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Michael C. Dawson, who holds a joint appointment in the Government and African and African American Studies departments, announced last week that he will leave Harvard at the end of the academic year, only three years after accepting a tenured position here.
His departure makes him the third professor this year to leave the ever-diminishing Af Am department, which has lost virtually all of its star professors since former Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 left for Princeton in 2002.
Dawson’s announcement that he will return to the University of Chicago—where he taught before Harvard offered him tenure in 2002—comes on the heels of the departure of Tishman and Diker Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies Lawrence D. Bobo and Associate Professor of African and African American Studies Marcyliena Morgan to Stanford this January.
Bobo and Morgan, who are married, left after University President Lawrence H. Summers denied Morgan tenure last summer.
In 2002, West left Harvard after a bitter public dispute with Summers. That same year, Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and of Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah also joined him at Princeton, citing personal reasons.
Dawson said the loss of these colleagues played a large part in his decision to leave.
“I certainly thought that this would be my last academic appointment....The study of African-American studies, particularly in the social sciences, is weaker now than when I agreed to come [to Harvard],” said Dawson, who was recruited to the University before West and Appiah announced they were leaving.
Dawson, who is married, also said “personal family reasons” influenced his decision to return to Chicago.
A principal reason Dawson came to Harvard was to work with Bobo, with whom he has collaborated on several academic projects related to contemporary African-American political behavior. The two are also co-editors of the Du Bois Review, a journal dedicated to social science research on race.
But when Bobo left, much of Dawson’s incentive to remain at Harvard left with him.
“Professors Bobo and Morgan leaving was a substantial influence on my decision to leave Harvard,” Dawson said. “Professor Bobo was my closest research colleague at Harvard University and probably did as much as anyone to recruit me to Harvard in the first place. I left behind a couple of research teams at the University of Chicago in order to work with Professor Bobo and other members of the African American Studies department.”
Though the Af Am department unanimously voted to grant Morgan tenure, Summers turned down her petition—aggravating tensions between himself and the department that had begun with the dispute with West.
While Dawson said he does not doubt the administration’s commitment to the Af Am department, he did add, “I just think that many of my colleagues here feel that part of that commitment could and should have meant being able to retain the faculty who have left.”
Dawson said the current controversy over Summers’ leadership style—which culminated in a March 15 vote of no confidence—was not decisive in his departure.
But he added, “it is suggestive of the type of turmoil and decision making that led to the departures of particularly West, Morgan, and Bobo, which are continuing to influence the direction of this University.”
Af Am Department Chair Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said, however, that “the Afro Am Department has excellent relations with President Summers.”
Gates called Dawson’s departure “an enormous loss” for Harvard and said the scholar will be difficult to replace.
But he said the department must move on.
At the University of Chicago, Dawson will be a member of the Political Science department, where he taught before he came to Harvard. Chicago does not have an Af Am department, though it does have an Af Am degree program and a center for race, politics, and culture studies.
“The department will be rebuilding once again and we’re conducting several [professor] searches now,” he said, adding that he still believes Harvard’s Af Am department is the best of its kind.
As with the departures of West, Appiah, Bobo, and Morgan, Harvard’s loss of Dawson is another institution’s gain.
“We have an extremely strong program in American politics, particularly recent politics. Professor Dawson’s addition will help make us a really extraodinarily strong group in that area of research,” said Dali Yang, chair of Chicago’s Political Science department.
—Staff writer William C. Marra can be reached at email@example.com.
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