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Black Militancy: A Special Case

By Geoffrey D. Garin

ANYONE FAMILIAR with the Harvard of 1974, with its administrative bureaucracy and its more or less centralized policy-making functions, cannot help but be amazed by the way the Faculty created the Afro-American Studies Department five years ago.

At its meeting of April 22, 1969, the Faculty faced a choice between two radically different conceptions of how the new Afro Department should be structured. One plan was suggested by precedent and tradition and backed by the University's administrative hierarchy, including the Faculty Standing Committee on Afro American Studies. The second plan was proposed by the militant Harvard-Radcliffe Association of African and Afro-American Students (Afro).

The "official" plan for the department called for "consultation" with students on issues concerning tenure and curriculum, but gave students no real power. The Afro proposal, on the other hand, offered a scheme in which students would be represented on the new department's executive committee proportionate to Faculty representation--something unheard of at Harvard at that time.

The Standing Committee's proposal never reached the floor of the Faculty meeting. By a vote of 251 to 158, the Faculty voted to dispense with precedent and bypass the official viewpoint. With only minor changes, the Faculty decided to accept the Afro proposal. The vote caused an angered Henry Rosovsky, then a professor of Economics and a leader in the drive to bring black studies to Harvard, to resign his seat from the Standing Committee. The vote also touched off a still-explosive debate over whether the Faculty had sacrified its prerogatives and principles by letting itself be compromised by militancy.

For better or worse, the Afro-American Studies Department and the controversies in which it has been embroiled these past five years are the legacy of the student rebellion that swept over Harvard in the spring of 1969. Although there is no doubt that Harvard would have a black studies program today even if there had been no Strike five years ago, the shape that the department finally took was a direct consequence of black student militancy--and the Faculty's concession to that militancy--at the time of the department's birth.

THE FINAL MOVE toward creating a black studies concentration at Harvard began nearly a year before the April 1969 Faculty vote. Although black students at Harvard had already begun to assume a militant stance by the spring of 1968, the primary impetus for the program's development did not come from radicalism, but rather from the university's liberal realization that the time had finally come to make some sort of formal recognition of the civil rights movement that had been gaining momentum in the United States all through the sixties. Black studies had been talked about at Harvard ever since the University decided to turn down a foundation grant to establish an African studies program in the early fifties. In the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination, it was generally assumed that the University would have to stop talking about the program and begin to act on it.

Early in May 1968, Dean Franklin L. Ford created the Faculty Committee on African and Afro-American Studies. From the very beginning, various right-wing elements charged that the committee, chaired by Rosovsky, was an unwise political accommodation to radicalism. In an article in The American Scholar, Rosovsky responded to the charges:

Since the 1940s the United States has poured many millions of dollars into Russian and Chinese studies. Is this because our society had suddenly developed a passion for Tolstoi, Dostoevski and/or Ming vases? Or is it that we faced certain national needs in which the help of the universities was essential. If this is the meaning of political motivation, Afro-American studies undoubtedly fits the bill. At the same time, I would conclude that more political activity of this type would be highly desirable.

Throughout the period of the Afro Department's formation, Rosovsky doggedly and consistently maintained his liberal stance on the issue. His major interests were in opening a new subject more fully to intellectual examination and in improving the "quality" of black students' lives at Harvard His interest most decidedly was not in major structural reform. As a liberal, Rosovsky did not see the need for it. But Rosovsky was to learn by the end of the process that the liberal viewpoint was subject to more than just conservative criticism; he would also learn that in 1969, at least, the liberal position was plainly vulnerable to attacks from radical quarters.

THE ROSOVSKY COMMITTEE deliberated for eight months and issued its report to the Faculty on January 20, 1969. The report discussed the quality of black student life at Harvard, Harvard's involvement in African studies, and the recruitment and financing of black graduate students. The most important section of the report was that which recommended that Harvard establish an undergraduate concentration in Afro-American studies.

On February 11, the Faculty voted to approve in principle the recommendations made by the Rosovsky Committee. Shortly afterwards, President Pusey appointed a Standing Committee on Afro-American Studies to find a faculty for the new department and to develop its structure and curricula. Although students had been offered voting powers on the first Rosovsky committee, Pusey appointed no students to the Standing Committee, on which Rosovsky also served. It was at this point--a time when the wave of student radicalism and black militancy began to crest at Harvard-- that the liberal recommendations of the Rosovsky report and the Standing Committee's implementation of them began to face their stiffest challenge from the left.

