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Afro-Am: Going Nowhere Fast

By Joseph R. Palmore

AFRO-AMERICAN Studies is Harvard's worst department, and there isn't a damned thing it can do to save itself.

Afro-Am is a case study in the tradition-bound Harvard tenure system at its worst. A host of institutional defects--the bias against internal promotions, the never-ending hiring searches and the parochial departmental politics--are magnified in Afro-Am.

Harvard's hide-bound tenure system prevents Afro-am from adequately filling its professorial ranks or adequately serving its students.

With the untimely death of Dubois Professor of History and Afro-American Studies Nathan I. Huggins in December and the imminent departure of junior sociologist Roderick Harrison, Afro-Am will enter the next academic year with at most two hold-overs from this semester.

One is Afro-Am's department chair, Werner Sollors. The title "department chair" is used loosely, as he is the department's only tenured professor.

The other is Carolivia Herron, a talented young literary expert who says she has several tenure offers from other schools. It is quite possible that she will leave what is becoming an increasingly lonely department for a life-time appointment elsewhere.

A tiny department simply cannot be expected to fulfill the daunting academic responsibility facing Afro-am. It is supposed to research the history, literature and politics of Black Americans and teach undergraduates about these subjects.

Anyone trying to accomplish so vast a task with so small a contingent of scholars, especially at a time of increasing student interest, is virtually doomed to failure and frustration.

But it is shortsighted to point the finger at the department itself for its inadequacy. I doubt that Werner Sollors is blocking potential appointments--no one enjoys being the chair of an invisible department.

Nor can the Harvard administration be blamed for all of the troubles of Afro-Am. It is true that building a top-fight Afro-American studies department is not the administration's top priority. But the current impasse is just the kind of public relations disaster which the administration tries to avoid.

AFRO-AM is a victim of The System--Harvard's archaic and serpentine tenure process.

The problem goes something like this: the only reason any young professors want to come to Harvard is to have a chance to study with the pre-eminent senior scholars here. Tenure from within is a chimera at Harvard, and most junior faculty members know that. With very few exceptions, young professors are sent packing after their eight-year contracts run out.

To fill its senior faculty ranks, Harvard has traditionally depended upon its ability to snatch big-name scholars from other schools. But with today's heightened competition, this practise is becoming less reliable, especially for Afro-Am, a tiny department with a tumultuous history.

Thus Afro-Am is condemned to a kind of bureaucratic existentialist hell. Outside scholars repeatedly turn down tenure offers, while the junior faculty contingent whirs through a quickly revolving door.

During the past year alone, two prominent literary scholars, Nellie Y. McKay and Arnold Rampersad, turned down Afro-Am appointments. Harvard's nestraiding policy is clearly failing Afro-Am.

And Afro-Am has consistently had difficulty retaining junior faculty. Should it suprise anyone that promising young professors like David W. Blight, who departed for Amherst College last year, leave the department as soon as they get a promising offer from somewhere else? If you were Carolivia Herron, would you jump at the tenure offers from other schools, or wait for the Harvard offer that will probably never come?

To make matters worse for the department, it finds itself with less-than-cooperative partners when trying to make tenure appointments. Traditionally, most Afro-Am appointments are made in conjunction with either the History or English department, because most scholars want ties with a traditional academic field.

These two stodgy Harvard departments are notorious for their inability to agree on tenured appointments (especially appointments from within) and their unwillingness to incorporate new disciplines into their curricula.

MOST major universities have realized that the best way to build their departments is to bring in young scholars fresh off their dissertations, cultivate them and tenure them.

Although Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence has made tenuring more faculty from within Harvard a primary goal, his efforts have yet to make a dent in the age-old system.

In the short term, the administration must make an extraordinary effort to rebuild Afro-Am. Harvard must not only spend a sizeable amount of money to lure top scholars, it must demonstrate a genuine will to create a top-flight department so that outside faculty will be willing to come.

But in the long run, the only thing that will make Afro-Am a decent department is an overhaul of Harvard's tenure system.

Joseph R. Palmore '91 covered the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for The Crimson in 1989.

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