When the Dust Settles

In the wake of the Summers-West clash, Afro-American studies’ departure from its activist beginnings comes into focus

On December 12, 1972, two giants in the early history of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department, Ewart Guinier ’33 and Martin L. Kilson, debated the role of Afro-American studies in higher education.

On a local New York City television program called “Positively Black,” the two held a heated debate in which Kilson argued the “interdisciplinary” view that students should get a grounding in a discipline before beginning an education in Afro-American studies, while Guinier stressed the “organic” or “Afrocentric” view, which stresses the importance of studying the black experience “from the point of view of the people who have lived that experience.”

The debate boiled down to whether this nascent field would be better served by a traditional academic structure or one designed in a more innovative manner.

Last fall, two modern academic giants—Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 and University President Lawrence H. Summers held a heated debate of their own—this time substituting a New York City television studio with Summers’ Mass. Hall office.

In that meeting, West alleges, Summers chastised him for focusing too much time and energy on political campaigns and recording spoken word albums—and not enough on the traditional modes of scholarship.


But the exact words that were spoken between the two are less important than the underlying theme of the conflict—the same theme underlying the Kilson-Guinier debate—the clash between the dynamic, activist character of Afro-American studies and the static, conservative approach to learning of the academy.

Born in a Burst of Activism

African-American studies was born out of the activism of the late 1960s.

In light of student demands, a Faculty committee was formed in May 1968 to look at ways of increasing the availability of courses in African and Afro-American studies and to consider the creation of an undergraduate concentration in the field.

This committee issued its recommendations in January 1969, proposing the creation of a committee to supervise a combined major in this field, but not the establishment of a department. This report was accepted by the Faculty, to become effective for the class of 1972.

But the student occupation of University Hall on April 9, 1969 put the creation of a department on the front burner.

While those who took over the building didn’t include the creation of the Afro-American studies department on their list of demands—which focused instead of Harvard’s dealings with the military—the takeover created an atmosphere of radicalism on campus.

Two days after the occupation, the Association of African and Afro-American Students joined its voice to the chorus calling for the creation of an actual Afro-American studies department.

At a Faculty meeting on April 22, 1969, a plurality of the Faculty approved the creation of an Afro-American studies department—overturning the report they had approved just three months earlier.

Six students were placed on the committee to design the department, three of whom would be elected by members of the Association of African and Afro-American Students.

The student members were given the power to vote on tenure and term appointments.

Economics Professor Henry Rosovsky, who would later become dean of the Faculty, notes the student activism was the deciding factor in the creation of the department.

“I do not see how the Faculty vote of April 22 can be interpreted as anything else but action in the face of threats,” he wrote in an essay shortly after the vote.

‘Ivory Tower Discipline?’

Roughly 400 colleges and universities nationwide offer African-American studies, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Many of these departments were also formed out of student protest in the late 1960s.

Of those schools that have African-American study programs, about 140 offer bachelors degrees.

But Harvard is one of only about a half-dozen American institutions that can boast a full-blown department granting doctorates in African-American studies. Temple University, Yale University, New York University and the University of California, Berkeley are others.

DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. places Harvard’s Afro-American studies department—which he chairs—at the pinnacle of the field today.

Citing the quality of work and the number of citations in scholarly journals, Gates argues that Harvard has the best collection of African-American studies scholars in the world.

But not everyone in the field would agree that these measures best represent a top-notch African-American studies program.

Despite the prominence of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department, some say its emphasis on the interdisciplinary approach, rather than the Afrocentric one, takes away from its legitimacy as a true model for the academy.

“African-American studies never saw itself as being an ivory tower discipline—it was going to be real,” says Monroe H. Little Jr., director of the Afro-American Studies Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Some students in Harvard’s Afro-American studies department say they would like to see Harvard’s department take a more activist stance.

“You have to have someone who is an activist—it makes the Af-Am department look legitimate, especially for black communities,” says Afro-American studies concentrator Harrel Conner ’02. “I don’t think you can write about it from a pedestal...In order to be a scholar on a topic you have to live the life, because it changes.”

Several leading scholars in the field say that in order to gain legitimacy within the academy, Harvard has sacrificed a certain degree of its activism.

“In some respects, I think Professor Gates basically scoffed at that [Afrocentrist] idea and tried to take the department at Harvard in a different direction which, while making it more ‘respectable’ to his white colleagues, basically disconnected the department from its community,” Little adds.

