Du Bois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. said yesterday he will step down as chair of the African and African American Studies Department in 2006 after holding the position for 15 years.
He said he plans to continue teaching and will remain the director of the Harvard’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute—which awards fellowships to promote scholarship in African and African American studies.
Gates—who moved from Duke to Harvard in 1991—oversaw the department as it grew to become a leader in the field of African American studies. He has also presided over the more recent high-profile departures of several tenured professors to other universities amidst conflicts with University President Lawrence H. Summers.
“I’ve loved every day of the last 14 years,” said Gates, who added that his decision to step down was “long in the planning” and had nothing to do with the recent faculty departures.
Arriving at Harvard in 1991, Gates told The Crimson that he wanted to build the department by recruiting “the most sophisticated scholars in Afro-American Studies at work today.”
By all accounts, he succeeded, building a “dream team” that included some of the top minds in the field—including former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74.
“Skip Gates is one of the true intellectual giants of our time,” Lawrence D. Bobo, the former Tishman and Diker Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies, wrote in an e-mail. “He built and still presides over—despite all of its recent set-backs—the most important African and African American Studies department in the world.”
Gates later oversaw the expansion of his department to include African studies in 2003.
However, the department suffered a number of setbacks in recent years.
In 2002, West and K. Anthony Appiah—who was the Carswell Professor of African American Studies—moved from Harvard to Princeton University. Gates was also offered a position at Princeton, but eventually rejected it.
Earlier this year, Bobo moved to Stanford University with his wife, Marcyliena Morgan, who was associate professor of African and African American Studies. Professor of Government and African and African American Studies Michael C. Dawson announced a few weeks ago that he will move to the University of Chicago next year.
“We have had two big blows,” Gates said, but “we have retained our leadership position in African American studies.”
Gates said that the department is “working hard to hire several new professors” that will cement the department’s prominence in African American studies and propel it to becoming the nation’s top center for African studies as well.
“It will be the perfect time to step down,” he said.
Professors in the department expressed praise for Gates’ leadership but said they understood his decision to leave his administrative role.
“He’s been marvelous,” said Watts Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies Kay K. Shelemay, who currently chairs the Music Department. But “a chairmanship is not a life sentence...It takes time, energy, and its a responsibility.”
“It’s probably time for him as an individual to do more teaching, do more research,” said Jennifer L. Hochschild, the Jayne professor of Government and professor of African and African American Studies.
Gates said that he plans to begin teaching three classes per year—compared to the two classes per year he has generally taught while chair—and that he is very happy with the state of the department as he prepares to hand it over to new leadership.
“We’re still number one, baby,” he said. “You can quote me on that.”
—Staff writer Evan H. Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.
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