New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World has named a classics professor and former Graduate School dean at Columbia University, Roger Bagnall, as its first director.
In July, he will take the helm of this new, interdisciplinary advanced study center, located in a seven-floor townhouse at 15 East 84th St., a half-block stroll from the Metropolitan Museum. The institute is funded by a $200 million gift from the Leon Levy Foundation. Asked what his reaction was when offered the post, he said, "I thought, ‘This is going to be fun.'" Imagine a professor who studies cuneiform seated alongside an archaeologist of Afghanistan, or a Greek literary researcher talking with a scholar of South Asia. Mr. Bagnall said there is nothing in antiquity —from Portugal to China that is not potentially within the center's purview. "It's ambitious," he said.
A professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, Daniel Fleming, who led the search committee, said Mr. Bagnall, as an eminent scholar with proven leadership ability, was ideally suited to run the institute. "We knew he was already used to reaching across disciplines," he said.
Mr. Bagnall is a papyrologist who has researched the social, administrative, economic, religious, and demographic history of Roman Egypt. Hehas studied papyri produced under Ptolemaic and Roman rule, and even specimens from after the Arab conquest of the region.
Mr. Bagnall currently holds a joint appointment in both the classics and history departments at Columbia. At the Union Theological Seminary, he taught a seminar on "The Social Context of Egyptian Christianity."
Mr. Bagnall said in modern universities, scholarly disciplines are essentially organized around languages. Many scholars with overlapping interests therefore do not end up talking to each other and that can obscure continuities and relationships, he said. The institute, he said, would bring that conversation "under one roof."
The institute will range over the Mediterranean (both European and African sides) and Middle East (covering early Judaism and Christianity), as well as ancient Iran, China, and early India. It will go up to pre-Medieval times, including the beginning of Islam and Byzantine Civilization.
For a scholar of Greek, Persia can be considered the fringe or periphery. Mr. Bagnall said a goal at the institute is to "make nowhere the fringe."
Mr. Fleming said the more the search committee began to talk with Mr. Bagnall about the project, the more they realized he understood what such an institute would really need to succeed. Rather than asking scholars to work jointly on predetermined themes, Mr. Bagnall sees research collaboration as bubbling up from below: invite the right people and let the scholars discover for themselves the connections that excite them.
Trained at Yale and the University of Toronto, Mr. Bagnall directs Columbia's archaeological project at Amheida, in the Dakhla Oasis of Egypt, a site which looks late Roman but dates back much further. He said excavations are a form of learning different from classroom instruction. He said he wants to bring to the institute the same ethos — where 10 or 12 scholars converse and eat meals together. A goal, he said, would be attracting faculty who are not only good at what they do but are deeply curious about what other people do.
The institute was envisioned to draw on the resources of the whole city. In fact, it resembles NYU's Institute of Fine Arts six blocks south in that it will have a doctoral program, but it differs in not being a graduate department of a single discipline. The Institute is likewise similar to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the large role envisaged for visiting scholars, but unlike the IAS, this new institute will have graduate students. The Institute will admit students for the fall of 2009. It will have about 10 to 12 permanent faculty.
One interdisciplinary area of inquiry that Mr. Fleming is researching is collective governance in the Near East and traits it may share with the beginnings of Greek democracy. Mr. Bagnall is interested in the Silk Road, running from Turkey to China, going back to Roman times.
Mr. Bagnall also hopes to make the institute a preeminent center for digital resources about antiquity.