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One Man's Dream

Building the Best First in a Two Part Series on Afro-American Studies

By Matthew W. Granade

Sitting in his office earlier this week, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies, pulled out a sheet of yellow-lined paper covered in hand-written notes.

This piece of paper, crafted five years ago, is kept in the top drawer of Gates' desk.

It is his wish list, the recipe for the revitalization of Harvard's Afro-American studies department.

Six years ago, just before Gates was hired, the Department of Afro-American Studies had one professor, Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of Afro-American Studies Werner Sollors, who is white.

That year, in moves which echoed those of students nearly 25 years earlier, a group of students took over University Hall and the office of former president Derek C. Bok to protest what they perceived as the administration's neglect of the department.

At the time, Gates, a renowned black literature scholar, was not faring much better. Then a professor at Duke University, his work was being attacked by many in the community. He has described the situation as simply "hell."

Gates and then dean of the Faculty Henry Rosovsky negotiated a deal which brought Gates to Harvard, at the helm of the department.

That deal was the catalyst for a tidal wave of change which, in the last five years, has brought an all-star team of Afro-American scholars to Harvard, earned the department national commendations and could place it in the position to affect American social policy on race and welfare.

The plan for all that seems to be laid out on that one sheet of yellow paper in Gates's office.

The strategy sheet is the result of six months "sitting at the master's feet," Gates says. He asked Rosovsky "to teach [him] Harvard culture and how to run a great department."

"Rosovsky said to have a plan and stick to it," Gates says. "To keep your eye on the prize."

Many at Harvard--though none publicly--are quick to argue that despite his plan, Gates did none of this alone. It is the legacy of Bok and Rosovsky, they say, or the work of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as a whole or the product of recruiting efforts by President Neil L. Rudenstine.

Regardless, Gates does receive universal praise. He has, after all, done what he was hired to do.

The Turnaround

This fall, U.S. News and World Report, in its first-ever ranking of Afro-Am departments, placed Harvard's Afro-American literature program first and Harvard's Afro-American history program third in the nation.

The department had 18 concentrators in 1995, down from a high of 30 in 1993. This year, Afro-American Studies is offering 27 non-bracketed courses and has 15 faculty members.

The first line of Gates' sheet reads simply: "Stellar faculty."

Under that heading, in Gates' handwriting are listed four names: "Anthony Appiah, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Cornel West, William Wilson."

K. Anthony Appiah, now professor of Afro-American studies and of philosophy, came to Harvard from Duke with Gates. And Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Cornel R. West '73 are both professors of Afro-American studies and hold joint appointments in the Divinity School.

It was West's appointment that really put Harvard's Afro-Am program in the national mainstream spotlight.

West, a former Princeton professor whose mega-successful books and Baptist-preacher speaking style make him a popular lecturer across the nation, is arguably the most prominent black intellectual alive.

As a bonus, Gates has brought in author Jamaica Kincaid and producer Spike Lee as visiting professors.

"Skip Gates was genuinely someone who didn't want to come to Harvard and be the only star; he wanted to build a stellar department," Appiah says.

And though Gates celebrated his 46th birthday on Monday, his biggest present this year came a few months early when the last "giant" on his list--sociologist William Julius Wilson--defected to Harvard this spring.

Wilson's decision to move from the University of Chicago to Harvard made headlines across the nation. Wilson--whom Gates calls the "coup of coups"--cited two reasons for the move: Harvard's brain trust of African American thinkers and its politically connected halls.

And indeed, the house that Gates built at 1430 Mass. Ave. is home to the brain trust.

But the politically connected halls are closer to the River, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Wilson, although he is teaching an Afro-Am course in the spring, is actually Wiener professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.

Nevertheless, Gates says that with Wilson's presence, the Department of Afro-American Studies can realize the next (unwritten) goal: for Afro-Am's stellar faculty to impact national political debate.

Moving Toward Policy

Just a year ago, before Wilson's hiring, the director of the University of Michigan's Center for Afro-American Studies Michael Awkward told The Ethnic News Watch that he was hesitant to praise Harvard's Afro-Am department because it lacked a social science perspective.

"Certainly with people like Gates, Anthony Appiah and Cornel West, the department has superb potential," Awkward said. "But Rome wasn't built in a day. We'll have to see what develops."

