Now celebrating its 50th birthday, CUNY’s Latin/ Greek Institute (LGI)—administered by Brooklyn College in cooperation with the CUNY Graduate Center—offers the world’s most rigorous and intensive instruction in the classical languages. The program relies on a teaching method of total immersion, which requires full-time, active, and dedicated engagement from every student to master material normally covered in two to three years in a single summer.

Students are taught by experienced instructors, the majority of whom are alumni of the institute, and graduates prepared to excel in advanced or upper-division reading courses and to sit for graduate departmental translation exams. Simply put, if you need (or want) to learn to read Latin and/or Greek in a compressed amount, there is nothing else like a summer at the Institute.

We asked the LGI’s director, Lucas G. Rubin, who is also the College’s Assistant Dean for Academic Programs, more about its history and what makes it so special.

BC: Tell us about your connection with the LGI. When did you become the director?

LR: Like many of our students, I came late to the study of the ancient world. A college class in Roman archaeology captured my attention. I had always been interested in history, architecture, and the built environment, but the ancient Roman world became my calling. From there, I took every course in the ancient world that I could. I was really interested in graduate study, but the language requirements for classical archaeology were (and remain) significant: Latin and Greek, plus German and (at least) one romance language. I’d had a good amount of French, but there was some significant catching up to do. It was then that the CUNY Latin/Greek Institute was suggested. I enrolled in Latin, and it was truly a transformative experience. A few weeks after the summer was over, I stepped right into fourth-year reading courses with ease. The following summer I completed the Greek program.

A decade or so later, I completed a Ph.D. in Classics and ended up falling into a career in academic administration. I was at Columbia University for a long stretch and came to Brooklyn College in Summer 2014 as Assistant Dean for Academic Programs, a position that predominates in the fall and spring.

In 2020, my predecessor at the institute, Kathrine Hsu, left, and President Anderson asked me to assume the directorship in the wake of her departure; she had recalled a conversation several years before where I had mentioned my connection to—and extraordinary gratitude for—the Institute.

Needless to say, my first two years proved very challenging. With COVID-19, we were unable to run our basic Latin and Greek programs in 2020 or 2021 (we did, however, offer upper-level reading programs online). This last summer was my first “real” experience as director; it was a baptism (of fire, one could say) almost two years after I stepped into the role!

BC: Fifty years is something to be proud of. Can you tell us about the institute’s origins?

LR: The institute’s founder, Floyd Moreland, had started an intensive Latin program—while still a graduate student—at UC Berkeley. At the time, its Comp Lit department required a Latin comprehension exam, which fewer and fewer otherwise qualified candidates were able to pass. The department was steadfast in the importance of the language, and, at the suggestion of Berkeley’s Classics Department, recruited Moreland to create an intensive summer program that would position comp lit students to sit for (and pass) their required Latin exam. The program was launched in Summer 1967 and achieved its aims, so much so that the program was retained and expanded. The Berkeley Latin Workshop (with a Greek program added later) remains and is very much our progenitor. In a few instances, some of the voluminous handouts LGI students receive connect back to their 1960s prototypes!

The Berkeley Workshop caught the attention of one of Brooklyn College’s most impactful leaders, Ethyle Wolfe. As (then) chair of the Classics Department, and soon-to-become its humanities dean and later provost, she was keen on starting a similar program here. Moreland received his Ph.D. in 1971 and joined BC’s faculty that fall. Over the next two years, he made revisions to the program and recruited and trained a faculty in his techniques. Most significantly, in his first year on campus, he overheard a colleague, Rita Fleischer, drilling her students on Latin forms. It was an off day, but she had required her students to come in nonetheless. Moreland was impressed by her commitment to teaching and her emphasis on mastery of the basics. She became his partner in building the institute and its eventual assistant director. Fleischer continues to work (and occasionally teaches) in the institute. Every one of our almost 3,000 graduates knows her, and she stays in touch with many of them.

In 1978, a Greek program was added (something Moreland had always intended). The process was advantaged by the presence of classics (then assistant) professor Hardy Hansen who joined by Fordham’s Gerry Quinn, developed the program in alignment with the methodology of the institute. Hardy is a genuine legend, having been repeatedly recognized by disciplinary organizations for his importance to the teaching of Ancient Greek. He still teaches three weeks every summer.

In the early 1980s, more advanced programs were introduced. These were redesigned in the 2010s and are now known as the Upper Latin and Upper Greek programs. These rotate every summer, and Latin is sometimes taught online.

BC: What do you think has been the secret to the institute’s longevity?

LR: It accomplishes exactly what it intends to do, and can point to a long track record of success in this regard. There’s nothing else quite like a summer at the institute: It is arguably one of the hardest experiences of its kind, but also one of the most rewarding. In the Basic Greek program, for instance, students start reading Plato’s Ion on Day 31, which they go on to complete in nine days. Only a month before, they’d just learned the alphabet. That’s a remarkable feat.

