Faculty members from across the University signaled their support for and praise of the high-profile department in a letter sent to members of the department on Friday.
The professors also forwarded the letter to University President Lawrence H. Summers and Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles—along with a cover letter opening with “Dear Larry” and urging Summers to continue his efforts to convince the professors in question to stay at Harvard.
“We have circulated and signed this letter...in support of your effort to maintain the best Afro-American Studies department in the country,” the letter stated.
The stability of the department was thrown into question in December, when members of the department were reported to be considering offers from other universities following a dispute between Summers and Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74.
Since then, Summers has met personally with West and DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., who is chair of the department, to try to smooth over the situation.
But lingering uncertainty about the future of the department prompted six professors to gather signatures for their letter to convince West, Gates and others not to leave Harvard.
But as the letter circulated around the faculty over intersession, one of those professors, Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and of Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah, decided to leave for Princeton, citing personal reasons.
Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol, one of the professors who spearheaded the effort, said the letter, which wished the president “good luck” in preserving the department, was not at all intended to pressure Summers to do more to placate their disgruntled colleagues.
“We aren’t trying to send a message to anyone except our colleagues in Afro-Am—and maybe the rest of the world,” Skocpol said.
She said the national media attention garnered by the dispute between Summers and members of the department has called into question how much Harvard’s faculty members value Afro-American Studies and the professors who compose the department.
“Events of past weeks have given the impression that theres’ something less than total support for Afro-Am at Harvard,” Skocpol said.
David Ellwood, Littauer professor of political economy at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG), echoed Skocpol’s sentiments.
“This is pure and simple about telling our colleagues how much we respect and admire them,” Ellwood said.
Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba ’53, Professor of Economics Caroline M. Hoxby ’88, Ascherman Professor of Economics Richard Freeman and Professor of Sociology Mary C. Waters were the four other professors who provided the initial inspiration for the letter.
Ellwood said the idea for the letter came out of a discussion at a dinner attended by all six professors.