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Huggins at the Helm of Afro-Am: An Academic Question

By Siddhartha Mazumdar

Leaving a secure academic position at Columbia University to come to Harvard last spring was no scholarly retreat for Nathan I. Huggins. W.E.B. DuBois Professor of History and Afro-American studies. His acceptance of Dean Rosovsky's offer last year put him at the helm of a department that has seen more administrative politics in its 12-year life than any other. Members of the Harvard community and scholars around the nation have viewed the Faculty's hasty decision to create an Afro-American studies department in 1969 as a concession to the Black militancy accompanying that year's spring protests, and since its inception, controversy surrounding Afro-American studies has often pitted the radical ideals and perspectives of its students and professors against a Harvard administration unwilling to relax its grip on the University's newest academic department. Perhaps the most dramatic display of anger was a series of rallies leading up to a day-long boycott of classes in the spring of 1979. The boycott was organized by students who charged Dean Rosovsky with maneuvering to establish an interdisciplinary committee of faculty from related fields to replace the department.

Today, Huggins makes no bones about the political significance of his decision to come to Harvard and to become chairman of the department. He says he accepted Rosovsky's offer as part of a greater effort to bolster the legitimacy of Afro-American studies as an academic field: "The failure of the program at Harvard would have consequences to the field of study itself that would be harmful. A lot of scholars in the country look to Harvard. If we could make Afro-American studies work here very well, it could have important positive results for the field in the country."

Making Afro-American studies work well will require more than efforts to reconcile the political differences among students, faculty and the administration, which have consumed a substantial amount of energy during the past decade. Huggins's greatest challenge will be developing a highquality academic program for concentrators within the department, not an easy task for a department that has consistently plagued the Faculty, and its students, with doubts about its worthiness. Orlando Patterson, professor of Sociology and a former member of the executive committee overseeing the department, said as recently as the fall of 1979 about Afro-American studies, "Students are acutely conscious of the fact the study now has very little status, and have a right to be concerned." He added, "If a student leaves this University with a degree in Afro-American Studies, it should carry the same weight as any other degree at Harvard--and I suspect it doesn't now."

But administrative politics and academics are like oil and vinegar. They don't mix well, but one usually accompanies the other. Huggins's main task involves finding qualified faculty to teach courses in the department. He and Eileen Southern. Professor of Afro-American Studies and Music, are its only fulltime, tenured professors. Huggins says his current search efforts will result in Dean Rosovsky's offering tenured positions in the department to two scholars early this fall. If the trend of the past decade continues, however, it is doubtful that the two offers will result in appointments to the Harvard faculty. Huggins's decision to join the department last spring was accompanied by the refusal of tenured positions by Lawrence W. Levine, a history professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Franklin W. Knight, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University. Attracting the top-flight faculty the University desires has been a persistent problem for Afro-American studies at Harvard. Southern became only the second professor to accept tenure in 1975, while five scholars have turned down tenured positions between the time of the department's inception and Rosovsky's three offers last spring.

The tendency to reject the call to Harvard results from a combination of academic and political factors that bear directly on the status of Afro-American studies at the University. Academically, the interdisciplinary nature of the departmental program has discouraged scholars from leaving positions at other universities. Afro-American studies at Harvard has emphasized the need for as broad as possible a perspective on the experience of Afro-Americans, a goal that Huggins is quick to affirm: "The type of program I've tried to establish is not the normal curriculum for a program in Afro-American studies." Adding that most universities' programs have "a history and culture bias," he says. "We're trying to involve other social sciences in the curriculum." This approach would naturally require the appointment of economists, sociologists and possibly legal experts to the faculty, as well as historians and literature specialists. The uncertain direction and focus of the department's academic efforts makes it difficult to draw scholars away from their welldefined roles at other universities. As Huggins says. "Economists and other professors as such usually don't think of themselves this way as Afro-American types."

Uncertainties regarding the department's status at Harvard, as well as its more-than-decade-long history of controversy, compound the difficulty of attracting professors from secure positions at other universities. "One of the burdens the Harvard department has had out in the world is that it has been perceived in political terms." Huggins says, citing the apparent success of the Afro-American studies program at Yale, possibly a result of its creation in the absence of the militant protests that preceded the Faculty vote to form a department at Harvard in 1969. "One of the advantages that Yale had was that for whatever reason, the Afro-American Studies program could be perceived as a serious, academic program without being burdened by a lot of political issues."

The often-held belief that the department exists merely as a concession to the militancy of Black students in the late 1960s, and that it operates without the support of a large portion of the University's faculty and administration, may contribute to the reluctance of scholars to join its staff. A statement in the 1971 McCree report on Afro-American Studies at Harvard notes. "One of the problems of attracting eminent black and white scholars to the department is the fact that they have earned acceptance in 'conventional' disciplines at other institutions which they would not want to forsake by going to a department which appears to be 'on trial' and accorded second-class status at Harvard."

