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A department with no professors

Afro-American Studies Department

By Joseph L. Contreras

In the past year, a certain haze of orderly calm has descended upon the 77 Dunster Street offices of the Department of Afro-American Studies. The focal point of considerable controversy and internal dissension among concentrators and some faculty members for many years, the Afro department has experienced a relative cease-fire during the last twelve months--at least on the surface. Afro has begun to assume many features of a conventionally organized department: the introduction of general examinations planned for next year, the establishment of specific course requirements, and the cross-listing of department offerings in other sections of the course catalogue. Many concentrators, however, present a different portrait of the 1977 edition of the Afro Department. And while many of their grievances--those of recent origin as well as the long-standing complaints--have not received nearly as much publicity as Afro has traditionally attracted throughout its eight-year history, the persistence of the charges hurled by many concentrators (and seconded by some junior Afro faculty members) furnishes a sharp contrast to the apparently untroubled facade of the Dunster St. building.

Since assuming the Afro chairmanship in January 1976, Eileen Southern, professor of Music and lecturer on Afro-American Studies, has implemented many of the policies designed to lend the department the air of respectability that the University has allegedly denied Afro since its creation in 1969. Besides the three examples cited above, Afro has launched a departmental newsletter (a quarterly named Nimba), sponsored its first General Education course (Social Sciences 7, "Introduction to Afro-American History"), and set up the department's first House seminar--Quincy 109, "Conflict and Mediation in Contemporary Africa."

Perhaps most significantly, the 1976-'77 selection of Afro courses introduced the first comprehensive survey of the historical role played by Black America, Afro-American Studies 118d, "Afro-American History." The only non-tutorial course required of all concentrators, Afro 118d was described by one otherwise disgruntled senior as the "only systematic course" covering the black American's experience that the department offers. But the 1977 Concentrators' Report and the comments of several students dissatisfied with the "new look" at Afro suggest that the department's stormy period has not ended yet; the tempests merely have subsided for the present.

The alleged lack of adequate student participation in the departmental decisionmaking process has long been a source of friction between concentrators on the one hand and leading Afro faculty and especially the University on the other. The 1972 McCree Report on the department mandated that students should be granted access to all Afro faculty meetings except those that discussed honors recommendations and faculty appointments. The 18-month period of Southern's chairmanship has witnessed a steady decrease in the amount of student input into such departmental meetings, a development that several concentrators attribute to the policies and approach of Southern.

George Rivera '77, former chairman of the Concentrators of the Afro-American Studies Department, says that Afro students have not met with Southern and faculty members in a formal context the entire academic year. Rivera says there was a meeting scheduled last March at which the chairman refused to speak with an assembled group of concentrators and some non-concentrators--including several freshmen--about major issues concerning the department. Since that abbreviated meeting in the winter, Rivera says that Afro concentrators have stopped attending meetings in response to Southern's reluctance to give students a hearing, noting that the chairman also declined to meet with Afro concentrators on April 7, 1976, about a departmental decision to deny tenure to two junior faculty members.

Southern answers that allegation by saying that Rivera and other students involved in setting up the February meeting did not inform her that non-concentrators would be attending the discussion, nor had they prepared an agenda in advance detailing the issues that would be covered or the students who would discuss them. Rivera says that the concentrators told the chairman that "students" would attend the meeting--he did not specify "concentrators"--and that Afro students have submitted agendas to Southern prior to meetings in the past, only to meet with treatment similar to that met with in the February meeting.

Southern also says that several concentrators have attended faculty meetings since the February encounter, contrary to Rivera's assertions. One of the two students Southern says did sit in on such meetings--Harvard Stephens '77-3--says he attended only one meeting in February (shortly after his return to Harvard following a semester off), adding that his presence at that meeting "does not indicate an inclination among students to participate" in Afro faculty pow-wows. Stephens has not attended another meeting since then.

