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Two years ago, Harvard’s African and African American Studies Department lost two of its most distinguished professors to Princeton University. This fall, it will be losing two more of its faculty members to Stanford. The department remains at the forefront of its field, but these losses have dealt it another frustrating blow. Rebuilding Af-Am must once again become an immediate priority for the administration.
We are disheartened by the departures, announced this past week, of Tishman and Diker Professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies Lawrence D. Bobo, who served as the department’s acting chair last year, and of his wife, Associate Professor Marcyliena Morgan, who founded and directed the Hip Hop Archive at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute.
Some in the department trace the couple’s decision to the administration’s denial of tenure to Morgan this past summer. But even though we can only speculate at the actual motive for the couple’s departure, this occasion calls for a serious and sustained look on the part of the administration at what it could be doing to better support the department.
With the departure of former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 and former Carswell Professor of Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah still fresh in the memory of many, these recent events have renewed concerns in some quarters about the extent of Harvard’s actual and perceived commitment to African and African-American studies. The latest losses could send the wrong message and raise doubts about Harvard among potential faculty.
The persisting problems may also discourage students with an interest in the field. Indeed, the department has been losing more than faculty members in the last three years: The number of students concentrating in Af-Am has plummeted from 31 students in the 1999-2000 academic year to 11 this past year.
Thankfully, the department has retained some of its most noted luminaries, such as W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is the department’s chair, as well as hosting visiting stars such as Jamaica Kincaid and Elvis Mitchell. And it continues to offer a broad range of programs for both concentrators and non-concentrators.
Yet without increased resources and new faculty, none of this will be enough to maintain the department’s place at the cutting edge of the academic study of Africa and the African diaspora. The reality remains that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is losing professors of color—of whom there are too few to begin with—instead of gaining them. This trend has to be reversed.
Indeed, if a commitment to diversity and to the study of African and African-American life is as important to this administration as it is to the Harvard community at large, University President Lawrence H. Summers must take every possible step to assist in the reconstruction and revitalization of the department.
He should ensure that his administration commits substantial resources to this end, so that the Af-Am Department can hire new faculty, tenure more professors and devote closer attention to the needs of students in the field. The department merits it. The students deserve it. And the price of inaction would be much higher.
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