Although we’re in the business of language and text, it’s challenging (and maybe impossible) to describe a summer at the institute; frankly, there’d be far too many superlative adjectives about “rigor,” “intensity,” and “commitment.” It’s something that has to be experienced.

As an alumnus, I know the institute made my academic and subsequent career possible, as it has for many. No matter how much I work to support and advance the institute, it’s a debt of gratitude I don’t think I can ever actually repay.

BC: Is there anything special planned for the anniversary? 

LR: Since January, I’ve been doing a “50 in 50” every Friday, tweeting out and posting to our Facebook page various materials (letters, photographs, flyers, etc.) that tell and celebrate the institute’s history. Most have never been seen before—I spent a lot of time in the archives and collecting materials from alumni and current/former staff and faculty. In my spare time, I am working on an illustrated history of the institute, scheduled to be published in spring 2024.

The LGI also constitutes about a third of an upcoming exhibition on pre-modernist women scholars, opening May 2. The link here is Ethyle Wolfe. Although women have always been strongly represented in the faculty, it’s a logical connection and one worth highlighting. We’ll also be holding a birthday party on August 18 in tandem with this summer’s graduation.

BC: What makes the LGI different from other intensive language programs?

LR: The curriculum and the faculty who deliver it. At its core, the program that Moreland developed for Berkeley, improved upon and revised/updated over the decades, is shaped around generating and ensuring learning momentum.

This manifests in several ways. Faculty are on call at all times outside of the classroom to assist students who might be struggling. There is also a range of built-in scaffolds, such as a daily grammar review. Almost every morning begins with small-section drills, at which students demonstrate their understanding of and facility with the material taught the previous afternoon—it’s not designed to reteach, so questions or challenges a student might have when working through new material are resolved ASAP. Another example: Although students are required to memorize a large amount of vocabulary, new vocabulary is glossed on the same page. In the latter half of the basic programs, when students are reading a large number of original texts in Latin or Greek, this saves significant time that would otherwise be spent thumbing through a dictionary.

At the same time, grammar is sequenced not by complexity but by its necessity to position students to read original Latin and Greek as soon as possible.  Students in the Basic Latin Program, for instance, are introduced to the subjunctive mood (the mood of potentiality, intent, uncertainty, etc.: “If only I were an astronaut!” [but I’m not]) on Day 2 of their studies. It’s impossible to read original Latin of any length without knowing the subjunctive. By way of comparison, Wheelock’s Latin—one of the most popular textbooks in the language—does so in Chapter 28.

To make it all work, every hour of every program is planned in meticulous detail. Faculty start working in January and, regardless of how many years one has taught, walk through the entirety of the curriculum in advance to ensure complete synchronicity and alignment.

Almost all of our faculty are alumni and come from an array of backgrounds, many working outside of academia. They are all deeply invested in their teaching and are very good at what they do. The summer is as rigorous for them as it is for the students. It’s a labor of love more than anything else.

BC: What kinds of people take advantage of the LGI, and why are they coming every summer?

LR: The LGI, at its most essential, is a training program—we teach Latin and Greek in an accelerated format. We do this well, and we stay focused on this as the LGI’s mission.

The audience is those who need or want to learn Latin or Greek rapidly. Our largest constituencies are advanced undergraduates, postbaccalaureate, and early-career graduate students who require facility with the language(s) for research and/or degree requirements. The majority of these folks are studying in fields outside the Classics. Historically, of those graduates who’ve gone on to complete Ph.D.s, the highest represented fields are political science, philosophy, art history, English, and comp lit. Classics and especially classical archaeology come right after. In our upper classes, we get many more classics students, who are seeking to improve their skills by reading a large number of texts with grammatical and syntactical precision in a short amount of time.

That said, the demographics of our students have also changed. Since 1995 and again since 2011, the number of attendees from historically underrepresented groups has doubled. In addition, the number of international students has increased over the last two decades. Much of the expanded audience is due to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, which established a million-dollar scholarship fund in 2016 to help support students, with a special focus on first-generation and/or BIPOC students. This, in turn, allows the LGI to help diversify the ranks of faculty and scholars in multiple disciplines by offering essential training in the requisite languages. It was a remarkable and transformative gift.

Going back to 1973, it’s always been an interesting audience—and always a sprinkling of clergy and mathematicians. Last summer, students ranged in age from 17 to 72, so there’s a nice mix of motivations, experiences, and personalities.

BC: How can people register for the LGI and get more information?

LR: This summer we’re offering basic Latin and Greek, both 10 weeks long, in person at the CUNY Graduate Center.  We’re also offering a seven-week Upper Latin (minimum of two years of College Latin) online. One can apply through the website.  Applications are closing soon, but we’ll be happy to consider late submissions as well. In addition to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation scholarships, we have an array of opportunities to help support students.