But Gates defends his department’s approach by citing the role scholarship can play in correcting injustices.

“The field of African-American studies enjoys a diversity of approaches, but to me the most sophisticated departments combine the principles of traditional scholarship with the commitment to expanding the world’s knowledge about the African-American community,” he says.

Not only do some say Harvard’s African-American studies scholars fail to get their hands dirty in real-life struggles of the black community, but scholars at other universities also say the cadre of Harvard professors fail to collaborate with their peers in the field outside of Cambridge.

According to Molefi K. Asante, an African-American studies professor at Temple, Harvard’s department members don’t go to conferences or publish in scholarly journals devoted strictly to the field of African-American studies, opting instead to participate more frequently in mainstream academic events centered around their primary disciplines.

And with West’s departure, some scholars in the field argue, Harvard’s department loses its only public activist. Just days before Princeton announced that West would join its ranks next year, the professor was arrested in front of the State Department in Washington as part of a protest of Ariel Sharon’s policies against the Palestinians. West also heads up the exploratory committee for minority activist Al Sharpton’s 2004 presidential bid.

Gates says he’s perfectly content with members of his department focusing their time on traditional scholarly pursuits, rather than activism.

“I don’t want to see [Harvard University Professor] Bill Wilson on the street with a picket in his hand—I want to see him analyzing what people are doing,” he says. “We can’t all be blessed in as many arenas as Professor West.”

However, Harvard’s Afro-American studies scholars note that Cambridge is not without its degree of institutional activism, though this activism now more commonly takes the form of community service.

The department sponsors after-school programs at the Baker House in Dorchester run by the Rev. Eugene Rivers. In one program, at-risk teenagers learn critically important computer skills alongside lessons in black history and culture. Another program provides high school students with the opportunity to be both taught and mentored by Harvard undergraduates and faculty.

‘Our President’

Last June, just a week before Gates was to first meet Summers, he said he was optimistic about the level of support the new president would offer his department.

“By all indications, they all have told me he is deeply committed to continuing the growth of the Afro-American studies department and the DuBois Institute,” Gates said.

In that interview, the hopeful Gates said he expected Summers to “make public stands about diversity and affirmative action.”

Roughly six months later, Gates got that public statement of support, but only after Summers’ support for diversity and for the department itself was called into question during the media brouhaha that surrounded the public revelation of the conflict between Summers and West.

This was a far cry from the first six months of Gates’ relationship with former University president Neil L. Rudenstine.

Gates arrived at Harvard at a desperate time for the Department of Afro-American Studies.

At that point, the department had only one tenured professor—Cabot Professor of English Literature and Afro-American Studies Werner Sollors.

Despite the high level of student and faculty support that heralded its birth, the department had never really been able to establish a firm footing within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences since its creation in 1969.

“It took us a very long time to find leadership,” explains Rosovsky. “There were some very fine people here before, but I don’t think they had the leadership skills Gates has.”

But Rudenstine decided almost immediately after he was appointed Harvard’s president in spring 1991 that he was going to take a personal interest in building the department.

Thus, in Harvard’s 26th president, the Afro-American studies department found an ally on the inside track of Faculty politics committed to helping it gain a legitimate place in the University.

In May 1991, just months before they would both arrive at Harvard, Rudenstine invited Gates, who was finishing an unhappy stay at Duke University, to meet him for lunch.

According to Gates, Rudenstine handed him a sheet of legal paper and asked him to write down the names of all the scholars he would to bring to Harvard’s department—no holds barred.

Gates scribbled down the names—West, Wilson, Guinier, Bobo, Blier, the Higginbothams.

Over the next decade, with the support of the Rudenstine administration, Gates made that “wish list” a reality.

“He challenged me to think imaginatively,” Gates says.

According to Gates, shortly before he left office last June, Rudenstine said that “if the only thing that he’d accomplished was the growth of Afro-American studies and the DuBois Institute and the recruitment of African-American faculty, then his tenure would have been a success.”

Gates called the remark unprecedented.

“No other president in the American academy has ever made a statement like that and meant it,” he says.

Gates adds that both he and the other members of the department considered Rudenstine to be “our president.” And last June, Gates was “optimistic we’ll be able to call Larry Summers ‘our president,’ as well.”

