Afro: A Decade Of Debate

[Last of a five-part series.]

When the Coalition for Awareness and Action included strengthening the Afro-American Studies Department as a demand of last Monday's student boycott of classes, many students were skeptical about offering support. "Divestiture, now there's an issue to unite an entire student body," a Kirkland House sophomore said last week. "But Afro-Am? For most of us, it's just not our fight."

Many students, beseiged by literature in recent weeks that has marked the tenth anniversary of the Harvard strike, have in fact been surprised to learn that the creation of an autonomous Afro-American Studies Department has been one major demand of striking Harvard students in 1969. More surprising than the subsequent granting of the demand is that, after ten years, the department has come full circle: a visiting committee is at present judging its viability as a department, and presenting recommendations on the status of the department to the Board of Overseers at the end of May.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968, the University finally moved from years of discussion of the theory of civil rights to set up a special committee to study the problems of black students at Harvard. One consideration of the committee was the role Afro-American Studies might play in the Harvard curriculum.

In January 1969, the committee, chaired by Henry Rosovsky, then professor of Economics, released its report. A month later, the Faculty voted to accept the committee's recommendations, which included the creation of a standing committee on Afro-American Studies to grant degrees starting with the Class of '72, and the establishment of a standing committee to supervise expansion of course offerings in Afro-American Studies.

The Faculty approved both proposals unanimously, as well as a committee recommendation to found a cultural center for black students at Harvard.


The move seemed a popular one. In an editorial that April, The New York Times cited Harvard's establishment of an Afro-American Studies major as "a striking example of its flexibility and responsiveness to student demands."

But at a meeting for students planning to concentrate in Afro-American Studies on April 7, the University showed its hand more clearly. The material in Afro-American Studies, members of the standing committee told students, would be under the control of departments outside Afro-Am. The only courses offered in the program would be tutorials: students considering an Afro-Am concentration would have to specify an "allied field" of concentration, in which they would then have to take additional tutorials. Effectively, then, the only way a student could concentrate in Afro-Am would be to major in another field and choose Afro-Am as a minor.

The African and Afro-American Association of Harvard-Radcliffe Students (Afro), which up to that time had been the main lobbying group for Afro-American Studies on campus, reacted bitterly to the proposed program. "The Afro-American Studies program, as now conceived by the University, is so far from what Black students envisioned as to be no program in Afro-American Studies at all," an Afro statement said the next day.

Feelings ran high. Afro soon added its demands for an autonomous Afro-Am department to those of the SDS, which called for expulsion of the military Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program from campus, and an end to Harvard's plans to evict tenants from apartments it owned in Cambridge and Boston, to make way for an expansion of University facilities.

On April 9, a group of about 300 pro-SDS demonstrators occupied University Hall, in an effort to publicize the SDS demands. The police bust that then-President Nathan M. Pusey '28 ordered the next day expanded the scope of protest beyond the range of what had originally been thought of as a relatively small group of radicals; the repulsion felt by moderates among both students and faculty fueled the student strike that followed, and generated intense support for most of the protesters' demands, including those of Afro. The April 14 mass meeting in Soldiers' Field, which extended the strike for three days, formalized the students' list of demands; among these was a call for "the establishment of a meaningful black studies program with curriculum and requirements for tenure to be determined by the chairman of the department, and by the students."

It is hard to say how long it might have taken for an Afro-American Studies Department to be approved by the Faculty, had the events of that week in April not shocked the Faculty into closer attention to student demands.

Afro proposed to the Faculty that a governing board for Afro-American Studies be established from among the Faculty and students, with half the student representation coming from Afro itself, and half from concentrators in the proposed department. It also demanded that the committee have power over the department's tenure decisions, and the authority to draw up courses for the department.

At its April 22 meeting in the Loeb Theatre, the Faculty approved the proposed plan by a vote of 251-158. The decision raised a firestorm: Rosovsky resigned his post as chairman of the Standing Committee on Afro-American Studies in protest of the decision, which he called "an academic Munich." Rosovsky, along with many others in the Faculty, objected to the presence of students on the department's executive committee; students, the line of reasoning ran, are not sufficiently well-trained to judge the academic qualifications of professors being considered for tenure.

And yet there was another, more sensational, criticism raised against the Faculty vote: that it was born of the logic of fear. As Rosovsky's reference to Munich implied, many on the Faculty and around the country were appalled by what they saw as the capitulation of the nation's most prestigious university to the demands of students protesters--demands enforced by what some viewed as an atmosphere of psychological intimidation. The charge of capitulation inspired much heated debate: an associate professor at the University of Texas went so far as to ban from his classes all books written by Harvard professors, charging that the Faculty here had "turned chicken." More temperate charges adopted essentially the same argument, but the Faculty held its ground. Later, Pusey, surely no capitulationist, justified the vote by maintaining that "the black student thing is a very special matter." Despite Pusey's defense, the criticisms, as well as a lingering resentment on the part of many Faculty members, dogged the new department through its early years.

Nevertheless, the department had come into existence, its creation directly attributable to student activism.