbar province. Cradling the sealed envelope, I started questioning my high school grades or my SAT score. I didn’t know if this was good news or bad. A few of my Marine buddies gathered around and pressed me to open it. I will never forget standing in the dust and dirt, so intent on what this one letter held for my future, and then reading those first lines congratulating me on my acceptance to Western Michigan University. It gave me a sense of hope. It made me believe that I could return home, and with a quality education and a sense of confidence and discipline gained in the four plus years spent in the United States Marine infantry, that I could make a change.
I received a bachelor’s in history, but quickly realized anthropology was my passion. The violence and suffering that I witnessed as a Marine, and in some ways experienced on a personal level as did many fellow veterans, found its solace in anthropology. Here abounded many explanations for the chaotic, violent, humorous, confusing and hopeful aspects of human history and the human condition. I was pushed to ask probing questions about society, and in the process, I questioned myself.
As a teaching assistant, I had the opportunity to share these experiences with younger students, who up until that point had not been introduced to the basic concepts of culture; or taught that is was okay to talk about race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and many other subjects that are at the center of so much suffering throughout the world. As a teacher, I saw with my own eyes the freedoms that came with the pursuit of knowledge and understanding – the knowledge and understanding that race is a myth, that capitalism is a system of subjugation of the many for the benefit of the few, that gender is how one feels and not how one is “made.” Anthropology is truly an emancipating discipline. That is why it is so unfortunate that it is dying as a department at Western Michigan University.
The department has been in steady decline for about twenty years. With each passing semester, it seems, a professor is gone or on the way out with no hope of being replaced. Recently, department faculty and students met to discuss the state of the department. While I could not be present, it was clear, based on my fellow students’ descriptions of huge budget cuts and reassignment of faculty to other departments that anthropology faces an almost certain death at Western.
I love Western Michigan University, I really do. Simply walking amongst the buildings and hearing the chime at the top of the hour lightens my heart (or quickens it depending on if I am late for class). Even when the walking is accompanied by freezing cold and treacherous ice, I feel good knowing that my destination holds the warm promise of a new question, an interesting answer or an inspiring story. Soon that warmth will be extinguished at Moore Hall.
To be honest, many feelings swirl around me as I contemplate the inevitable. On one hand, it is ironic that a university that claims to place such high value on culture and diversity would continuously abuse the discipline that practically yells culture and diversity. On another, I am angry. I am angry because I came home from a war that was senseless and destructive, and happened upon something that enlightened me as to the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ of such events, and further challenged me to find answers. Anthropology gave me a sense of hope that I could understand the violence and struggles, the discrimination and many disparities in health, education, socioeconomic status and political rights that reign in today’s society. But I guess most of all, I feel sad and disgusted that Western Michigan University, and many other so-called institutions of higher learning, would allow anthropology and all of the answers that this discipline holds for us to simply die away.
I guess my last words will come in the form of a request to President Dunn and the Board of Trustees: Either reverse the lack of support for the anthropology department and assist in the creation of community-based, socially enriching initiatives between WMU Anthropology and the Kalamazoo area; or stop claiming to respect cultural diversity and reciprocity, when the discipline that examines those very concepts is about to disappear. And if anthropology does die at Western Michigan University, please give us a decent wake. Location-wise, we usually prefer Bell’s Brewery or Old Dog Tavern.