A scholar who has brought her personal experience as a black woman in science to bear on her academic pursuits has become the fourth black woman tenured within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).
Evelynn Hammonds received a joint appointment to the Afro-American studies and history of science departments in May. She says her appointment makes Harvard one of a few universities that pursues this combined study.
Hammonds’ tenure also points to larger trends within FAS and the University as a whole.
She is only the fourth black women tenured within FAS, after Eileen J. Southern, Evelyn B. Higginbotham and Caroline M. Hoxby ’88.
Additionally, hers is the third recent appointment in Afro-American studies in a year that saw the widely-publicized departures of K. Anthony Appiah and Cornel R. West ’74.
Through Hammonds’ appointment, Harvard is attempting to broaden its intellectual reach, increase the diversity of the Faculty and rebuild the Afro-American studies department, says Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Afro-American studies and DuBois professor of the humanities.
On the Crossroads of Race and Science
Hammonds says her interest in the intersection between race and science came from her experience as a black woman pursuing advanced scientific studies.
In 1976, after obtaining dual undergraduate degrees from Spelman College in physics and from the Georgia Institute of Technology in electrical engineering, Hammonds went to MIT to obtain a masters degree in physics. She earned that degree in 1980 and spent five years in the computer software industry.
During this time, she says, she realized that there were “only four or five African American students studying physics [at the graduate level] in the country.” This realization sparked Hammonds’ interest in understanding the dearth of blacks in the scientific community.
In 1985, she entered the doctoral program at Harvard’s history of science department, completing her degree in 1993. She then returned to MIT as an associate professor of the history of science, where she remained until being granted tenure at Harvard.
As she began the combined study of race and the history of science, Hammonds discovered a considerable demand for and interest in her work, since it was “of great interest for public policy makers.”
She notes despite the “inordinate influence [of science, technology and medicine] on the African American experience,” few other scholars are looking into these issues.
“Evelynn is the leading scholar in the world on the subject of race, gender and science,” Gates says. “[Her appointment] is a real coup both for Harvard and the Department of Afro-American Studies.”
In May 2001, Hammonds, who says she “became a public intellectual by accident,” delivered the George McGovern Lecture in the History of Medicine in Harvard’s Boylston Hall.
Hammonds and her work attracted the attention of Gates and Allan M. Brandt, chair of the history of science department and Kass professor of the history of medicine.
Brandt says he and Gates began to discuss plans for a joint appointment to put Harvard in “a real leadership position” in the combined study of race and the history of science, he says.
The appointment committee quickly identified Hammonds as “the person we really wanted,” says Brandt. Hammonds says she felt the Harvard position was “perfect” for her and her work.
Presently, Hammonds is working on a book about history, science and race in the United States. Though she is not teaching this semester, she says that she would like to offer a Core course on race and the history of science.
Building on a Handful
Hammonds’ tenure fits into a larger commitment to tenuring underrepresented minorities to the Faculty. As of last spring, the Faculty comprised 637 active members, 442 of whom were tenured. Until Hammonds’ appointment, only two of these active, tenured professors were black women.
“We need more people of color and more women in the Faculty and in the University in general,” says Gates, who says that there is a positive commitment to diversity within the University.
“Diversity with excellence is a win-win situation,” Gates adds. “Nothing combats racism or sexism more dramatically than an intimate intellectual encounter with a person of color or a woman in the classroom.”
Hammonds, who chaired a 1994 conference at MIT on black women in the academy, says she believes the mere presence of successful minority faculty inspires minority students.
“It became clear to me that I would be doing this work [of encouragement] just by doing my own work,” she says. “It reinforced my own sense that I could make a difference.”
Guatemalan-born Glenda Carpio, another of the new additions to the Afro-American studies department, says she sees her position as an underrepresented minority as a responsibility.
“I hope to be a model and source of support for minority students and a challenge to white students,” she says.
From Turmoil to Opportunity
With three new hires and a goal of attracting five more in the next two years, transition is the buzzword in the Afro-American studies department, says Gates.
Hammonds, Professor of Government and Afro-American Studies Michael C. Dawson and Carpio, an assistant professor of English and Afro-American studies, all joined the Faculty this fall.
Gates says their arrivals, coupled with the decision of all four admitted doctoral candidates to attend Harvard, was reassuring, given the turmoil that accompanied the departures of West and Appiah.
According to Gates and to faculty and students within the department, a serious attempt to build upon these successful hirings is underway. He says that the Afro-American studies department created an informal committee to compile a wish list of appointees. Gates hopes to propose new appointments before the end of the year.
“There is a strong commitment to maintain the level of excellence that [West and Appiah] represented and that the department has had in the past,” Dawson says. He adds the department has an “interest in hiring at all ranks.”
Members of the department agree that Afro-American studies, though saddened by the loss of West and Appiah, is moving in a positive direction.
“It’s a loss for the department, but I don’t feel like it’s the end of the world,” says Afro-American studies concentrator Laney P. McClain ’03 says. “Of course, it probably would have been better it they had stayed, but there are still a lot of good professors.”
Gates, who has said he is undecided about whether he will remain at Harvard after this year, is nevertheless adamant about the continued superiority of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department.
“With transition and trauma come opportunity. Despite the departures of Anthony and Cornel, Afro-American studies at Harvard remains number one and will continue to do so,” he says.
—Staff writer Divya A. Mani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.