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23 Making Good on the Intellectual and Moral Commitment

Warren C. Whatley, University of Michigan

The Situation Today

These are thought-provoking questions. Ideally the answer would be “very connected” and “very active.” But realistically I would have to say that Black Studies programs have been more successful in some of their other self-proclaimed goals, like proving “agency” among people of African descent and “institutionalizing” Africana Studies in the academy. Over the forty years since students and faculty began their struggles to mainstream Africana Studies on America’s campuses, the gap between the life opportunities afforded on campus and those in many inner-city communities has widened so much that it looks more like a chasm than a class difference. The population in prisons has exploded during this time; the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision has given us ample opportunity to reflect on the failure of public education; many Black Americans have become middle class, but teeter there precariously while the Black community is still distinguished from the mainstream by the many left behind in poverty, especially Black children; the Black family has gone through a period of disruption and dissolution, and shows little sign of strengthening; and effective Black political power is almost cli­ché.

We might ask why the lip service to “outreach” at all, but I think the answer is obvious: it is because “community” concerns were part of the original student calls for Black Studies programs in the 1960s and 1970s. Not only were students and young faculty concerned about real feelings of alienation and the lack of community on their own campuses, they also wanted to ease their fears of “selling out” to the establishment by giving something back to the community. I believe these impulses have survived since the 1960s. A recent faculty meeting on my own campus, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan, turned to the question of outreach and it was obvious from the enthusiastic embrace of the issue that the faculty in the room sought not just to understand the world but to also change it.

In the early days of Africana and Black Studies programs these faculty were in the vanguard of calls for outreach. Today, like many of the other early precepts of this movement, outreach has been mainstreamed. More than ever, the American university is committed to what it calls “outreach” or “participatory action research” or “community involvement.” Like affirmative action and other uni­ver­si­ty-led public-goods initiatives, the increased university commitment to outreach was in a very real sense a calculated response to the public clamor for relevance. The public wanted to see easily identifiable benefits from the public investments and skyrocketing tuition fees supporting educational institutions looking more and more like captured ivory tower establishments—or should I say liberal ivory tower establishments. I would not go so far as to say that Black student activism made this happen, but Black students’ sensitivities made it easier. And once officially institutionalized as university policy, diversity freed the American university to attract unprecedented numbers of international students who brought not only a thirst for Western knowledge but their own tuition dollars as well.

I am not willing to say that the American university’s commitment to outreach is a fundamental commitment that will stand the test of time in the long run, but in some circles community outreach is well-grounded in at least the curriculum. At its best, it has shaped participatory action research. At the University of Michigan, examples abound, including the entire curriculum at the school of social work, community-based public health initiatives in the school of public health, the environmental justice movement in the school of natural resources and environment, the Ginsburg Center, the community action program in the school of business, and more. I myself secured major finding in the past from the office of the vice president for research to build e-commerce platforms in Detroit public housing. Just recently the University of Michigan renovated a building in downtown Detroit to facilitate its many programs there. This building is called the Detroit Center.

The majority of these initiatives do not come out of the Center for Afro American and African Studies at the University of Michigan, and I suspect a similar situation exists on other campuses. Nor do I suspect that Africana and Black Studies programs are at the vanguard any longer. At one level this is understandable. Community outreach tends to find a natural home in schools dedication to science delivery or practice, like public health, environmental studies, public policy, social work, information science, etc. This is not the focus of Black Studies departments and programs. There the focus is on deconstructing the structures, histories, and processes that reproduce racialized meanings and social outcomes. Black Studies programs are not averse to outreach, but they do have other priorities. I suspect this preference is partly a legacy of the long struggle for respectability as an in­tel­lect­ual endeavor, and partly because of scarce resources. In this light, universities generally believe that the professional schools can do it better—spe­cial­i­za­tion and the division of labor are operative here.

Yet a recent faculty meeting at the University of Michigan turned to the university’s newly renovated Detroit Center building in downtown Detroit. The discussion was lively and creative, with most faculty expressing the same kind of “concern” for the community and the same “desire” to interact with communities that was expressed by students and faculty in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps the movement has come full circle. Perhaps the university commitment to outreach will spark rejuvenation within Black Studies programs.

