BU Today

Campus Life

A Classicist Returns to the Classroom

Arts and Sciences Dean Henderson steps down after five years

Jeffrey Henderson, the William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of Greek Language and Literature, says he’s looking forward to teaching undergraduates again after five years as dean of Arts and Sciences. Photo by Fred Sway

In his five years as dean of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, Jeffrey Henderson has given up many interests and hobbies — teaching undergraduate classes, researching obscene language in the plays of Aristophanes, and playing competitive senior softball. In exchange, he’s gained an unprecedented level of access to all of the disciplines that make up the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. As he prepares for a return to the classroom, Henderson believes he’s gotten the best of the deal.

“I love academics, and if you get tired of your field, which is inevitable, you get endlessly fascinated by all the disciplines here,” he says. “There are 700 faculty members here, each with their own histories, stories, and enterprises, and these are relationships that I never would have found otherwise.”

Henderson, the William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of Greek Language and Literature, announced last June that he would step down to return to teaching in the classics department. Virginia Sapiro, a political scientist and women’s studies scholar from the University of Wisconsin, has been named the new Arts and Sciences dean and will begin on July 1.

For Henderson, who says he never expected to take on an administrative role, the transition comes at the right time. A Hellenic scholar who holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Harvard, Henderson built his career as a classicist by searching out new territory in an ancient field — he wrote his doctoral thesis on obscene language in classical Greek at a time when many of the texts were barred from publication in the United States. He later left his position as an associate professor at the University of Michigan to create and chair the classics department at the University of Southern California. He’s now eager to pick up where he left off in a critical edition of Aristophanes and to spend more time teaching undergraduate courses, which he considers more challenging and more rewarding than leading graduate courses.

“Graduate students are already committed; they’re professionals — younger colleagues,” says Henderson, who taught undergraduate and graduate courses at BU before reducing his course load to graduate seminars in 2002. “You train and guide or mentor them, but it is not much of a challenge. Undergraduates are, because they’re not sold — it’s not self-evident that reading classical literature and studying classical history is interesting. You can’t assume they understand what you understand about it, and it gives me a chance to focus my thinking.”

His own career path was determined by one influential undergraduate teacher. As a freshman at Kenyon College, he heard that one of the school’s best professors taught introductory Greek, and he immediately enrolled in the course. He was so struck by the class, and the language itself, that he spent the following summer taking intensive language courses and returned for his sophomore year able to read the great works of ancient Greece in the original language.

While his particular interest lies in the popular culture–based works of the Greco-Roman era, Henderson believes that the study of ancient Greek texts is critical to understanding today’s Western world. “If you want to be exposed to the very best kinds of thinking and expression, you can’t do any better,” he says. “And it is especially important that Western culture be understood in a global context, now that we’re in a global struggle for democracy and law. I think it’s terribly important that people know how the West got to be the way it is, and there’s great continuity today with Greco-Roman culture.”

Henderson has also proven his talents as an administrator at BU. Since he was named dean ad interim in 2002, he has worked for four University presidents, recruited 164 faculty members, assisted in the creation of five institutes at the college, and created six endowed professorships. Thanks to the support of staff and faculty, he says, the college is “in a good position to play the role that President Brown wants it to play,” and the new dean will be able to “pick up the ball and run with it.”

Still, some ambivalence remains. “Being out of the loop is going to be strange,” Henderson says. “I’m used to knowing what’s going on. It’s like having a favorite soap opera, and suddenly you don’t get the channel anymore.”

Henderson will spend the next year on sabbatical, completing his edition of Aristophanes and working on translations of two ancient Greek novels. He is looking forward to a return to the classroom in 2008 and is already thinking about what his next role at BU will be.

“I’ve never been 100 percent satisfied just doing my work and not bothering with anything else,” he says. “I don’t think I’m going to change now.”

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.