Huggins maintains that the pressured and emotional situation at the time of the Faculty vote in 1969 to form a full-fledged department contributed to the perception that the department existed as a political concession for at least a decade. In an emotion-charged meeting during April 1969 the Faculty decision rejected a proposal by a student-faculty committee chaired by Rosovsky, who was then a professor of Economics, that would have created an interdisciplinary concentration combining a traditional field such as history of economics with Afro-American studies. Conflict between students, the department's faculty, and the administration has been commonplace ever since. Following the recommendation of a 1971 review committee, the Faculty repealed the provisions in the department's original charter which allowed an unprecedented degree of student influence in its decision-making process. The rallies in the spring of 1979 were organized by students who charged that Rosovsky planned to demote the department to a powerless interdisciplinary committee. Huggins describes the turbulent history of Afro-American studies as "disconcerting to scholars well-placed somewhere." He queries, "Why leave tenure in some department and come to a place, even as wonderful as Harvard, and be confronted with a whole set of non-academic issues?"

Rosovsky has consistently denied charges that he attempted to replace the department with an interdisciplinary committee, and Huggins backs him up: "There has been no effort to do that [change the department into a committee] at least since I've been here. As far as I know, there has not been a hint of that suggestion from anybody on the faculty." In fact. Huggins describes the administration's willingness to tenure three new faculty last spring as an indication of its support for the department. Moreover, he has no complaints with the funding Afro-American studies has received, saying the University has been quite generous in its budgeting.

The approach the department sets out for its concentrators, most of whom combine their studies with other departments, is one of analyzing a particular problem or issue.--poverty among urban Blacks, for example--by applying the concepts and perspectives of a variety of disciplines. Huggins says a crucial task is organizing the tutorial and course offerings within the department to promote this interdisciplinary ideal. "What makes something interdisciplinary is not just a collection of courses in particular fields, but something that gives students an interdisciplinary mode of thinking", he says.

An optimistic picture seems to emerge from Huggins's account of the time-consuming, but promising, process of searching for prospective teachers. He notes improvements in the department's relations with the remainder of the University. But he cannot deny that certain negative feelings have persisted among some of the department's students and faculty members. The executive committee on Afro-American studies created by Rosovsky in the fall of 1979, remains a symbol of administration dominance for those who believe it has tried to deprive the department of the right to govern its own affairs. The committee chaired by C. Clyde Ferguson, professor of Law, was given responsibility for making most of the department's policies and decisions, although Huggins says its only role during the past year has been assisting in the search for candidates to fill the department's tenured chairs. Although the executive committees of almost all other departments consist of each department's own senior faculty. Huggins defends the external control on Afro-American studies as necessary in light of its exceedingly small number of senior faculty members. He dismisses as rhetorical the charges from department members such as Selwyn Cudjoe, who was denied promotion within the department last summer, that the administration is undermining the department's "autonomy". "No department or program is autonomous at an university," he says, adding that only departments with long-established historical positions can attain relative autonomy. "When a program is just starting up, there is need for a certain degree of dependency or interdependence within the institution. It needs help from colleagues not in the department."

Critics of the executive committee's policies have spoken out against what they claim is its rather conservative ideological stance. Cudjoe, for example, filed a grievance with the University last fall, claiming that political differences between him and members of the executive committee caused the committee to deny him promotion. The committee's decision not to offer a tenured position to Eugene D. Genovese, a Marxist historian at the University of Rochester, drew much criticism from students and led to the resignation of Orlando Patterson from the committee.

Huggins denies that there is any overtly political approach to the teaching of Afro-American studies at Harvard, although he recognizes the influence of political factors on the national level in shaping an understanding of Afro-American history and experience. "Most conventional academic disciplines have a built-in leaning toward power. Most scholars like to study the powerful as opposed to the powerless. They like to study the consequential as opposed to the inconsequential," he says, adding. "Blacks become important to study when they become so consequential that you can't ignore them."

In effect, Huggins draws a distinction between a particular ideological orientation and the sort of bias that each academic field naturally develops. "Afro-American studies as a field is by its very nature inclined towards a very different perspective," he notes, adding. "You're asking about people that aren't likely to be looked at from the perspective of other departments. The Afro-American Studies Department will be naturally involved in subject matter that's centrally important to Afro-American life--poverty, distribution, questions of race and class, ethnic and cultural identity." Black militancy and other changes in political power have recently changed the way the nation's history has been interpreted. Huggins says, but he emphasizes that for his purposes and the department's, the shift in perspective has been academic and not political.

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