Another point of contention raised by some concentrators revolves around the case of Badi Foster, visiting associate professor of Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Foster quickly developed a reputation within the department as one of Afro's prime attractions, an opinion shared by Southern as well as Foster's more enthusiastic boosters among the concentrators. An examination of student enrollment in Foster's courses also attests to his popularity; while only eight students took a fall course Foster offered on social policy and modernization, 64 students enrolled in two of his spring courses, Afro 104, "The Politics of Transformation," and Afro 190, a conference course on "Media and Political Development in the Afro-American Communities."

Foster says that he particularly enjoyed teaching Afro 104 because the 27-student enrollment was evenly divided among blacks and whites and included six Chicanos. Afro 104 is "a good example of how the department can escape courses" with all-black enrollments, Foster says and he adds that Afro and black studies programs in other American universities "need to attract more students, especially white students."

Rivera cited Foster's experience because his case demonstrates that Afro faculty members "who draw students are not being rewarded." Invited to teach Afro courses under a one-year contract with the department, Foster will not return to Afro next year, despite his explicit request to Southern that his visiting professor contract be renewed. Foster will confine his academic duties to teaching courses at the Graduate School of Education next year, where he also worked this year on a joint program that included the Afro affiliation. Rivera calls Foster's experiences within the department "the Ephraim Isaac case" of this academic year, a reference to the former associate professor of Afro-American Studies who was denied tenure by Afro in 1975, sparking a major furor within the department.

Southern responds to Rivera's charges by saying that the University allows the department a budget that provides for the hiring of only one visiting faculty member per year, and that she promised next year's position to Lawrence D. Reddick, professor of History at Temple University, in March 1976 after Reddick told Southern he could not come to Harvard for the 1976-'77 academic year.

Concentrators often cite the Foster case as confirmation of Southern's alleged lack of committment to attracting as many students to Afro as possible. Observing that only one student in the class of 1980 applied to the department this year as a full-time concentrator (two freshmen will concentrate jointly in Afro), they contend that the policies of Southern do not promote the growth of Afro. The 1977 Concentrators' Report identifies an alleged stress on the humanities at the expense of the political and economic disciplines as a prominent reason for Afro's steadily decreasing number of students. Because Afro courses focusing on art and music are usually undersubscribed, many concentrators particularly object to the appointment of Josephine Wright, assistant professor of Afro-American Studies, as head tutor for next year, another departmental decision they say shows the humanistic trend in Afro lying at the root of the department's student enrollment problems.

But the dissatisfaction of some concentrators with the current circumstances in Afro does not limit itself to personalities alone. For several years, many students have criticized Southern's alleged neglect of Pan-Africanist perspectives in Afro course offerings, charging that the chairman wants to firmly establish an "Americo-oriented" approach to academic research in the department. Last year's decisions to withhold tenure from Isaac and Pierre-Michel Fontain, former lecturer on Afro-American Studies--both recognized Pan-Africanists--have been attributed directly to Southern's influence, and Afro concentrators Peter Hardie '77 and Bruce Jacobs '77 attacked these policies in a January 18 opinion piece in The Crimson.

The chairman acknowledges that her "first priorities are Afro-American subjects" and that she "has to recognize that this is an Afro-American Studies department." Citing budgetary considerations that are determined by the University, Southern says that the sixmember faculty quota of Afro makes the hiring of an expert African historian "a luxury for me." Southern adds that the present Afro faculty includes two Africans--J. Mutero Chirenje, assistant professor of Afro-American Studies, and Chidi U.E. Ikonne, instructor in Afro-American Studies--and that Chirenje specializes in African literature.

Concentrators complain of a feeling of impotence as they witness the emergence of such trends, saying that the absence of fulltime tenured faculty members in Afro--coupled with Southern's alleged refusal to formally meet with students--deny concentrators the kind of access to the depart- ment's decision making process as mandated in Afro's charter. The issue of full-time tenured Afro faculty opens up still another Pandora's box of troubles in the department, controversies that can be reduced to two basic developments: the introduction of joint tenure appointments in Afro over the last few years and the case of Isaac, which underscores the tenure problems peculiar to Afro, in the judgement of many students and some junior faculty members.

