DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates, Jr. thought he was returning to his alma mater, Yale, for an evening ceremony in honor of his scholarship. He brought his wife, his two daughters and his father.
But remarks by Yale President Richard Levin at that Feb. 4 dinner led to the resignation of the chair of Yale's Afro-American studies program and a public debate about Yale's commitment to the field.
During his introductions, Levin lauded Gates's role in shepherding Harvard's Afro-American studies department.
"You were mentioned by the late Charlie Davis, master of [Yale's] Calhoun College and the driving force behind the creation of Afro-American studies at Yale," Levin said. "We have watched with interest and admiration, and a little jealously, as you have followed in your mentor's footsteps--building an extraordinary program in Afro-American studies at Harvard."
Just days later, Professor of American Studies Hazel Carby, who heads Yale's Afro-American studies faculty, sent a two-page letter to Levin announcing her resignation from the post.
"No one would deny that praise is due the achievements of Professor Gates and his colleagues at Harvard," she wrote. "But please do not let such recognition and honor be awarded at the expense of African American Studies at Yale."
"To be jealous of their department is to invite a comparison that can only be interpreted to mean that we do not reach a standard of which you can be proud," she added.
Founded in 1969, Yale's Afro-American studies program has grown in size and in scope. But it has never been granted the status of a full department--on par with that of Harvard's or Princeton's. This, Yale professors say, would translate into more money, more staff and more respect.
Yale's program began offering a master's degree in 1978 and a Ph.D. in 1993. Currently, Harvard's Afro-American studies department offers bachelor's degrees only to undergraduates, though the Faculty will vote tomorrow on whether to create a graduate program in the field.
"If you are 'jealous' of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, why do you not support us with resources that are commensurate with our collective achievements and equal to theirs?" Carby wrote toward the end of her letter.
The letter also alleges that Levin has asked Gates "what it would take to persuade him and his colleagues to come to Yale."
Levin responded with a statement of his own, sent to graduate students and faculty in the African American studies program.
He said African American studies at Yale is a "vital enterprise," one he was dedicated to supporting. Yale "has been engaged in the process of considering the programs' petition for departmental status," Levin said.
"We need to unite in our efforts to make our successes better known around the country, and I look forward to providing support for such activity," he said.
In the Yale Daily News, Levin encouraged Carby to reconsider her resignation.
Gates denied Friday that Levin has ever offered him a job.
"The idea that anyone has ever made me an offer to go back to Yale is
ridiculous. It's just a rumor, it's
just not true," he said.
Vera Kutzinski, a professor of American studies and of English at Yale, said she and other faculty members will try to pressure Carby to reconsider her decision to leave.
Gates, who is a longtime friend of Levin's, said that his own perceptions of what African American studies should be were shaped by his Yale days. Now, he says, "as an outsider, I think that the administration is very supportive of African American studies," he said.
He said he urged Carby to reconsider her decision.
"She's a wonderful scholar," Gates said.
Recently, Carby has taught courses ranging from black women's fiction to an examination of the social construction of race.
She has not confined her activism to African-American studies. In 1996, she was one of the principal co-signers of a letter to Levin urging the university to rethink its labor policies. She has also spearheaded a debate over tenure reform for Yale professors.
As the chair of the program in African American studies, Carby faces the challenge of recruiting a top-notch faculty at a time when other colleges are making top-dollar offers to hire talented Afro-Am professors. According to Kutzinki, this task has been made difficult by the program's status at Yale.
Kutzinski said that although she respects Gates and Harvard's program, she believes Yale devotes more attention to its undergraduates.
"We have difficulties with some of the students who come from Harvard's program," she said.
She cites examples of Harvard students who have had trouble with the academic rigor of Yale's graduate program.
But Gates defended the program he has helped to build at Harvard.
"I would say the faculty of Afro-American studies is completely devoted to the training of students of the undergraduate level, as we have been for years," he said.
The debate over whether Harvard's department is, in Kutzinski's words, too "flashy" has been stirring for years now.
Gates, who arrived at Harvard in 1991, quickly lured big-name academics like K. Anthony Appiah, Cornel R. West '74 and William Julius Wilson to Cambridge.
Gates's own projects--Encyclopedia Africana and a series of television documentaries, have been labeled as self-promoting or trendy by scholars within the field of Afro-American studies.
Just last Friday, a group representing the Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People stormed into the Barker Center to protest Gates's PBS series, "Wonders of the African World," calling it Eurocentric.
Robert Stepto, the acting head of the Afro-American studies program at Yale, in an interview with Yale Daily News, called Gates a "saboteur and even a provocateur." Stepto said Gates is still angry that he was once denied tenure at Yale and is trying to diminish the reputation of the Yale program.
"[The rumors] simply go back to the fact that things didn't work out at Yale for [Gates]," Stepto told the Yale newspaper.
Gates strongly denied the charge that he looks down on Yale's program.
"I am in support of the attempt by [Yale] to convert their program into a department. And every time I've been asked, I've said as much," he said.
Gates declined to respond to Stepto's charges.
"I'm sure that Professor Stepto was
misquoted. I have no comment on that," Gates said.
After graduating from Yale in 1973, Gates lectured there from 1976 to 1979. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1979. In 1984, Cornell offered him tenure. Gates said he asked Yale to match the offer, and, in 1985, when they did not, he left for Ithaca. Though he spent his formative years in New Haven, Gates won't leave Harvard anytime soon, he said.
"Harvard is heaven," Gates said. "And I don't want to leave heaven."