One Man's Dream

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

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.

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