Faculty reflect on 50 years at Ramapo

When professor Ira Spar saw an advertisement in the New York Times in the spring of 1973 for an ancient historian position at an unnamed college, he decided to take a chance and apply. With his last-minute oversized wool suit jacket, he flew to Mahwah for the interview and was offered the job practically on the spot. Fresh out of graduate school, he had multiple offers from other schools but none seemed as attractive as the still-developing Ramapo College.

Professor Ira Spar has one of the only scans in his office of two pieces of a cuneiform tablet together. Photo by Rebecca Gathercole

Many professors and staff have provided years of invaluable service to Ramapo College in its more than 50-year history, but very few have achieved the tenure of Ira Spar, professor of history and ancient studies, and Dean of the School of Theoretical and Applied Science Edward Saiff, who is also a professor of biology. Spar and Saiff both recently surpassed 50 years in their careers at Ramapo and are some of the few left at the school who have been here since the early days.

In an interview with The Ramapo News, Spar shed light on Ramapo’s origins in the 1970s. Inaugural President George T. Potter had ambitions of an unorthodox educational model consisting of multiple coexisting colleges, each with “diverse interdisciplinary faculty.” Potter strove for Ramapo’s nature to be defined by credit hours rather than specialized programs, giving students flexibility and freedom in their education.

“Ramapo was part of an experiment,” Spar said. “There were several schools throughout the country, like five of them… which were experimental colleges.”

Spar, an accomplished historian, archaeologist and ancient linguist, has tallied a number of impressive achievements during his tenure at Ramapo. He worked for 40 years at the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working in unstudied collections of cuneiform writing. One of the biggest factors that kept Spar at Ramapo was the college’s willingness to collaborate with Met. When he received the job offer from the Met, Ramapo’s vice president at the time worked out a plan that would allow Spar to balance the jobs simultaneously.

Certainly one of the crowning achievements of Spar’s career comes from a particular 2500-year-old tablet. While the Met possessed a piece of the tablet, the whereabouts of the other half remained a mystery. After studying the cuneiform on it, Spar recognized some names and played a pivotal role in locating the other half.

“After a while, in your field, you get to know all the major people [in ancient history]… so, I said let me do some research on that because I know I’ve come across these guys before,” he said. “I opened up a book that was written over 100 years ago. It was like an index of personal names from this period… I looked up the tablet where they were found… and it was in the British Museum in London.”

The tablet halves were united for a short time to be photographed, and the photo in Spar’s office remains one of the only images of the intact tablet.

Saiff’s story at Ramapo has a similar beginning to Spar’s. Saiff joined the faculty in 1972 after finishing graduate school at Rutgers, despite having many other offers. 

“I decided that it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing to help pretty much start up a college,” he said in an interview.

Saiff, whose interests lie specifically in the structure, function and evolution of vertebrates, feels a deep-rooted connection to the Ramapo community. During his time at the college, he has not only been a professor and dean but has “served on virtually every committee” from building renovations to faculty hiring and previously was involved with the American Federations of Teachers labor union. 

For Saiff, the most important aspect of Ramapo, and what has contributed to him staying here for so long, is the people. He shared that his wife is a retiree and that he regularly attends a variety of the school’s events, whether they be for current students, retirees or alumni. He also keeps in contact and nurtures relationships with the multitude of faculty, staff and students he’s met over the years.

“When I say the people who are here, [I mean] everybody who comes through that traffic light… so whether we’re talking about administrators, students, public safety folks, the crew who comes in at night [and] sweeps the floors and empties the garbage can… I’m not a hierarchical kind of guy. If you’re here, you’re part of the deal,” he said.

Spar and Saiff have seen Ramapo through thick and thin — no formal academic programs, the football team, deep financial troubles in the 1980s, a bar on campus, faculty-student strikes — but it has all led to what the college has become today.

“I really think that I’ve kind of evolved with the college. As a matter of fact, I helped the college evolve,” Saiff said. “It turns out that I am an evolutionist. That’s my field. And so, I understand how, in many ways, things do change, but at the same time, they kind of stay the same.”


rgatherc@ramapo.edu & jlaforg2@ramapo.edu


Featured photo courtesy of Ramapo College