As matters stand now, the department lacks a single full-time tenured faculty member who is wholly within Afro. Ewart Guinier '33, professor of Afro-American Studies, is presently semi-retired and teaches only during one semester of each academic year. Southern holds tenure in the Music Department as well as Afro; she is a musicologist by training, and she was nominated by the Music Department for a joint appointment in Afro. The April 22, 1969, Faculty vote that established the department called for the tenuring of two full-time faculty members in Afro. The 1972 McCree Report on the department recommended the appointment of four full-time tenured Faculty to the department as a top priority, adding that such appointments should be made before the department approved any more joint appointments.

Yet eight years after the 1969 Faculty vote and five years after the release of the McCree Report, Afro still maintains the dubious distinction of being the only department in the University without a single full-time tenured professor wholly within the department. Isaac's ill-fated tenure nomination in 1971 epitomizes the hassles that plague junior faculty members in Afro who apply for tenure, according to many concentrators.

Most of the details surrounding the decision not to offer Isaac tenure have already been documented, but the procedures instituted to consider his nomination continue to disturb many concerned students and junior faculty who wish to remain at Harvard on a tenured basis. Among other questionable practices that marked the events leading to the rejection of his nomination, Isaac notes that not one member of the ad hoc committee established to consider his application "knew anything" about his specialization, although the committee members were chosen with the full knowledge of Isaac's field of academic research.

Moreover, Isaac says that his nomination, sponsored exclusively by Afro, was submitted to the ad hoc panel along with two other candidates who had been nominated by other departments and who were under consideration for joint tenure appointment. He adds that the University never told him that his candidacy would be referred to the same ad hoc committee reviewing two nominees sponsored by other departments with disparate specializations. Finally, Isaac alleges that "at least one member of the committee was known to have a conflict of interest with, and antagonism to, the development of African subject" within the department.

Isaac subsequently filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 1976 charging that the University had refused to give him tenure on the basis of race and nationality. "I decided to go to court because of the broken promises, the irregular procedures and the deep-seated discriminatory manner in which the department and I have been treated," Isaac says, adding he believes that he was denied tenure because of a "behind-the-scenes attempt to not hire people wholly within the department." Isaac says that he does not object to the concept of joint tenure appointments, but he says that such appointments, should only be made after Afro acquires at least two full-time tenured professors with a complete commitment to the department.

As Isaac prepares to leave Harvard this month upon the expiration of his contract as an Afro associate professor he says that the issue of no full-time tenured faculty in the department remains a matter of considerable importance because "any legitimate department is a department because it has full-time tenured faculty." Isaac's comments point to perhaps the one most significant and unsettling question concerning Afro in the minds of concentrators and junior faculty: what form will the department assume in future years of the present "Americo-centric" and increasingly humanist trends continue?

Some concentrators have accused Dean Rosovsky of attempting to undermine the department in its present form and transform Afro into a committee-type program that awards degrees but which would lack the status of a full-fledged department, charges that Rosovsky has emphatically denied in the past. Rivera voices the fear that Rosovsky will undertake a full-scale review of Afro in the near future; such a review would note the steadily decreasing numbers of undergraduates concentrating in the department, and Rivera asserts that the University might use these statistics to recommend a change in Afro's status to a committee program structure. He and other concentrators fear that the University in coming years will try "to shut Afro down or turn it into something completely ridiculous that means nothing to black people."

Southern's three-year term as chairman of Afro is due to expire in 1979, and the appointment of her successor may hint at the course that the department will chart in the 1980s. The alleged "Americo-centric" direction of Afro stands little chance of being reversed in two years, as the steady exodus of pan-Africanists like Isaac from Harvard and Afro shows few signs of stopping. The Afro offices at 77 Dunster will probably preserve the outward stability of the department for the foreseeable future, but that appearance remains a deceptive one, and conditions in Afro may once again wax turbulent if someone should decide to reopen one of those currently airtight boxes in Pandora's closet

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