Acting on Afro-Am


SOME NEW VOICES rose up this week to question the direction in which Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department is moving. A group of alumni have formed the Committee to Support Afro-American Studies, which took out a full-page advertisement in The Harvard Crimson raising several issues of philosophy and tenure policy at Afro-Am. Also last week, members of the Black Student Association (BSA) met with Department chairman Nathan I. Huggins to ask for a greater student voice in some of these issues, and came away somewhat discouraged.

A common theme running through these two developments is a belief that the unusual circumstances under which Afro-Am was formed entitle students to a greater-than-usual voice in departmental policy. Afro-Am was a direct outgrowth of the student riots of 1969, and a lot of the discussion about forming a department came during the days when students sat in University Hall.

One of the major issues students want to discuss is how much Africa will remain in Afro-Am. The department now seems inclined to limit its academic focus to the Black experience in America. But many students and alumni believe that real Afro-American studies cannot be divorced from the study of Africa.

The case of Ephraim Isaacs, a former assistant professor in the department who was denied tenure in 1975, has come to symbolize for many students and alumni this question of departmental focus. Isaacs is a Black Ethiopian scholar, who is challenging his tenure denial as discrimination, and part of a concerted effort of the department to root out Africanists. They say that the Isaacs case is a crucial opportunity to force the department to study the African side as well. A leader of the alumni committee has said that limiting Afro-Am's focus to events since the slaves arrived in America implies Blacks are a slave people's and works against Third World unity by obscuring Black people's roots. With the History Department's recent decision not to fill its chair in African studies next year--a decision which will leave it only one junior faculty member teaching African studies--the need for more African studies at Harvard seems clear.

WE BELIEVE that granting tenure to Prof. Isaacs might be a good way of meeting this need for Africanists in Afro-Am. And we agree with those who suggest a role for a greater student voice. While any department must seek to maintain its academic integrity, we do not believe a formal student voice on policy questions would be antithetical to this goal. This is particularly true in Afro-Am, the only Harvard department with an outside committee of scholars to decide on tenure decisions. If there is such a strong need for the opinions of outside scholars, certainly there is room for a greater student voice as well.


Afro-Am at Harvard cannot help but be affected by academic politics. The department would not exist were it not for the students who protested so loudly for its formation, and it will no doubt need strong student support in the future to hold the administration to its commitment to the department, Afro-Am should encourage these students who seek a greater role. Amid the raging academic debates about Afro-Am as a department and the University's commitment to it, we believe that these very students will turn out to be the department's best friends.