Afro-American Studies: On the Threshold

The Afro-American Studies Department is no stranger to controversy. The department grew out of the turbulent events of 1969, when black students called for its creation as one of the demands of the Harvard strike. While members of Afro, the student association of Harvard blacks, waited in the lobby of the Loeb Drama Center, the Faculty hotly debated whether the concentration in Afro-American Studies should be a full department or an interdisciplinary committee. Although the Faculty voted at that tense meeting to make Af-Am a department, that debate continues today. Over the past ten years, the University and the department have clashed over budgeting and tenuring professors, but this year rumors of possible demotion to a committee added fuel to these smoldering disagreements, sparking renewed student protests.

Although much of the rhetoric in the controversy over Af-Am has been political, the basic issue in the debate is an educational one. Critics of the department say the Afro-American perspective does not constitute a separate discipline any more than, for example, the Jewish or woman's perspective. The study of a particular culture is interdisciplinary, they add, and ought to draw on a number of departments and scholars. Moreover, they say scholars in Afro-American Studies do not employ a single methodology but instead approach their research using the tools of history, anthropology, or economics.

But Selwyn R. Cudjoe, assistant professor of Afro-American Studies, says the Afro-American perspective is worthy of special scholarly emphasis to correct historical distortions created by centuries of scholars with singularly Euro-American values. Cudjoe adds that if Afro-American Studies were not an autonomous department, it could not decide its own curriculum, nor offer tenured posts to its staff, and it would lose its unique perspective.

This debate changed into political protest this spring because rumors circulated that a visiting committee evaluating Afro-American Studies was planning to change the department to a committee. Although the visiting committee had planned to present its report to the Board of Overseers in late spring, that meeting is now scheduled for October.

"Scheduling, organizing problems, you know. Not an uncommon occurrence at all," one visiting committee member says. "It's a stay of execution," a student concentrating in Afro-American Studies retorts.


Many of the organizers of this spring's protest say they are relieved at the decision's postponement. If the recommendation "to demote the department" had been made in May, one student explains, "we would have had no energy to fight to save the department. We would have had our exams in front of us, and our plane tickets in our pockets."

Aaron A. Estis '79, one student organizer of the April demonstrations supporting the department, says it is "better tactically for us that the decision gets made in the fall--we can do a bit of organizing work over the summer and into the fall."

Demonstrations this spring, however, were organized in much shorter time, as nostalgia for the tenth anniversary of the student strike of '69 provided impetus to student concern over the department's problems. Representatives from the Black Student Association (BSA), the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee, and several other student groups formed a committee in support of the Afro-American Studies Department in early April. The committee first tried to elicit student support for the department by distributing petitions to the Houses, focusing on two of the department's perennial problems: tenured faculty and funding.

The first part of the petition, summing up the tenuring problem, stated that "although seven candidates have been nominated for tenure in the department, with or without joint appointment, only two have been accepted." The student group called in its petition for the four tenured faculty that two separate visiting committees have said are needed. The department currently has only Eileen J. Southern, professor of Afro-American Studies and of Music, who is on leave, and Ewart Guinier '33, professor of Afro-American Studies, who is semi-retired and only teaches half-time.

Rosovsky says there are a number of issues standing in the way of finding faculty for tenure. "We do have tough procedures here, and not everyone can meet the standards," he says. "Also, the turmoil in the department hasn't helped," Rosovsky says.

While student supporters of the department gained publicity through their petitions, President Bok arranged with the Student Assembly for an open discussion on University issues. On the topic of Afro-American Studies, Bok said he has been unable to attract well-qualified candidates for tenured positions because the department suffers from a reputation for controversy. Mark Smith '72, the SASC spokesman at the Kennedy School of Government opening in the fall of 1978, responded to Bok at that meeting that the University's consistent lack of support for the department has made it an "anathema" to many qualified professors.

Citing another issue that Afro-American Studies Faculty have debated with the University over the past ten years, Guinier says Rosovsky is weakening the department by insisting professors hold joint appointment in another department along with Afro-American Studies.

Rosovsky says, however, the University has never required joint appointments. "In virtually all cases, with one exception I can think of, professors approached for appointment in Afro-American Studies have themselves requested joint appointments in fields of their personal expertise," he adds.

In addition, Rosovsky says "in a new subject beginning to establish itself, the better bridges it has to other parts of the University, the better for that department." Guinier says, however, that joint appointments restrict the amount of time and energy a professor can put into either of his two departments.

The student committee's petition also noted that the Afro-American Studies Department depends completely on the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (in effect, Rosovsky) for funding. Unlike other departments, Afro-American Studies receives no supplementary funding from bequests to the University. This financial dependence led to students' demand that Afro-American Studies be given priority in the University's current fund drive.