Christina Maranci

Harvard Dean and Editor Express Appreciation of Mashtots Chair and New Holder Dr. Maranci

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WATERTOWN — Professor Christina Maranci was appointed to the Mashtots Chair in Armenian Studies at Harvard last summer, and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), which helped establish this chair in 1959, is hosting a celebration of this on May 6 at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, MA. Adi Ignatius, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review, and Dr. Robin Kelsey, Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography and Dean of Arts and Humanities at Harvard University, both part of the upcoming program, offered some thoughts on Maranci and the Mashtots Chair.

Adi Ignatius

Ignatius will be serving as master of ceremonies of the celebration program. He observed that there are a lot of firsts in this appointment which are exciting – Maranci is the first woman, the first person of Armenian descent, and the first art historian to hold the Mashtots Chair. He said that her enthusiasm to connect not only experts in the world of academia but also broader circles with Armenian cultural history and the incredible art and architecture that perhaps is not as well known as that of some other nations itself is generating enthusiasm.

At the same time, he said, “I am really impressed with the ability of the Armenian community and NAASR to identify where it can help in a significant way, and to create this chair at Harvard, no less, so many years ago is extraordinary. You can’t overstate how unusual and impressive this is.”

There has been a shift in how the world perceives Armenia and the Armenians over the years. He said, “NAASR has really helped with that realization, messaging not to forget [the Armenian Genocide], but also not to simply fall back on that. When the world wants to know about Armenians there is a lot more than just the events of 100 years ago.”

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Robin Kelsey

Kelsey explained his connection with Maranci’s appointment to the Mashtots Chair: “I played no particular role in the selection process to fill the chair, and that is absolutely standard. Those decisions should be left to the faculty. It is my responsibility to make the initial approval, along with the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, of the appointment, which is finalized by the President.” Kelsey added, “I will say that when the search committee and the department came forward with Christina’s name, I was delighted, because I know many people at Tufts University, including in the History of Art Department, and I knew by reputation that she was an extraordinary scholar and leader at that institution. I was delighted at the moment the news came and that delight has not diminished one iota since then.”

Dr. Robin Kelsey (photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer)

Kelsey declared that Harvard was very lucky to have had the Mashtots Chair for so long because, he said, “Armenian Studies is really a crucial nexus of cultural, political, linguistic and religious crosscurrents. It sheds light on so many other fields around it. In a way, it is a field that holds many others together and helps to account for some of the interactions that have shaped the history of culture in the region and also the nature of certain diasporic currents.”

The first two chairholders, Robert W. Thomson and James R. Russell, had more of a philological bent in their work. While it is critical for Harvard to maintain excellence in philological studies, Kelsey declared, “I am thrilled that Christina Maranci brings expertise in art and material culture, because these are areas of enormous student interest, and it also allows Armenian Studies to bridge between the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department that has historically been the home for Armenian Studies and the History of Art and Architecture Department.”

Concerning the perception of Armenian Studies compared to other fields of study, after pointing out that Harvard University has a very international and cosmopolitan student body, Kelsey went on to say that “even with that broad range of background among our students, Armenian Studies will for many students be a new subject, unfamiliar, and not one that they may go to college anticipating that they will study. One of the beauties of a liberal arts education is precisely encountering subjects that one did not anticipate studying when one first arrived. It is incumbent on us, and perhaps particularly on those of us who are deans, to do our best to ensure that that ideal of a liberal arts education is maintained. We are making a lot of effort to find ways to create pathways for students to subjects that fall within this category.”

Two such pathways are the general education program and a freshman seminar program encouraging the study of subjects that are far afield. Approximately half of the undergraduates take one of these freshman seminars, according to Kelsey.

When asked how important popularity and enrollment numbers in Armenian Studies courses were for the university’s planning, the dean replied, “On the one hand, Harvard is not a bean counting institution, and that is one of the things I cherish about this place. We do not close down fields or departments simply because in a given moment there are not that many students who are taking the classes. We don’t allocate resources in some way that uses a formula based on number of students.”

“On the other hand,” he continued, “if one believes in the value of a certain field of study, and its richness and its possibility, as we certainly do in the field of Armenian Studies, we want to share that field with as many students as possible. One of the things that makes me excited about Christina Maranci coming into the Mashtots Chair is that she has a terrific record of teaching. She was a very popular instructor at Tufts before coming to Harvard, and I have no doubt that over time, she will be teaching a considerable number of undergraduates. We will try to bring as many graduate students her way as we can too.”

Maranci and NAASR

On the current relationship between Harvard and NAASR, which obviously is an organization outside of Harvard’s institutional structure, Kelsey explained first that it was vital for Harvard to vigilantly maintain its academic autonomy. He said, “We always make it clear to our supporters and alumni that when it comes to making academic decisions, they need to be made by our faculty and our administrators.”

However, he continued, “we welcome and deeply appreciate the engagement of those parties who support what we do, and who are interested in what we do, and NAASR is no exception. Ever since I have become Dean of Arts and Sciences, I have been in conversation with representatives of NAASR, and I have found those interactions to be wholly positive, constructive and indeed inspiring. This is one of only a few chairs at Harvard that have been funded by such a broad community. We have a new chair in Tamil that was also funded by many, many generally small donations. I find myself deeply moved and inspired by the chairs that have been funded in this manner and it is a privilege to fulfill the responsibility of making the most of those endowed chairs at Harvard.”

He suggested it could be possible to expand Armenian Studies at Harvard, stating, “I am always open to expanding fields. Some of it depends on philanthropic support.” However, when it comes to Armenian language classes, he added that when Harvard has a senior faculty member who does research in a particular language, it works pretty hard to have that language represented in the curriculum, and this is true of Armenian in particular.

Dr. Kelsey had only good things to say about Maranci. He said that the first year or two of a new faculty member at Harvard are generally devoted to becoming acquainted with a very large and complicated institution, and in Maranci’s case, by virtue of being affiliated with two different departments, that process is especially complex. It also takes time for students to become aware of a professor’s presence.

Despite this early period in her Harvard activity, she is already building many bridges and making connections he said. Kelsey concluded, “I could not be happier with the early days of Christina Maranci in the Mashtots Chair. For those who know her, it will come as no surprise to hear that in my experience she is an ebullient and brilliant presence on campus. She exudes leadership of the most inspiring variety. I have no doubt that her enthusiasm for Armenian Studies will prove infectious both among our undergraduate and our graduate students.”

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