Long before Tom Hanks was proclaimed an Honorary Citizen of Greece last December, American historian and academic Katherine Elizabeth Fleming was awarded the same honor for her contributions to Greek culture.
Dr. Fleming, the Provost of New York University, has had a distinguished career specializing in the modern history of Greece in the context of the broader Mediterranean region.
“I was extremely proud to become an Honorary Greek Citizen in 2016, but I also feel that the honor comes with a responsibility to actually do some things for Greece and behave in a way that recognizes the fact that now I have Greek nationality,” she tells Greek Reporter.
“I take pride in the fact that I can remind people that perhaps to be Greek can be a more broadly-defined matter that some people think of it as being,” she adds.
Dr. Katherine Fleming examines what it means to be Greek
As a historian, she notes the sweeping national debates which took place in Greece over the course of the nineteenth century on who really counts as Greek over the course of the nineteenth century and noted that they still persist today.
“Do you have to be Orthodox Christian to be Greek? Do you have to speak Greek? Do you have to have certain political views in order to count as Greek?” Dr. Fleming wonders.
But, she continues, as “people like Giannis Antetokounmpo have shown us, maybe there are all sorts of ways to be Greek and maybe Greece will be a stronger nation by including people who love Greece and consider themselves Greek even if they do not align with some traditional views of what it is to be Greek.”
Dr. Fleming reveals that her love affair with Greece began when she was a teenager. She went on holidays to Crete and ended up in Loutro, a small town in the southwestern corner of the island.
Fleming worked as a waitress in a small town in Crete
“I fell in love with the beauty of the place and I was offered a job as a waitress in a local restaurant called Helios, owned by the Androulakakis family. A wonderful restaurant that still exists today.
“I spent a year there and learned some elementary Greek. I maintained the connection with that family and the town all my life. The experience of learning Greek made me very curious about Greek history and culture and that shaped my choice for my studies when I did my Ph.D,” the university provost adds.
Dr. Fleming was named Provost of NYU in April of 2016 after joining the faculty there in 1998.
As NYU’s Deputy Provost since 2013 and Vice Chancellor for Europe since 2007, she works closely with deans, directors, and the university’s different schools on academic planning. She also provides oversight of the Provost’s Global Research Initiatives program, which she created in 2011.
A historian, she is the Alexander S. Onassis Professor of Hellenic Culture and Civilization in the Faculty of Arts and Science, and served for many years as the Associate Director and then Director of the Remarque Institute.
Beyond NYU, Dr. Fleming has served as an associate member of the History Department of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and served as the president of the Board of the University of Piraeus in Greece.
The renowned academic is an expert on modern Greece and the Balkans
A specialist on modern Greece, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean, she is most recently the author of “Greece: A Jewish History,” which won several prizes, among them the National Jewish Book Award and the Runciman Award.
She holds a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, earning her M.A. from the University of Chicago and her B.A. from Barnard/Columbia in Comparative Religion. She holds honorary doctorates from the University of Macedonia (PAMAK) and Ionian University, and was recently named “Chevalier” in the French Legion of Honor.
Dr. Fleming is very much engaged in Greek affairs, currently working with Greek journalist Sophia Papaioannou on a major oral history project called istorima.org, which is supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
A total of 1,500 unemployed youth from all regions of Greece between 18 and 35 years of age will be invited to participate in the project, in which they are offered training in the techniques of interviewing and the taking of oral histories.
“The exciting thing about this project is that it is really designed to give back and help contemporary Greeks, and Greek youth in particular, by providing them with meaningful part-time employment as they gather history for us in their villages, towns and regions around the country,” Dr. Fleming says.
Dr. Katherine Fleming hopes to collaborate with Greek universities
She was also instrumental in giving the green light for a groundbreaking new course which began on January 30, 2020 at NYU exploring the historical origins of Greek Rebetiko and American Blues — and focusing on how the two musical genres intertwine in so many different ways. Composer and performer Pericles Kanaris provides instruction for the course in which Fleming herself gave a guest lecture.
Dr. Fleming tells Greek Reporter that New York University would be “absolutely interested in participating in joint projects with Greek universities.”
She reveals that she recently spoke to Greek Minister of Education Niki Kerameos about ways to collaborate. “We need to figure out how to make it possible for Greek students and researchers to visit New York and for our students and researchers to visit Greece,” she says, adding that she is particularly interested in research collaboration.
“NYU has a study center in Athens and I think there are all sorts of ways we can leverage that for partnerships between NYU as a whole and universities in Greece,” Dr. Fleming concludes.
Dr. Fleming on the Parthenon Marbles: “The will return, maybe not soon, but they will”
In a recent interview with Greek television network ERT, conducted in perfect Greek, Dr. Katherine Fleming was asked about her feelings regarding the much-debated return of the Parthenon Marbles, currently housed in the British Museum, to Greece.
“They will return. Maybe not soon, but they will. Around the world, everyone has understood that whatever belongs to a country, that country is where it should go,” she argued.
Continuing her point, Dr. Fleming commented that many western European museums, many of which are full of artifacts from former colonies, may not survive this major cultural shift toward repatriation.
“This will be the end for some museums in the West, in Europe, but it is worth it to have this end, as it is your property, and Greece is not the only country waiting for the return of such precious items,” Dr. Fleming stressed.