April 2, 2010


King’s College, London, is probably the single most important academic forum for Modern Greek studies outside Greece, housing as it does the Department of Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies (an obvious yet uncommon pairing), the Centre for Hellenic Studies and the Koraes Chair in Modern Greek and Byzantine History, which dates back to 1918. Nevertheless, reflecting the dramatic power transfer in British universities from academics to administrators, the department was recently a candidate for dismemberment (along with the UK’s only, and much admired, chair in palaeography). As Iain Pears points out in a recent letter to the London Review of Books, “such administrators identify themselves as the masters of the institution, not its servants, and come to regard academics who were once colleagues as employees to be managed” (Vol.23 no.6, 25/3/2010).

The proposal generated considerable opposition, including a petition started by professors Mark Lauxtermann of Oxford and Konstantinos Dimadis of Freie Universität Berlin, which pointed out that “the ideal of Hellenism in its broadest sense, for which King’s stands, is reflected in its Centre for Hellenic Studies and in the Koraes chair”; it eventually garnered a total of 9,192 online signatures.

It is pleasant to record that for once, the angels appear to have scored a victory. On 25 March, Greek independence day, it was announced that the department had been reprieved through incorporation into the Centre – a Solomonic sort of judgement, but not, all things being equal, a bad idea at all. According to a press release from the college, “King’s College London has operated a Centre for Hellenic Studies since 1989. As a research centre it has until now co-ordinated the activities of several departments, but has not had its own dedicated staff or registered students. Under the new arrangements, the Centre for Hellenic Studies will incorporate the Department of Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, including its staff. Students will be registered in the Centre and it will be able to run its own teaching programmes”.

An important part of the Centre’s future programme is a three-day conference planned for June of next year, entitled “Greek (Hi)stories through the Lens: Photographs, Photographers & their Testimonies” and focusing on photographic depiction of Greeks and Greece from the 1840s to the present “in an empirical, and where appropriate, theoretical and comparative context”. To the best of my knowledge, this will be the first time ever Greek photography is to be the object of such intense and concentrated scrutiny.

As an interesting footnote to this issue, I was amused to discover that the Koraes chair had been the object of a bitter row in the twenties when the chair’s first holder, Arnold Toynbee, was forced to resign after publishing a book highly sympathetic to the newly emergent Turkish nationalism in which he argued, presciently and of course correctly, that Greece’s Anatolian adventure was doomed. As Richard Clogg, who wrote his own book about the affair (Politics and the Academy, 1986 – now out of print and very expensive), concluded in a more accessible article, “in bid to avoid controversy, King’s College and London University, against the intentions of the chair’s founders, have since only appointed those interested in the calmer waters of Byzantium or literature rather than the treacherous shoals of Greek modern history and politics” (Times Higher Education, 6/6/1997). Amen.

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