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Looking to Mediate A Thorny Dispute

By Marc P. Berenson, Afro-Am Protests

On Monday afternoon, 10 students met with President Derek C. Bok in his office to discuss the future of the beleaguered Afro-American Studies Department.

When Bok and two other administrators abruptly left the meeting--saying that demands for six new appointments by February were completely unrealistic--the five students who were Afro-Am concentrators staged a two-hour sit-in at Bok's office.

But the other five students, all of whom were members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Black Students Association (BSA), decided against joining the sit-in. Instead, they also left the meeting, and waited outside where others had gathered for a faculty diversity rally.

It's not that BSA disagreed with the Afro-Am concentrators' cause. Quite the contrary: BSA has always been a strong advocate of increased hiring of Black faculty.

But this time, BSA preferred to avoid a confrontation--at least a confrontation in Bok's office--so that it would not jeopardize its relationship with the administration.

"We would like to continue to have meetings of that sort," says BSA President Mecca J. Nelson '92. "[The sit-in] was a tough position to have us in. The University looks to us for guidance on these issues and maintains an open line to us. The University doesn't work on demands like that."

Of course, the whole idea of a sit-in took BSA by surprise. According to Nelson, the Afro-Am concentrators didn't officially tell BSA about the the sit-in until the meeting had begun.

"The meeting had been going well," says Nelson. "The sit-in was a decision that the concentrators felt that they had to make and we admire them for that. But we are not sure what action is best. We agree with the chairman of the department [Barbara Johnson] that it was a good thing to do, but there may be better means available."

More importantly, Nelson says, BSA is better suited to acting as a mediator in this dispute.

"The administration and the concentrators both look to the BSA for leadership," Nelson says. "Both groups look at us for guidance, and we'd like to keep both doors open."

Meanwhile, the Afro-Am concentrators who remained in Bok's office say they understand why BSA avoided the protest.

"I think that there are different methods for everyone," says Reed N. Colfax '92, who was one of the five Afro-Am concentrators. "The BSA is very concerned with minority faculty. They haven't had the experience and frustration we've had within the department."

Indeed, concentrators say they have good reason to be frustrated. Three prominent Afro-Am scholars turned down tenure offers from Harvard last year, and the department now has only one tenured professor.

All this has occurred, concentrators say, despite numerous discussions between administrators and students last year.

"By the end of last year, we were pretty sick of talking," says Jeanne F. Theoharis '91, who also participated in the sit-in. "With Barbara Johnson coming on as a new chair, it seemed like she could turn things around. But, two weeks ago, we realized that things hadn't changed."

And while groups like BSA might not actually take part in the sit-ins, the concentrators say they know that BSA and other organizations support them.

"Just looking at Monday night when 200 people showed up out of nowhere [to join the rally]," says Colfax, "We have considerable support."

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