The Underside of Academic Opportunity

The Story of Harvard's Only Tenured Black Woman

FOR THE LAST 10 years, Eileen Southern has been the only Black woman holding a lifetime post at Harvard. Bearing this unique distinction, Southern says, has been both a rewarding and, to some extent, a lonely experience.

At the end of next term, the professor holding joint tenure in music and Afro-American studies will retire. Her departure, on a pragmatic level, will leave the University without a scholar in ethno-musicology; more symbolically, it will strip the small female contingent within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of any senior Black presence.

The Chicago native, who came from the City University of New York in 1976 to become chairman of the then-troubled Afro-American Studies Department, reflects upon her years here as intellectually exhilarating. But, she says, she has found that Harvard does not have a particularly positive attitude toward minorities, and believes the climate has grown colder since the early 1970s.

Southern gives the 1960s civil rights movement credit for making her Harvard appointment possible, and she feels fortunate to have been able to work at the University and to serve as a "role model" for other women on the faculty.

Still, Southern says, she has only now found her "niche" at Harvard. "I had a difficult time at first because I don't look like a Harvard professor. I don't wear thick-soled shoes; I don't have gray hair; I don't smoke; and I don't even look like a typical woman professor because they are supposed to have white skin and short haircuts, and a gray streak here and there."

She says she has given up nearly all social events she once tried to frequent. "I find it very difficult to interact with people during the cocktail hours. I'm usually the only Black person there and the only woman." She says she does not know whether the alienation she feels stems from her racial affiliation or her gender.

Southern says both problems probably contributed to her sense of distance. She is one of roughly 25 tenured women in a faculty of some 350 and one of four tenured Blacks.

"When I came here, I thought I would have these long, intellectual, exciting conversations with scholars in my field. And it has not turned out that way. I have had exciting conversations with maybe one or two people--males. I really miss the opportunity to interact with female scholars. I wonder what happens to all the other tenured women."

HARVARD HIRED SOUTHERN at a time when Afro-American Studies--instituted in the wake of militant student demands during the late 1960s--was suffering from plummeting student interest and the University's admitted inability to lure scholars to bolster the field.

She left New York for Boston, and committed herself to 10 years of commuting between the two cities. Southern's husband of 44 years, Joseph, a 66-year-old now-retired professor of accounting and computer science, could not leave his tenured post at CUNY to accompany his wife. They have shared the five-hour drive every weekend and talked on the phone each night since 1976.

Upon her arrival, Southern assumed the chairmanship of the Afro-American Studies Department. Says DuBois Professor of History and Afro-American Studies Nathan Huggins: "She helped hold the department together through some very difficult times."

Three years later, in 1979, the department celebrated its 10th birthday. But the celebration was not a merry one. Since 1971, the number of concentrators had dropped 76 percent, and the department had become the target of widespread student and junior faculty dissatisfaction.

In addition, the department was embroiled in a still unresolved racial discrimination suit filed by a junior professor. Then-Dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky, at the time, summarized the hiring situation with the following words: "We have failed. You've got to believe me when I say we tried--and we failed."

That spring, Southern took a semester-long sabbatical. While she was away, a group of junior faculty met with Rosovsky to voice their dissatisfaction with her performance as chairman. At the same time, in a series of demonstrations, which included a day-long boycott of classes, students charged the administration--and Rosovsky in particular--with a systematic campaign to destroy the department.

In response, Rosovsky created a five-member executive committee, made up of Southern and four other senior faculty members not connected with Afro-American Studies. The committee was assigned the tasks of "defining a sense of intellectual mission for the department," guiding and making key policy decisions, and aggressively recruiting scholars for tenured positions.

Southern was not made chairman of the executive committee, and she resigned her post as department chairman in August 1979.

At the time, a frustrated Southern said she did not understand how the department could function with both an executive committee and a chairman. She said the administration had not involved her in crucial policy decisions during her absence, and left the chairmanship "bewildered" and somewhat bitter.

Looking back today, she says she feels that "the administration, instead of supporting me, supported the junior faculty." At the time, students speculated that Southern's resignation stemmed from friction between her and the junior faculty.