But also on Gates' sheet was a specific strategy: to first strengthen the humanities end of the department before moving on to the social sciences.

"We wanted to build from our strengths," Appiah says.

The Afro-Am professors say the department is nearing the appointment of another sociologist and is searching for a joint women's studies appointment, as well as junior appointments in history and English.

Gates, who received a MacArthur "genius grant" at age 30, has also led fund-raising efforts which have netted more than $11 million for the department--including boosting the program's endowment to $2.25 million.

Projects in the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research initiated during Gates' tenure include the Black Periodical Literature Project, a compilation of works in black newspapers and journals; the African Art Database, which contains 20,000 slides; and the Encyclopedia Africana.

Gates is continuing to work on the development of a graduate program in the department.

And when the new Barker humanities center is completed, the Department of Afro-American Studies will move from its current location near CVS to plush new offices in the old Harvard Union.

The Future

Wilson's hiring marks the first conscious turn toward social activism. But some express doubt about exactly how much influence this small, young, humanities-focused department can wield.

Wilson--even before coming to Harvard--had "the ear of the President," Gates says. Now at the Kennedy School, Wilson could exact even more influence.

Wilson "has easier personal access to the educated media than any other scholar in America.... He's everywhere," Professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol said in an e-mail message. "He is a major agenda-setter for all aspects of debate about U.S. economic and social policies."

The Kennedy School already has a long list of academics who are active policy makers. Each election season brings a new round of federal government appointments out of that faculty's ranks.

Most recenztly, Kennedy School Dean for Academic Affairs David T. Ellwood is a former Clinton administration official in the Department of Health and Human Services. Kennedy School Dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. also returned from service in Washington.

Last week, Health and Human Services executive Mary Jo Bane resigned her post and speculation swirled that she will return to Harvard.

And faculty member Ashton Carter is now serving as assistant secretary in the Defense Department, spear-heading a nuclear disarmament project developed at the Kennedy School.

"Influencing public policy is a process that the Kennedy School understands and cares about," says Kennedy School spokesperson Steve Singer.

But Skocpol, who herself has served as a consultant to President Clinton and other White House officals, cautions that making noise in Washington can backfire on academics.

"As the Kennedy School experts who went to Health and Human Services to shape welfare policy found out, academics can also end up getting selectively manipulatively used," Skocpol wrote.

"Some of their ideas--like David Ellwood's two-year limit on AFDC benefits--can get co-opted out of context, while their overall vision--like Ellwood's desire to support work and parenting and 'make work pay'--can get ignored," she continued.

Though Afro-Am has yet to practice politics like the Kennedy School, the department's heavy hitters are well heard on a national level.

The department now has a sliding scale of famous names. Appiah says he doesn't consider himself a public figure, while West's voice mail refers "reporters and those interested in inviting Professor West to speak at a conference" to his press agent in New York City.

Gates, who writes six articles for The New Yorker each year, probably falls in the middle as a more public intellectual.

But Gates and his colleagues say they want more influence on American social policy. "If you spend a lot of time thinking about race in America, you can't help but think how things could be better," Appiah says.

Early this year, Gates, West and Wilson, as well as other prominent scholars, attended a series of dinners at the official residence of Vice President Al Gore '69, advising him on race issues for the upcoming election.

"This is the kind of thing Bill Wilson does regularly," Gates says. "I want the department and the [DuBois] Institute to play an active role in policy matters."

Skocpol says such a goal will be difficult to attain.

"No single school or department is likely ever to determine political or policy outcomes. And there is a danger that academics who imagine themselves to be more influential than they are can get used for purposes of window-dressing, especially when contentious issues like race or gender are involved," Skocpol wrote.

And she cautioned that meeting with the vice president is not likely to substantively shape policy.

"If [Wilson's] ideas are to make headway ... this depends on building organized progressive networks of ideas and people for a revitalized Democratic Party...," Skocpol wrote. "The Harvard Afro-Am department can be a part of that, but only a part. And this cannot be done by focusing on individuals as personal super-stars."

Gates argues that there is precedence for what he and his colleagues hope to accomplish. "Some places don't want you to write a book aimed at a general audience," he says. "But we do. Harvard has a long tradition of people being involved in the public arena."

