Huggins Takes the Hot Seat

Nathan I. Huggins, DuBois Professor of Afro-American Studies and History, has no air conditioning to relieve the hot weather as he moves into his new office at 77 Dunster St. But while his headquarters may be uncomfortable now, the heat of the summer will be mild compared with the heat Huggins will face in autumn as the new chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department.

The pressure will not arise because of Huggins personally. Rather, they come with the job of running a department born of what Dean Rosovsky once labeled "an academic Munich." Gazing out the window from behind his desk, Huggins seems steeled to the task and regards his new post with a sense of equanimity. "I have no misgivings about the future of Afro-Am at Harvard. I'm persuaded that the president and the dean are committed to a viable, attractive concentration," he says, adding, "Otherwise, I certainly would have no reason to come."

That Huggins did decide to come was viewed as fortunate. In the wake of student protest and Faculty concern, Rosovsky last fall formed the Afro-Am executive committee to search for more faculty to expand the department's senior ranks. After a nine-month investigation, the committee plucked Huggins, professor of history at Columbia University, to chair the department.

But in terms of tenured faculty, the department's status remains pretty much the same : two senior members. Accordingly, Huggins knows he will vigorously have to recruit qualified faculty both to strengthen the department and increase its attractiveness to undergraduates. "I'm rather optimistic about it," Huggins says, but he notes that one of the difficulties in ferreting out scholars is the relative youth of some of the top academics in the field.

He sees his own acceptance as something of a turning point in Afro-Am's fortunes. "My coming makes a difference, and that's not immodesty, but I did choose to come here--at least it gives the impression to others that one person has persuaded himself that the University has a commitment to Afro-Am."


In fact, Huggins adds, that may have been the overriding factor in his final decision to come. "I felt if I said no, what as I discerned as a genuine, forthright commitment by the president and the dean would've gone by the boards, that it really would've taken the wind out of the sails of the department here," he explains. Had that occurred, Huggins says, "the consequences for the field would have been unfortunate. Harvard makes a difference because of the way the institution is viewed."

Some students and Faculty expressed concern last spring when Huggins accepted the appointment on the condition that the Faculty also tenure him in History. Huggins, however, insists that there is no mistaking his loyalty to Afro-Am, saying, "It's a natural possibility that people who would have a place in another Harvard department would accept a joint appointment."

Others seemed worried about Huggins' stated view that Afro-Am is not a discipline, but an area of study. "Conventional disciplines ususally entail a method and a technique, and are discrete and distinctive. In these terms, Afro-Am is not a discipline," Huggins says, adding, "It has a perspective but not a method--and it has the flexibility to incorporate different perspectives." He considers the department "an adminsitrative unit" and adds jokingly, "I've known departments in my day that have had no discipline, academic or otherwise."

Stepping into the middle of the controversy that has surrounded Afro-Am, Huggins views his role as more a builder than advocate. "I don't see my primary role here as political. I see myself as a scholar-academic whose job it is to construct a good, solid concentration for undergraduates--to maintain and manage a worthy concentration. I would like to be judged on the extent to which I do that." How will Huggins conduct himself in helping defuse the disputes that may arise, as they have so often in the past ten years? "If a complaint makes sense, I'm open to hearing it. And if, to succeed, I have to play bureaucratic politics, I will find my way through the maze." As a member of the community, he adds, he will speak out on issues if he feels so compelled.

"But I should make clear that one should not expect that I, strictly speaking, have a political agenda. I have a commitment to develop this department, and that seems to me to be a full-time job," he says. Indeed, Huggins now confronts a chore that has proved remarkably difficult since Afro-Am's inception in 1969. In the ranks of senior faculty, he is joined only by Eileen Southern, professor of Afro-American Studies and Music and former chairman of the department, who resigned her post in June amid reports of discord. Rosovsky said last fall, "You've got to believe me when I say we tried--and we failed--" to attract scholars to the Afro-Am department. Since 1971, the number of concentrators has dropped about 75 per cent and course enrollment about 55 per cent. Even with an annual financial expense of $300,000 and the disclosure of Huggins' arrival last spring, Afro-Am this year will have about 25 concentrators.

The executive committee, chaired by C. Clyde Ferguson, professor of Law, will continue its pursuit of qualified scholars this year. When it was established last autumn in what was termed a "last ditch" or "emergency" attempt to salvage Afro-Am, the committee was given three chief tasks:

*"to define a sense of intellectual mission" for the department;

*to act as Afro-Am's senior Faculty and guide it in making key policy and personnel decisions;

*to recruit scholars aggressively for tenured professorships in the department.

Afro-Am recruitment has been caught in a vicious cycle. The greater the turmoil and the accompanying publicity, the more difficult it has become to persuade qualified academics to take a risk and cast their lot with Harvard. Afro-Am supporters hope Huggins' arrival will break the pattern and lure a batch of talented faculty to the building on Dunster St.