Seven years later, Southern remains uneasy in talking about the brouhaha surrounding her departure as chairman. But, she says, the story had a "positive ending."

"Because of the attention that was called to the plight of the Afro-Am Studies Department, the administration really made a serious effort to recruit more Black faculty." From that effort, she says, came Professor Nathan Huggins.

Nonetheless, Afro-Am today does not enjoy the same popularity it once did. When Southern leaves, the department will have only two senior faculty members and fewer than 10 concentrators. When Southern came to Harvard, she says, there were many more Blacks on the faculty. "They were junior faculty, but, nevertheless, it suggested that certainly there was something to be said for the development of our program in Afro-American history and culture, and now we have so few Blacks. We kind of rattle around."

The University each year reviews its affirmative action policies. This review "is done in part to remind ourselves of the need for continued commitment to recruiting women and minority scholars to our faculty," says Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence. However, a recent Harvard study found that the University underuses the pool of qualified minority and women scholars in the majority of academic fields.

SINCE ACCEPTING TENURE here, Southern has written three books and is finishing a fourth. She praises the Harvard environment as one conducive to, and providing materials for, dedicated scholarship. Her publications include The Buxheim Organ Book (1963), Anonymous Pieces in the Manuscript El Escorial (1981), The Music of Black Americans: A History (2nd ed. 1983), and Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians (1982). She is also the co-founder and editor, with her husband, of the journal "The Black Perspective in Music," which boasts a 1000-person circulation reaching scholars from America to China to Africa.

Southern's achievements in the field of ethno-musicology have prompted some scholars, including Music Department Chairman Lewis H. Lockwood, to call Southern "certainly the leading scholar in the United States in the field of Afro-American music."

Both Southern and office-mate Rulan C. Pian, professor of East Asian languages and civilizations and of music, say they believe the Music Department to be more democratic than many other departments that have a higher proportion of men. "I think the Music Department is one of the friendliest departments toward women professors and minority professors. We have three women. There is no other department like it," Pian says.

But, says Southern, the college music departments, including Harvard's, still tend to devalue non-European music. "So you really have to be on your own," she says.

SOUTHERN BELIEVES THAT being the only female Black senior faculty member has strengthened her resolve to "document the history of my people within the context of Black culture."

"I have learned at Harvard not to pay attention to what others might say. You cannot really afford to listen to how others might criticize you, or they might feel your work is unimportant," Southern notes.

While at Harvard, Southern has served on the 19-member Faculty Council, the faculty's executive steering committee, and on the general studies committee. She has also instituted a junior faculty study group focussing on 19th-century Black culture. The professor says she has found it difficult at Harvard to find a ready-made group of senior female faculty with whom she could socialize.

History and Science Chairman Barbara G. Rosenkrantz says she has not experienced similar feelings of alienation as a result of her status as a senior woman in a predominantly male faculty. But, she says, what Southern has to say is important. "I think Eileen Southern has had a very different experience from others," Rosenkrantz notes.

SOUTHERN IS CURRENTLY the only woman in the Afro-American Studies Department. "The statistic is really a very sad one," says department Chairman Werner Sollors. Sollors notes, though, that another woman has been recently appointed.

"What strikes me as a young Black academic are particularly her roots," says Roderick J. Harrison, assistant professor of Afro-American Studies. "Old Black scholars are deeply rooted in a tradition of excellence. She is a living representative of a generation of Black scholars whose personal mission was that they could do work as well as the whites. They had to prove themselves."

"No matter how rough the going is at Harvard, whether because of racism or sexism or some other kind of `ism,'" says Southern, "whenever I stepped inside the classroom and closed the door and began talking to students, all problems melted away."

"I think sometimes Blacks are a little ashamed of being Black, and they want to prove how much they've accomplished in terms of white achievement. But that's not important. The important thing is that you are moving toward your own goal."

Concludes Southern: "My only regret is that I could not have come to Harvard earlier. I feel that I am just now getting settled, after 10 years. And if I could stay another 10 years, I think I could be responsible for some change."

Fourth in a Series of Features on Women at Harvard Appearing Periodically in The Crimson