Gates says possible goals for entry into social policy can come through participating in the Black Congressional Caucus, forming coalitions with other black policy institutes and producing scholarly research which public officials can turn to for reliable data.

Nevertheless, Gates and Appiah are aware of their limitations as intellectuals.

"We're non-partisan; we have to be. We're scholars.... We're not a program or a political party," Gates says. "I can't tell these guys what to do."

Gates describes himself as having "one foot in the center and one foot on the left," while West and Wilson are known as progressives.

"There isn't something we want everyone in the department to leave the department believing," Appiah says. "If people want to listen to us, it's because we've tried to struggle with difficult questions and tried to make sense of them."Courtesy of the Harvard News Office

The strategy sheet is the result of six months "sitting at the master's feet," Gates says. He asked Rosovsky "to teach [him] Harvard culture and how to run a great department."

"Rosovsky said to have a plan and stick to it," Gates says. "To keep your eye on the prize."

Many at Harvard--though none publicly--are quick to argue that despite his plan, Gates did none of this alone. It is the legacy of Bok and Rosovsky, they say, or the work of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences as a whole or the product of recruiting efforts by President Neil L. Rudenstine.

Regardless, Gates does receive universal praise. He has, after all, done what he was hired to do.

The Turnaround

This fall, U.S. News and World Report, in its first-ever ranking of Afro-Am departments, placed Harvard's Afro-American literature program first and Harvard's Afro-American history program third in the nation.

The department had 18 concentrators in 1995, down from a high of 30 in 1993. This year, Afro-American Studies is offering 27 non-bracketed courses and has 15 faculty members.

The first line of Gates' sheet reads simply: "Stellar faculty."

Under that heading, in Gates' handwriting are listed four names: "Anthony Appiah, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Cornel West, William Wilson."

K. Anthony Appiah, now professor of Afro-American studies and of philosophy, came to Harvard from Duke with Gates. And Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Cornel R. West '73 are both professors of Afro-American studies and hold joint appointments in the Divinity School.

It was West's appointment that really put Harvard's Afro-Am program in the national mainstream spotlight.

West, a former Princeton professor whose mega-successful books and Baptist-preacher speaking style make him a popular lecturer across the nation, is arguably the most prominent black intellectual alive.

As a bonus, Gates has brought in author Jamaica Kincaid and producer Spike Lee as visiting professors.

"Skip Gates was genuinely someone who didn't want to come to Harvard and be the only star; he wanted to build a stellar department," Appiah says.

And though Gates celebrated his 46th birthday on Monday, his biggest present this year came a few months early when the last "giant" on his list--sociologist William Julius Wilson--defected to Harvard this spring.

Wilson's decision to move from the University of Chicago to Harvard made headlines across the nation. Wilson--whom Gates calls the "coup of coups"--cited two reasons for the move: Harvard's brain trust of African American thinkers and its politically connected halls.

And indeed, the house that Gates built at 1430 Mass. Ave. is home to the brain trust.

But the politically connected halls are closer to the River, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Wilson, although he is teaching an Afro-Am course in the spring, is actually Wiener professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.

Nevertheless, Gates says that with Wilson's presence, the Department of Afro-American Studies can realize the next (unwritten) goal: for Afro-Am's stellar faculty to impact national political debate.

Moving Toward Policy

Just a year ago, before Wilson's hiring, the director of the University of Michigan's Center for Afro-American Studies Michael Awkward told The Ethnic News Watch that he was hesitant to praise Harvard's Afro-Am department because it lacked a social science perspective.

"Certainly with people like Gates, Anthony Appiah and Cornel West, the department has superb potential," Awkward said. "But Rome wasn't built in a day. We'll have to see what develops."

But also on Gates' sheet was a specific strategy: to first strengthen the humanities end of the department before moving on to the social sciences.

"We wanted to build from our strengths," Appiah says.

The Afro-Am professors say the department is nearing the appointment of another sociologist and is searching for a joint women's studies appointment, as well as junior appointments in history and English.

Gates, who received a MacArthur "genius grant" at age 30, has also led fund-raising efforts which have netted more than $11 million for the department--including boosting the program's endowment to $2.25 million.

Projects in the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research initiated during Gates' tenure include the Black Periodical Literature Project, a compilation of works in black newspapers and journals; the African Art Database, which contains 20,000 slides; and the Encyclopedia Africana.