Strategies for the Future

I see no reason why this cannot or should not happen. With this in mind, I would like to offer a few suggestions and cautions:

  1. Tenure and professional development. Achieving tenure is the goal of most emerging scholars, and we have a commitment to growing the future professoriate. Com­mu­ni­ty outreach and activism cannot jeopardize the advancements we have made here. At tenure time, universities pay lip service to the outreach activities of candidates, but they seldom pay more than that. Unless universities get more serious about valuing outreach activities, faculty will find it very difficult to make serious commitments themselves, especially young faculty. I would caution individuals and programs about committing substantial amounts of their resources and time to community outreach if those activities are not coupled inextricably with research and teaching, or if the uni­ver­si­ty does not make explicit commitments to value such activities in tenure and promotion decisions.
  2. Most professional schools fold their outreach programs into student training programs, as a critical step in their becoming real-world practitioners. Black Studies programs could mimic these “internships” and “participatory learning” programs, but first they would have to develop stronger curricular and research ties to the professional schools. This may require that Black Studies programs change some of their in­tel­lect­ual focus and increase their commitment to public policy. The required change might be too drastic and too expensive for some to make. Perhaps some should strengthen their outreach efforts, while others should not.
  3. Africana and Black Studies programs could strengthen their links to communities and by so doing attract outside funds from well-to-do African Americans. While I do not know many examples of this, universities as a whole parade their public spiritedness in front of corporate and philanthropic America with great success. There is no reason why Black Studies departments can not do the same with equal or greater success.
  4. What is needed is a three-legged stool, where the three legs are research, training, and service. In other words, what is needed is a real commitment where no one leg can hold up the stool without the other two. Without this kind of mutual dependence built into the administration, research, and teaching practices of Africana and Black Studies programs, I fear that activism will continue to be a cry that we fail to live up to. Again, the best examples come from schools that are committed to the delivery of sciences. These include schools of public policy, schools of public health, schools of natural resources and environment, and others. Ideally, student training and research initiatives would identify “centers” or sites in the real world that are candidates for intervention. Then students would learn how to probe the inhabitants about their worldview, their goals, and their constraints. Part of the research initiative would be designed to test their views of the world against scientific samples of empirical data. At minimum, subsequent steps would at least present the finding to the inhabitants, but should also bring resources to bear on the situation so that the inhabitants are empowered to improve their life chances. This model of activism can apply to the delivery of health care services, environmental cleanup, school performance, parenting skills, community development, leadership training and more. It integrates com­mu­ni­ty service, training, and research so that each is dependent on the other.
  5. Black Studies programs could interact more with their constituents by offering public policy for the discussion of contemporary issuespublic intellectuals, policy mavens, talk show hosts, popular culture type, spin-doctors, etc. I think each Black Studies program should have one of these. Like my colleagues often say about economists, “you should always have one in the room, but only one.”
  6. Mass action studies. This is a natural fit for Black Studies programs because of the historical use of mass action in the Black struggle for civil rights. Black Studies programs should give serious public policy attention to the role of mass action in a democracy and in the Black experience. An example is the recent immigrant mass action movement. African Americans are on the fringe of this movement, and possibly on the outside. On the one hand, they are reluctant to endorse a movement that threatened the economic livelihood of the weakest segment of the Black com­mu­ni­ty. On the other hand, many are hesitant to speak up in opposition to the competitive threat because such opposition pits one weak segment of society against another. Black Studies programs have a responsibility to speak to these types of issues in a way that forges mass action in a dem­oc­ra­cy. For example, one of the real issues here is the political economy of the minimum wage, not ethnic competition. Another is the fact that Hispanic immigrants may well become “White” over time. These are the kinds of issues that need to be addressed by Black Studies programs in a scientific effort to keep mass action in a democracy alive and in the service of the disenfranchised many.
  7. Finally, what do Black Studies outreach programs bring to the table that is uniquewhat are their unique contributions to the university agenda? This is always the bottom-line concern when legitimacy is at stake. It is also the bottom-line concern when funding is discussed. What is the value-added? Our greatest value-added is the diversity of Black Studies faculty (field, ethnicity, method, etc.). In the particular case we are discussing, a diverse faculty comes together to reach beyond the university walls to improve the well-being of the Black population of America and the world. I do not believe this happens anywhere else on campus. There are poverty centers, schools of public policy, public health initiatives, etc., but none of these takes a holistic, interdisciplinary, life-course approach to solving the real-world problems of people of African descent around the world. There is no Africana School of Public Policy; there should be!


When we make good on this intellectual and moral commitment to improve the well-being of people of African descent around the world, we will have improved our intellectual and moral standing in the world. Our professional organizations could then begin to give awards for service, and these awards would mean something. We could give these awards to well-to-do African-Americans and Americans of all kinds. Just as with the university as a whole, Africana and Black Studies programs could then appeal to the public spiritedness of America in their fund-raising efforts. Before this can be done, however, Africana and Black Studies programs will have to integrate service into their research and training efforts, borrow best practices from the science of delivery pro­fes­sion­al schools, and demonstrate that the diversity and the great intellect of its faculties can be channeled beyond the university walls to make significant, unique, and serious contributions to humanity. If done, the legitimacy of Africana and Black Studies programs will be beyond question.


Making Good on the Intellectual and Moral Commitment Copyright © 2018 by marilyn m. thomas-houston. All Rights Reserved.

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