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30 Contextualizing the Role of African American Studies Administration

Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, University of California, Los Angeles

Introduction: Contextual Considerations

Recent reflections on African American Studies in the twenty-first cen­tu­ry feature calls for the reorientation of the field. Some scholars argue that African American Studies has drifted from its or­igins in the Civil Rights Movement and campus protests of the mid-twentieth cen­tury and needs to involve itself once again as an ac­ti­vist in the strug­gles of African Americans for equality. Others in­sist that cam­pus programs need to build strong links with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions and provide service to them at every level. It is widely believed that race continues to be a central issue in Amer­ican life, leading some sectors of the African American Stud­ies com­munity to advo­cate deeper involvement in discussions aim­ed at resolving past in­just­ices.

These are some of the themes raised when scholars—many from the foundational years of Black Studies on university cam­puses—sit down to think and write about African American Stud­ies and its role in the twenty-first century. While it is essential for all mem­bers of the African American campus community to ponder is­sues of mission and direction, specific responding strategies would be implemented under the leadership of chief administra­tors in Af­ri­can American Studies programs. Any reflec­tion on the role of such individuals requires some consideration of the con­text in which they serve.

As Afro-American/Black Studies was taking root in colleges and universities nationwide, social and political-economic changes as vast and consequential as the dismantling of formal structures of racial stratification were taking place. It is noteworthy that some scholars of African American Studies have attempted to “con­nect the dots” between sea-changing policies and practices that have affected the overall welfare of the Black population. They have observed the growth of a “prison-industrial complex,” the erosion of the social safety net, the dismantling of affirmative action, the Black-white wage gap, and the growing gap between rich and poor in the society generally, and considered the chal­lenges and op­por­tu­nities created by the information technology rev­o­lution. They have also sought to explore the consequences of the most recent phase of globalization.

Less has been said about the changes that have taken place within universities. A glance at the public institutions in which many African American Studies programs find a home suggests that this changing internal context bears watching. Briefly, there is the growing orientation to regard education as an individual good rather than social good. Further, the impact of the changing fi­nan­cial structure of public higher education or “privatization” has been largely unexamined. For the research-intensive univer­si­ties, the view that they will/should play an increasing role in pro­vid­ing the innovations needed to fuel the economy has become an expectation. The increasing importance of proprietary re­search, whose beneficiaries remain somewhat obscure, and the de­clining fortunes of the non-science areas where African American Studies programs are located may be linked.

The Role of Chief Administrators

Chief administrators are construed here to designate depart­ment chairs, directors of research institutes, and heads of in­ter­de­part­men­tal programs—what we will call programs for simplicity. Another layer of administrators—deans, vice presidents, and vice chancellors like myself—also have decision-making responsi­bil­i­ties that influence the future of African American Studies; how­ever, chief administrators are on the front lines, where the rubber meets the road, to mix metaphors. It should be noted at the out­set that their responsibilities include those associated with chair­ing any college or university program as well as challenges that grow out of their peculiar history and mission. It is not un­usual that such in­di­vid­uals may from time to time feel belea­guered.

Chief administrators are typically faculty members who are ro­tat­ing through the chair position for a period of three to five years. They lead as the first among equals rather than as execu­tives, and the managerial experience they bring to their task is quite variable. While they attempt to maintain a teaching and research portfolio, they pick up tasks in three principal areas: bud­get; faculty re­cruit­ment, retention, and promotion; and strategic and programmatic planning. They develop a budget for their units, negotiate with the university for funding, influence hiring more or less directly, and lay out an agenda for their programs with specific benchmarks to reach.

At most colleges and universities, chief administrators operate in a context that presents significant challenges, the first being to fa­shion a coherent curriculum. From the start, there have been dif­ferent ideas about the appropriate content of African American Studies and about the field’s proper role on and off campus. Pro­grams in African American Studies are typically described in broad and wide-ranging categories: history and culture, social and ec­o­nom­ic issues, political issues and processes—all of them linked prin­cipally by the common thread of their relationship to people of African ancestry.

For some chief administrators, the challenge comes from sus­tain­ing a founding vision of the program as available faculty, stu­dent interests, and the university environment change. For ex­ample, specialists in African American history could have expertise in the African nations that were sources of slaves for the new ec­o­no­mies of the western hemisphere, in the American South, or in the northern migration of the twentieth century. Finding and reach­ing a collegial consensus on the replacement for a faculty member who taught a course on the early Civil Rights Movement could prove dif­fi­cult if the specialists available must compete with a more senior and stellar candidate whose credentials are in the early nineteenth cen­tury.

In other cases, the chief administrator might be required to forge a new consensus about the curriculum or program direction, building consensus among a faculty with backgrounds made va­ri­ous by their choice of discipline and by the places where they them­selves were students of African American Studies. Moreover, the outside community — both the national scholarly cadre in Af­ri­can American Studies and the regional ethnic community — may have expectations about the program that are difficult to meet, in the context of available resources and other resource constraints.

The nature of faculty expertise is not the only constraint chief administrators face. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion described the extensive efforts the University of Min­ne­so­ta is making to attract students and described a more general de­cline in the number of faculty dedicated to African American Stud­ies and the number of students who choose it as their major. Na­tion­wide, just 668 undergraduates earned degrees in Black Studies in 2001–2002, about 0.05 percent of all degrees awarded. The number of student majors or other workload measures is typically linked to the pro­gram’s budgetary allotment.

This partly explains why most if not all African American Stud­ies programs are presented with financial resources that are barely adequate to their most basic mission. Programs are dependent on the university for funding, and therein lies the second major chal­lenge faced by chief administrators: persuading those outside of Af­ri­can American Studies that the discipline makes an important contribution to the university, one that merits greater support.