After this year’s controversy, however, few Afro-American studies professors express such warm sentiments about Summers, though most publicly lend their support to the president.

Though he has publicly expressed his support for the department countless times since his spat with West became public, Summers told the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year that the department should expect “less of an open checkbook from my administration than the previous one.”

Then again, with his emphasis on standards and the aggressive evaluation of the quality of Harvard’s scholarship and teaching in general, Summers is unlikely to give a blank check to any department.

“I said at the time, several times, that no professor should leave my office feeling that they are not respected, and I regret that Professor West apparently left with that feeling...[but] I do think an important aspect of academic leadership is the maintaining of high standards for all of us,” Summers says.

The Afro-American studies department will now have to maintain on its own the legitimacy it’s earned over the past decade, with the presidential mandate it had under Rudenstine now gone.

But judging from Summers’ efforts to halt the exodus from the Barker Center, the department at least won’t face opposition from Mass. Hall.

“Certainly the University is very committed to the Afro-American studies department and the DuBois Institute,” Summers says.

Rebuilding the Dream

The road ahead is a tough one, as the Afro-American studies department has lost two of its top professors—starting members of the “dream team” that Gates has assembled in his 11 years as department chair.

“You can’t replace these guys,” Gates says.

Both Carswell Professor of Philosophy and Afro-American Studies K. Anthony Appiah, who announced in January his decision to leave for Princeton for personal reasons, and West did much for the department’s scholarship, image and attractiveness to students.

With West and Appiah, Harvard loses two of the nation’s most prominent—if at times controversial—philosophers.

“Anthony Appiah is irreplaceable,” Gates said in January. “He is the most brilliant philosopher of Afro-American studies at work today.”

Both West and Appiah are among the most frequently cited black scholars in academia, according to a recent study by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

With the loss of two renowned faculty members, the Afro-American studies department is likely to face a harder task in recruiting new scholars to come to Cambridge.

Image can mean a lot when attempting to build a department, scholars in the field say. Just as with a professional basketball, a “dream team” reputation makes it easier to recruit the best.

Scholars want to carry out their work in an environment where they will be surrounded by the best and brightest of their peers—as interaction and engagement with colleagues is seen as enhancing the quality of their own work.

Within the University, scholars such as West and Appiah, who are valued members of other departments and schools, lend a certain degree of legitimacy to Afro-American studies in an environment where non-traditional fields are frequently met with skepticism.

“Faculty members at Harvard would see that because [Gates] had been able to attract people who had visibility in their own divisions...he would create within the University itself the kind of equity needed to advance the department,” Asante says.

Furthermore, assembling such a high profile collection of scholars under Harvard’s mythical name enhanced the field’s national image.

“Over the past six or seven years, the Harvard community and much of the nation was convinced by the Dream Team that scholars of the Afro-American experience had much to contribute to that lofty mission,” says Tishman and Diker Professor of Sociology and Afro-American Studies Lawrence D. Bobo.

If nothing else, the presence of stars like West and Appiah drew undergraduates to the field.

In years when West taught Afro-American Studies 10: “Introduction to Afro-American Studies,” enrollment in the department’s courses was several hundred students higher than in other years.

The Next Generation

Although Gates is still considering an offer from Princeton, with his announcement last week that he would remain at Harvard at least through next year, the dust appears to be settling—at least momentarily—from the clash between Summers and West.

The department is already set to receive a number of new professors next year—with the arrival of at least one new senior and one new junior professor definitely slated for the fall and two other arrivals possibly in the works.

Michael C. Dawson—said to be the world’s foremost black political scientist—and Glenda Carpio will start at Harvard this summer and should bolster the ranks of the department.

Gates has said he will make a decision about his academic future this summer.

If he should decide that his future lies in New Jersey, then Afro-American studies—led by a lame-duck chair—may not be able to raise the necessary funds and recruit the necessary faculty.

Then again, many of the professors Gates helped recruit say that Gates’ persuasive personality may be able to lure academics to Harvard—even if he is on his way out the door.

A significant number of students and Faculty certainly seem to feel that way.

“It will still be the preeminent department in the country, but I would compare it to the American [Olympic basketball] Dream Team,” Conner says. “They’re still the best in the world, but not quite as good as the first one.”

—Juliet J. Chung, David H. Gellis and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Staff writer Kate L. Rakoczy can be reached at