On April 9--the day of the University Hall Occupation--the Standing Committee issued its "tentative proposal for concentration in Afro-American Studies to prospective concentrators. Two days later, just following the Bust, Afro officially allied itself with the SDS Strike position and issued a statement charging the University with "purposely violating its agreement to establish a meaningful" Afro-American studies program. The Standing Committee's tentative proposal included a requirement that concentrators specialize in an "allied field." This joint-concentration requirement--more than anything else--angered the Afro leadership, and in the highly charged and militant atmosphere that followed the Bust, Afro channeled its anger into a radical and soon-to-be successful challenge to the liberal conception of the new Afro department.

On April 13, the Standing Committee, sensitized by the occupation and the Bust, reversed its position on joint-concentration and eliminated the requirement in a revised proposal. But Afro was not to be soothed. The membership concluded that the Standing Committee was "out of touch" with the needs and desires of black students, and on April 14--the day of the Soldiers Field Strike meeting--Afro demanded that the Standing Committee be dissolved and replaced by a new committee composed of equal numbers of students and faculty.

At an emergency Faculty meeting on April 17 the Afro demand, written with the help of Stanley Cavell and John Rawls, was placed on the Faculty's agenda. Afro claimed that its demand was "not a repudiation of the Rosovsky report. It is, if you will, a friendly amendment." Rosovsky's subsequent resignation from the Standing Committee upon acceptance of the Afro proposal indicates that he at least was not convinced of the amendment's friendly nature.

In any case, the Faculty did not get around to considering the Afro proposal on April 17; this angered Afro even further. The next day Afro members occupied the Faculty Room in University Hall to hold "office hours" so that faculty could come and discuss Afro's demands. Nearly 30 Faculty showed up.

Afro rewrote its proposal for the Afro Department in time for the April 22 meeting of the Faculty. After Alan Heimert introduced the proposal for Faculty consideration, a lengthy and heated discussion involving faculty and student observers ensued. The most controversial aspect of the Afro proposal was the demand for student representation on the department's executive board and a student voice in the hiring and firing of faculty. Despite stiff objection to these demands by allies of Rosovsky, the Faculty accepted the Afro proposal by a significant margin.

JUDGING FROM ITS subsequent behavior, the Faculty was not altogether pleased about accepting the Afro proposals. In retrospect it is clear that the demands were accepted only because of the extraordinary conditions under which they were considered. After the Bust and the Soldiers Field Strike vote, the Faculty recognized that it would somewhere and sometime need to make some concessions to radicalism. The decision to give students a voice in hiring faculty and in running a department was the most significant of any concessions the Faculty made. That this should be the case is no accident: the Faculty, predominantly white and liberal, was especially conscious of the fact that in this instance they were not only dealing with student militants, but with black student militants. In 1969 it seemed to the Faculty--perhaps for reasons of fear, perhaps for reasons of guilt, but not for reasons of conscientious agreement--that special concessions had to be made to the blacks. President Pusey seemed to recognize this. After the Faculty vote, which received wide-spread attention in the national press, Harvard was criticized for "giving in to the militants." Appearing on Meet the Press, Pusey responded to the criticism by drawing a distinction between giving in to white militants and black militants. Pusey said, "The black student thing is a very special matter... I think the Faculty felt there were reasons for considering this a very special case."

While it is important to recognize that the Faculty did treat Afro as a "special' case of student militancy back in 1969, speculation as to the Faculty's motivation can only obscure the issues at this present juncture in the University's history. For history has shown that whatever those reasons might have been, they are no longer important to the Faculty's approach to black students or the Afro-American Studies Department.

When the Faculty passed the Afro resolution at its April 1969 meeting, it also passed an amendment which mandated a review of the department for the 1972 academic year. The amendment hardly seemed to be an important one at the time. But when 1972 rolled around, the departmental review afforded the Faculty a significant opportunity to relieve the misgivings it had about the concessions made to militancy in 1969. After the review committee released its report the Faculty voted to "restructure" the department in a way that would effectively cancel out the gains made by student radicalism during the time of the Strike. Students have lost their positions on the department's executive committee and their strong voice in hiring new faculty. The most surprising thing about this aspect of the affair is not that it happened--in retrospect this was only to be expected--but that it happened with little or no protest from students.

This is just one more measure of how much things have changed since the Strike.CrimsonDiana HenryAn angered HENRY ROSOVSKY quit the Faculty Standing Committee on Afro-American Studies after the Faculty allowed students a vote on faculty appointments.

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