Some campus leaders share a vision in which African American Studies is central to the university’s larger mission. However, others are misinformed about its role and productivity or even actively hostile. The relative weight of Chemistry or Geophysics in a uni­ver­sity’s repertoire may be disputed, but no one argues that either dis­ci­pline has no place in the university at all. Yet, thirty-five years after the first programs were established, some are still discussing whether or not African American Studies is a legitimate field.

Such opinions may not be expressed during the daily or month­­ly routine of campus life, but they can surface when pri­or­i­ties must be established and when resource allocations are made. Then, they may be used, explicitly or implicitly, as a rationale for the par­si­mo­ni­ous allotment of funds to African American Studies. Feed­ing such sentiments is the possible disconnect, for example, be­tween what scholars of African American history and other cam­pus historians view as important or as appropriate method­ology. To use another example, rescuing out-of-print materials and attend­ing to their pres­ervation is an important role for scholars of Afri­can American literature, and yet their literary colleagues may feel this doesn’t rep­re­sent original scholarship and should not receive much credit in decisions about promotions.

To sustain their programs, chief administrators must step into this breach and take on the task of educating their colleagues about why such work is significant in the field of African American Studies and of demonstrating, time and again, ways in which Af­ri­can American Studies has enhanced the intellectual life, rep­u­ta­tion, and community connections of the university. More than col­leagues that head other departments, chief administrators in Af­ri­can American Studies must communicate the aspirations, mis­sion, and significance of their programs to the campus lead­er­ship.

In turn, chief administrators need to be familiar with the uni­ver­sity’s values, challenges, and assets. This doesn’t mean that Af­ri­can American Studies needs to be in total alignment with current cam­pus orientations and values. In light of the history and mission of African American Studies, there is bound to be some di­ver­gence, which, in turn, may suggest that the program is achiev­ing its goals. On the positive side, framing the program’s goals in terms of the larger university mission and broader directions may enhance the chances of getting additional funding or other sup­port. Obviously, this task of negotiating the ground between the uni­versity lead­er­ship and programmatic needs is more deftly per­formed by those who are widely respected and who have ex­per­ience in the struc­tures of university governance. In this con­­nec­tion, there is a need for professional associations to provide fo­rums for administrative heads to exchange ideas about “best prac­tices” and approaches to com­mon problems.

Clearly, chief administrators have a complex role, even in the rel­­a­tively isolated world of their home campus. However, ex­pec­ta­tions about the contributions of African American Studies program also come from the community and from national spokesmen for the field. Manning Marable, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, calls his fellow chief administrators to create “a revolution in Black Studies.” In this “fundamental restructuring,” Marable says, African American Studies programs “must develop stronger links to reconnect with African-American civil society, through enhancing structures of ca­pa­city-building and resistance at grass-roots levels in communities.” Furthermore, programs “must construct a new language for talking about race that advances the material circumstances of most Black Americans, and halts the erosion of our civil rights.”

These are immensely laudable goals as well as enormous social and political challenges. Chief administrative officers might pro­duc­tively lead their faculty colleagues in a discussion of these goals and what resources they might apply to furthering them in the cam­pus and community environment. Marable also speaks about incorporating digital technology in the preservation of African Amer­ican culture and history. These are worthy goals, as well, and might be easier to adapt in many situations. Incorporating schol­ar­ship by and about women, as well as embracing the broader Afri­can Diaspora, are no less worthy goals, but since their achieve­ment is so heav­ily dependent on faculty expertise, they may need to be ap­proached more incrementally.

African American Studies has always been notable for its in­ter­dis­ciplinarity and for its pluralism, embracing a wide range of con­tent and multiple perspectives and methodologies. I believe its plu­r­al­istic nature is an asset for the field. Not all programs need to in­clude every scholarly direction or put equal emphasis on com­munity activism and contemporary affairs. Each can find its own niche in which to contribute while at the same time identifying means for its students to achieve breadth and scope.  It is up to chief administrators to guide in the selection and implementation of goals from this varied menu.

Between the lines in recent writing about African American Studies is a nostalgia for the time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the field was born in the midst of a great popular up­rising on behalf of human rights in this nation. Some seem to wish that we could rewind the clock to those years. This longing for the idealism and commitment to social, racial, and economic justice is not lim­i­ted to African American Studies or even uni­ver­si­ties. There is a wide­spread sense of loss and concern about the di­rec­tions of our society both domestically and its relations with other nations.

It is wise to remember, however, that the initial energy and ideology for that uprising came not from faculty or even from chief administrators, but rather from their students. This gives me great hope, because I find some of the same energy and idealism alive today in young African Americans and students of other un­der­rep­re­sented racial and ethnic minorities. They are distin­guished from their colleagues by their need to link their studies and their future careers to the communities that gave birth to them and by the fervor with which they pursue their goals. Stu­dents of the sixties and seventies had the benefit of forebears who “con­nected the dots” between the then-prevailing system of racial stratification and the role of the state in creating and maintaining inequality through the use of its administrative, legislative, and ju­di­cial instrumentalities. Today’s intellectuals and faculty seem to be having difficulty grasp­ing the changes of the last quarter cen­tury and understanding the links between the institutional poli­cies and practices that yield the day-to-day realities of African Amer­i­ca. Their ability to lead in pro­duc­tive directions, will have a major impact on what students have an opportunity to learn, how they are reinforced and rewarded, the skill and analytic sets they acquire, and how they will seek relevance in their life’s work. Chief administrators would do well to re­mem­ber that—more than the faculty, or the program, or the university, or the surrounding community—it is the students we must serve. It is their future, after all, on which all of our hopes ride.


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Contextualizing the Role of African American Studies Administration Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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