Princeton Challenges Harvard’s Af-Am Primacy

It took just a week for Princeton to take Harvard’s cue in abolishing early admissions—but 37 years after Harvard established a black studies concentration, Princeton is only now following in its Cambridge rival’s footsteps.

The New Jersey school is establishing a new Center for African American Studies and expanding its faculty in the field from 5 to 11—challenging Harvard’s position as the premier hub of black studies.

On Monday, Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman announced plans for the university to expand its African American studies program and contribute to the “quest to achieve racial equality and understand the impact of race on the life and institutions of the United States.”

In an e-mail response to the news at Princeton, the chair of African and African American Studies at Harvard, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, wrote, “We celebrate the idea of Princeton’s commitment to expand its faculty and its courses in the field—that Princeton is committed to furthering the study of race relations must be applauded by anyone who takes seriously the role of education in solving social problems.”

Tilghman’s statement comes from the recommendations made by the President’s appointed committee of leading faculty which is chaired by Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, a former Harvard professor who has been working towards its proposal since fall 2005.

Also on the committee was Princeton religion professor Cornel R. West ’74, who taught at Harvard for eight years but left in 2002 following a spat with then-University President Lawrence H. Summers.

The committee suggested a plan to offer an African American studies major within five years. For the past 37 years, Princeton has offered students the option of an African American studies certificate—not a full major. Appiah said the committee is looking to strengthen the certificate program and not simply abandon it in favor of the major.

And while five years and six faculty members may seem too far in the future for many Princeton hopefuls, Appiah insists that it is “better to build up faculty to support the major rather than build the major to the faculty.”

When asked why it had taken the university more than three decades to further solidify its commitment to the field with the creation of a center—Harvard’s department began in 1969—Appiah replied, “I’m glad it’s being done now. At Princeton, when it does something it must do it properly.”

The creation of the center certainly falls in line with the university’s continued efforts to diversify—Princeton was the last Ivy to admit African-Americans but now has the highest percentage of black students among all eight members of the league, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. But Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said that though the center is “one way to attract students,” the effort “is not just about educating students but about research and shaping policy in the United States.”

When asked about the possibility of Princeton recruiting any Harvard professors for the new program—in addition to Appiah and West, Princeton publicly courted Harvard scholar Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. in 2002—Cliatt chuckled and politely replied that “we are excited about a wide range of opportunities.”

At the potential threat of losing faculty to the unofficial rival, Higginbotham responded, “I am not at all fearful of losing faculty members...We don’t consider our department to have cornered the market on all the brilliant people who are in our field.”

“I would be disingenuous if I told you that I don’t have some nostalgia,” Higginbotham said, referring to the days when she worked alongside Appiah and West in Af-Am’s Barker Center headquarters, “but I can also happily say that we have a new team.”

And it seems as though Harvard is not the only one looking forward. Citing the words of the committee in her statement introduction, President Tilghman boldly declared that “Princeton has an opportunity to establish [its] Program in African American Studies as the leading voice in the field of African American Studies education in a moment of great transition and possibility.’ We should seize that opportunity.”