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I must say that I was flattered to find myself pictured alongside Cornel West, under the headline, "The Two New Faces of Harvard Afro-Am" (March 22, 1994). Of course, the "two new faces" referred to by the headline are actually West and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, both newly appointed faculty of the Afro-American Studies Department. Perhaps The Crimson did not have a picture of Higginbotham available, but the use of my picture does raise some interesting questions regarding the purpose and intent of those who prepared the story.
Certainly I was quoted in the story on West, but not to any significant degree that would justify or require identifying me with a picture. Perhaps, Ms. Arden-Smith's and Ms. Kao's purpose in using my picture was to elevate or emphasize my comments regarding West's appointment. While I stand by my comments (surprisingly, The Crimson did quote me accurately), I do feel that my statements were used in a context that distorts my sentiments regarding West's appointment.
I did qualify my assessment of Afro-Am's "preeminence" in terms of its link to Harvard and the Harvard "name." My doing so is not intended to diminish either the significance of West's and Higginbotham's appointments or the impressive pace at which the Afro-Am department has been rebuilding itself from its near collapse in 1990-1991. Having been an Afro-Am concentrator since 1991--the time of the department's rebirth--I have proudly witnessed Afro-Am's noteworthy accomplishments, especially in the growth of its faculty and course offerings.
These accomplishments notwithstanding, the department's rebuilding effort is only three years old. And while its accomplishments during these three years are phenomenal, given the slow pace at which Harvard typically moves, the department is only continuing a process towards its stated goal of being the best in the world. The record of the department under chair Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is impressive enough to assume that "pre-eminence" lies ahead, but such an assumption belies the work that is necessary to achieve such a status.
While I am confident that the members of the Afro-Am departments are well aware of the tasks facing them, I am not convinced that such a commitment exists university-wide. In recent discourses on faculty diversity and multiculturalism, there has been a tendency by some critics to exploit the successes of the Afro-Am department in order to dismiss all further claims for hiring "minority" faculty or expanding ethnic studies.
It is in this context that I "question what difference one professor can make." At this point, in my conversation with Ms. Kao, I was no longer discussing the specifics of the Afro-Am department, but instead some prevailing sentiments among the College and University community which I found disturbing. While Ms. Arden-Smith's and Ms. Kao's use of my statement--highlighted by their use of my picture--would seem to suggest that I questioned the abilities of Cornel West, I expressed nothing but praise for West's work, approach and the contributions he will bring to Harvard's Afro-Am.
My statement regarding Harvard's greatness" was thus intending to praise Harvard's actual excellence in various areas of endeavor, while at the same time warn against the sometimes resultant arrogance and complacency which could prevent Harvard from acting to maintain its preeminent standing as a world-class institution. Yes, as I stated, "Harvard has a reputation for being so great that it attracts greatness"--such as Cornel West and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham--"but that doesn't stop it from possessing mediocrity as well"--even at The Harvard Crimson. Zaheer R. Ali '94
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