West Will Add Prestige, Activism to Afro-Am
The decision this week by prominent academic Cornel R. West '74 to leave Princeton and join Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department caps off the remarkable transformation of a program that not long ago was on the verge of collapse.
The world-renowned scholar of religion, philosopy and Afro-American studies is widely credited with building Princeton's Afro-American studies program into one of the best in the nation.
And he brings a reputation for political and social activism to Harvard's department, which has been criticized by students and Afro-American studies scholars as politically inert.
"What West will do is bring a degree of validity in terms of connections between the African community and the University, that neither Gates nor Appiah have done," said Molefi Kete Asante, who chairs the Temple University Department of African American studies.
"He's more organically connected to African groups," said Asante, who has criticized the Harvard department in the past. "Gates has almost no connection with the Black community."
Students in Afro-American Studies at Harvard have also called for a more politically and socially relevant approach to the department's curriculum.
Harvard's department has been guided by a "cultural studies" orientation which seeks to explore the role of race and ethnicity in determining the characteristics of a group or society. Professors in the department have also avoided an explicitly political role on divisive campus issues.
West's intellectual interests--he has written widely on contemporary sociological and political issues--and activist bent will answer those student concerns, Afro-American studies professors say.
"He's the first to bring that very clear activist orientation," said Assistant Professor of English and Afro-American Studies Phillip Brian Harper. "At the same time, he will...help to demonstrate to students exactly how intellectual work can itself be activist."
As much as West will give to Harvard's program, scholars not his move will also injure the program the prominent scholar helped build at Princeton.
Rhett Jones, professor of history and Afro-American studies at Brown, said that because there are not that many professors of Afro-American studies in the pipeline of academia, all the universities end up shuffling the same top people around.
"Harvard gains and Princeton loses," said Jones.
Beyond the cloistered intellectual community, however, West's name will improve the profile of Harvard's department in the public mind, he said.
"His [West's] work has an impact not only in the academic community but in the public intellectual community," said Jones.
West is a best-selling author as well as a frequent columnist and commentator.
Such prominence will likely draw more concentrators as well as media attention, Harper said.
"The only other Afro-American Studies program with a comparable public profile to Harvard's has been Princeton's," said Harper.
But there is at least one other famous figure in Harvard's department: its chair, Gates. Both have had the opportunity to shape a program, and both are internationally renowned scholars in their own right.
"West, in my judgement, is much stronger in Afro-American studies in terms of the tradition than Gates is," says Asante.
Afro-American Studies faculty say they expect the two friends to cooperate well, however.
"Consensus will rule, as it does in other departments across the university," said Harper.
And with the addition of another faculty member, another goal for the growing department is closer to reality: Gates and Harper say the possibility of a graduate program is closer to reality.
Three years ago, the program was at its nadir and students protested for faculty appointments. At the time, when the department had only one tenured faculty member, West and two other scholars turned down offers of tenure.
Then, the program's fate turned for good with the arrival in 1991 of Du Bois Professor of the humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Professor of Philosophy and Afro-American Studies K. Anthony Appiah.
Gates was promised a strong commitment to the program, and he got it: In addition to Appiah, newly appointed Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and West, he will add four more professors to the Afro-American Studies faculty over the next few years.
He said the appointments will likely be in comparative literature, music, history and art, in addition to Higginbotham and West's expertise in religion and religious history.