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Can He Save Afro-Am?


By Julian E. Barnes

Harvard, at least for the moment, has pinned its hopes to resurrect the Afro-American Studies Department on one scholar: Duke's Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Gates is the nation's preeminent scholar in the field of Afro-American literature and, according to peers, the person with the entrepreneurial spirt necessary to bring the department back from the brink of oblivion.

And if "Skip" Gates comes to Harvard that will be his job. After last year's death of Nathan I. Higgins, DuBois professor of history and Afro-American Studies, the department was left with only one senior faculty member, Cabot Professor of English Literature Werner Sollars.

"Henry Louis Gates would make a considerable difference and bring a great deal to reinforcing Afro-Am," says Princeton University Professor Arnold Rampersad, who turned Harvard down for a position only a few years ago. "He is enormously creative and if any one can build at Harvard he can."

Some believe the most important thing Gates will do for Harvard will be to put the currently moribund department among the leaders in Afro-American scholarship.

"I think it is a very good appointment. Skip is one of the leading theorists in his field. His presence, with Professor Sollars, will make Harvard a center [of Afro-American Studies] immediately," says Andrew Delbanco, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. "If there is any single appointment that would energize Afro-Am at Harvard it would be his appointment."

In order to "re-energize" the department, Gates' first step must be to draw more scholars, particularly junior professors, to Harvard. As of now, the University's junior Afro-Am ranks are empty, making inside senior appointments--promotions--unlikely.

"[If] he brings in more people within three or four years Harvard would be back on the map," Princeton's Rampersad says. "His presence alone won't be enough, but if he can make certain appointments, Harvard would be an envious place to be."

Rampersad and others say this won't be difficult for Gates. His association with Harvard, they say, will bring in graduate students and young scholars that want to study with him. Since Gates has arrived at Duke, the number of graduate students studying Afro-American-related fields has jumped, according to Stanley Fish, chair of Duke's English department.

"He is the premier scholar in his field," says the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, acting director of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute and Plummer professor of Christian morals. "If his name is attached to [the Afro-Am Department], what has been a sad state for 20 years will be turned around."

"Scholars will want to come to Harvard because he is here. He will attract graduate students and enrich the pool of junior scholars," continues Gomes. "He is a catalyst. You can't underestimate the impor- tance of a single individual...I can't think of a single scholar who will have the impact I believe he will have."

It is Gates' leadership and personality that make others believe the Duke scholar is the best person to build an Afro-Am Department at Harvard. Peers most frequently refer to him as an "entrepreneur," "energetic" and "cosmopolitan."

This entrepreneurial spirit, makes Gates a high-profile powerhouse in his field. In fact, some critics have accused him of grandstanding. But Gates' admirers rigorously support him.

"Some people think there is something shady about being popular, I think that is a ridiculous point of view," says Gomes. "He brings a high profile to the field. He is able to attract attention and support. He has a Midas touch."

Midas touch or not, Gates has an uphill battle ahead of him. Few think Afro-Am will turn around in a day. Most observers say that it will be a minimum of four or five years before the department is on its feet again.

Some, like Princeton's Nell Irvin Painter, say they fear that Gates will be hampered by a University administration unwilling to fully sipport Afro-Am at Harvard.

"I hope he brings a lot of energy because he will need it," says Painter, an historian and acting director of the Afro-Am program at Princeton. "The problem is getting the kind of cooperation with the institution you need."

According to Painter, Gates will have a tough time getting the financial and moral support necessary to build a department. "Other places have done 10 times more. [Princeton] has a hundred times the visibility," she says.

Nobody attempts to downplay the difficulties Gates will face at Harvard. But most, Painter among them, say the scholar is up to the task.

"I think Skip really enjoys a challenge. I think he sees this as his ultimate challenge," says Painter. "Harvard has great potential. It is in the Hub, it is big--a perfect place for interdisciplinary studies. Everything is there. If I was an empire builder, I would see this as a perfect opportunity."

Others agree that the idea of building a whole department would appeal to Gates's sense of challenge. Harvard's Gomes says it is a rare occurance for a single scholar to be able to shape their field in quite that way. Gomes says that for Gates, Harvard is just that opportunity.

"I think he will come to Harvard because he sees an extraordinary opportunity to convert a promise into something good," says Gomes. "Few people have the opportunity to create a whole field in their own image."

But Harvard doesn't have a good track record in landing top scholars. Last year Afro-Am sought to tenure University of Wisconsin Professor Nellie Y. McKay and Princeton Religion Professors Cornel R. West '74 and Albert J. Raboteau. All three rejected Harvard's overtures.

But Gates, at 40, is one of the field's younger scholars, and some say that might make the difference.

"He is the youngest person to be offered tenure. Although he has done a great deal he is still in ascendance," Princeton's Rampersad says. "He is willing to take on the task of institution building when other people are not so willing. It is a measure of his self confidence. Others may flinch. He is ready, willing and able to take on the task."

Sources say that Gates sees Harvard as a "no lose" situation. If he does nothing the department can be no worse, if he does minimal work it will be a dramatic change and if he lives up to his potential and reputation, "the sky's the limit."

Perhaps one of the biggest draws Gates sees in Harvard is the presence of the DuBois Institute. Gates has been offered the program's directorship, as well as the promise of increased funding.

"The situation at Harvard is ideal. Harvard has a department--not just a committee--and the DuBois institute is already in place. It has an excellent track record and attracts outside funding. With the limitless potential of the DuBois institute Harvard is more attractive than any other place," says Rampersad.

The primary focus of the DuBois Institute is a fellowship program that brings in visiting senior and junior scholars. This year, the institute is sponsoring 17 individuals, including Gates--who is participating as a non-resident. The institute also supports conferences, working groups of scholars and the creation of Afro-American reference works.

Randall K. Burkett, associate director of the institute, is currently collaborating with Gates on Black Biographical Dictionaries, 1790-1950, a collection of biographies on 30,000 Black Americans.

Burkett says it would be a "great pleasure" to have Gates at the institute, particularly for the "higher visibility" he would bring.

Despite the hoopla around the possibility of a Gates appointment, some scholars are skeptical about Harvard's overall strategy for Afro-Am. Charshee Lawrence-McIntyre, a professor of English at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, says she questions the way Harvard and the nation's other top schools try to build their departments by landing one big name professor.

"Skip is a good scholar, I have no qualms about his work," says Lawrence-McIntyre. "[But] I am perplexed that the Ivy League schools can only find one person to pass around. I know they are overlooking a tremendous pool of scholars."

And it is true that Gates gives off the impression of being "passed around." Gates began his career as an assistant professor at Yale University before taking a tenured position at Cornell University. From Cornell, Gates moved to Duke.

But in addition to these moves, Gates has kept other schools, including Stanford University and Princeton, hanging in midair while he mulled their offers before finally rejecting them.

This kind of waiting has created some concern within Harvard, where observers say the University cannot afford to finish the year without results. Indeed, the University expects a response by February 2.

Still, there is strong belief that Gates will come to Harvard. It is a move that most scholars, outside of Raleigh, N.C., say would be the best, not only for Gates and Harvard, but for the whole field of Afro-American studies.

Says Princeton professor and author Toni Morrison: "It's a perfect marriage.

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