Gates is continuing to work on the development of a graduate program in the department.

And when the new Barker humanities center is completed, the Department of Afro-American Studies will move from its current location near CVS to plush new offices in the old Harvard Union.

The Future

Wilson's hiring marks the first conscious turn toward social activism. But some express doubt about exactly how much influence this small, young, humanities-focused department can wield.

Wilson--even before coming to Harvard--had "the ear of the President," Gates says. Now at the Kennedy School, Wilson could exact even more influence.

Wilson "has easier personal access to the educated media than any other scholar in America.... He's everywhere," Professor of Government and Sociology Theda Skocpol said in an e-mail message. "He is a major agenda-setter for all aspects of debate about U.S. economic and social policies."

The Kennedy School already has a long list of academics who are active policy makers. Each election season brings a new round of federal government appointments out of that faculty's ranks.

Most recenztly, Kennedy School Dean for Academic Affairs David T. Ellwood is a former Clinton administration official in the Department of Health and Human Services. Kennedy School Dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. also returned from service in Washington.

Last week, Health and Human Services executive Mary Jo Bane resigned her post and speculation swirled that she will return to Harvard.

And faculty member Ashton Carter is now serving as assistant secretary in the Defense Department, spear-heading a nuclear disarmament project developed at the Kennedy School.

"Influencing public policy is a process that the Kennedy School understands and cares about," says Kennedy School spokesperson Steve Singer.

But Skocpol, who herself has served as a consultant to President Clinton and other White House officals, cautions that making noise in Washington can backfire on academics.

"As the Kennedy School experts who went to Health and Human Services to shape welfare policy found out, academics can also end up getting selectively manipulatively used," Skocpol wrote.

"Some of their ideas--like David Ellwood's two-year limit on AFDC benefits--can get co-opted out of context, while their overall vision--like Ellwood's desire to support work and parenting and 'make work pay'--can get ignored," she continued.

Though Afro-Am has yet to practice politics like the Kennedy School, the department's heavy hitters are well heard on a national level.

The department now has a sliding scale of famous names. Appiah says he doesn't consider himself a public figure, while West's voice mail refers "reporters and those interested in inviting Professor West to speak at a conference" to his press agent in New York City.

Gates, who writes six articles for The New Yorker each year, probably falls in the middle as a more public intellectual.

But Gates and his colleagues say they want more influence on American social policy. "If you spend a lot of time thinking about race in America, you can't help but think how things could be better," Appiah says.

Early this year, Gates, West and Wilson, as well as other prominent scholars, attended a series of dinners at the official residence of Vice President Al Gore '69, advising him on race issues for the upcoming election.

"This is the kind of thing Bill Wilson does regularly," Gates says. "I want the department and the [DuBois] Institute to play an active role in policy matters."

Skocpol says such a goal will be difficult to attain.

"No single school or department is likely ever to determine political or policy outcomes. And there is a danger that academics who imagine themselves to be more influential than they are can get used for purposes of window-dressing, especially when contentious issues like race or gender are involved," Skocpol wrote.

And she cautioned that meeting with the vice president is not likely to substantively shape policy.

"If [Wilson's] ideas are to make headway ... this depends on building organized progressive networks of ideas and people for a revitalized Democratic Party...," Skocpol wrote. "The Harvard Afro-Am department can be a part of that, but only a part. And this cannot be done by focusing on individuals as personal super-stars."

Gates argues that there is precedence for what he and his colleagues hope to accomplish. "Some places don't want you to write a book aimed at a general audience," he says. "But we do. Harvard has a long tradition of people being involved in the public arena."

Gates says possible goals for entry into social policy can come through participating in the Black Congressional Caucus, forming coalitions with other black policy institutes and producing scholarly research which public officials can turn to for reliable data.

Nevertheless, Gates and Appiah are aware of their limitations as intellectuals.

"We're non-partisan; we have to be. We're scholars.... We're not a program or a political party," Gates says. "I can't tell these guys what to do."

Gates describes himself as having "one foot in the center and one foot on the left," while West and Wilson are known as progressives.

"There isn't something we want everyone in the department to leave the department believing," Appiah says. "If people want to listen to us, it's because we've tried to struggle with difficult questions and tried to make sense of them."Courtesy of the Harvard News Office

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