The Role of Chief Administrators in Sustaining Black Studies
Irma McClaurin (Ford Foundation): One of the things as we’ve been talking throughout, as I’ve listened, one of the challenges certainly is how does one communicate with the upper-level administration? How do you communicate with them and sort of get your thoughts across? And as we were thinking about these different sessions, it seemed important to at least ask the question about the role that chief administrators can play in sustaining Black Studies.
Ronald W. Bailey (Northeastern University): I think the role of the chief administrator is to listen carefully, to learn as much as possible about the history and content, and debates within the different disciplines and their purview, and to be supportive in pushing each of the fields to move forward in and of themselves, but also in relationship to other disciplines. I think one of my main concerns is that chief administrators don’t often take the time to learn about what’s going on in the disciplines that they administer. They just don’t do it. So they don’t come to a field like Black Studies trying to understand what we’re about, what we’ve been about historically and what they can learn from what we’ve been about. When I served as provost, I always saw my role as kind of keeping a stretched rubber band between where we were as an institution and where I thought we could go. There was some tension between my role as chief administrator and the various academic units.
I have three sets of questions that I would ask that chief administrators pay attention to. One is what is the mission of Black Studies within the changing mission and context of higher education? And, how do we make sure that both higher education and Black Studies are on the same page in tackling the key questions that each face and must be addressed if each is to realize its full mission and learn from what Black Studies has learned over the forty years? I would say that involves mission and vision as well as an issue of service. The second question is what should we be teaching and how should the interdisciplinary mandate be realized, and how do we know if what we are teaching is being well-taught and is being well learned? The third point focuses on research: what are the key questions for our ongoing research and how do we ensure that Black Studies is informed and energized, or even provoked by both the qualitative and quantitative research on the Black experience taking place in the various disciplines, and that our students are being trained and mentored to synthesize what this work offers along with what is offered by Black Studies?
Let me just make some points about each one of those. In terms of teaching, the notion of silos has come up and I want to just remind people again of the 1980 report of the National Council of Black Studies that talked about interdisciplinary studies as being comprised of historical studies, social and behavioral, as well as cultural studies. I want to just paint that as a target so as we think about interdisciplinary narratives, we can critique that. I don’t see how social policy can’t be integrated into that. I think science and technology, the STEM fields, can be integrated into that, and so I think the applied aspect of Black Studies can be done there as well.
I want to also mention this Paradigm of Unity that I mentioned yesterday from the work of the Peoples College. One of the reasons it is called Paradigm of Unity is that when this was developed, there was a lot of struggle inside Black Studies. There was a lot of disciplinary struggle as people came to the table from all kinds of fields trying to do this enterprise, and there was a lot of political ideological struggle. What we realized is that people were talking past each other. So the idea of this paradigm was to put on the table as a space where a thousand ideas could contend. You’re a Marxist, what do you say about rural life? You’re a nationalist, what do you say about some box on this paradigm? And we could summarize and be more additive in the way we handle our discussions.
We need to be more rigorous in terms of assessing, with research and with evidence, approaches to teaching and learning. I would just refer you to volumes from the National Research Council on how people learn, the brain, mind experience in school, or how students learn history and mathematics, and so on. There is a big body of research that is out there in terms of how students learn. I think that we need to have the evidence, so if we’re talking about the impact of Black Studies on self-esteem and academic achievement, I think there is some work out there that would help us. If we’re talking about the impact of Black Studies on the kids from Wauwatosa, or in other words the anti-racist agenda, you know, we teach this stuff but I’m not sure we understand fully what the impact of our teaching is. We need to grab that body of evidence in that regard.
Bailey continues by stating the Paradigm of Unity can be used as a tool for assessing research needs. “What are the silences … the big debates?” He suggests that leveraging technology, projects that include the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields were important for Black Studies and a means for acquiring significant amounts of funding for the field.
… This notion of professional master’s, our master’s at Northeastern is going to give students a core in the field, a core set of courses, and then encourage them to do specialties in health disparities, or multimedia production, or public history, and so on. Again, what Black Studies has been doing under the academic excellence and social responsibility rubric has now been taken up by, if you look at “The Responsive PhD,” one of the arguments is that PhD production has to be responsive to the needs of society. I also want to mention, in terms of a best practice, when we had the Illinois Council of Black Studies, one of the most important things we did was to, every year, go to Springfield, the state capital, and the first day we had a meeting with the chief academic officer for the state of Illinois to educate him about the needs of Black Studies in the state and to get him on board in terms of what our agenda was. So when we talk about the politics of Black Studies and, to paraphrase Laszlo, who gets what, where, when, and how, we need to try to organize in our states to do a better job at this.
And last, I’ll just mention the importance [of helping] the administrators understand the social responsibility, the social justice mission of Black Studies. I think that the importance of what was mentioned yesterday in terms of the land grant mission — I mean higher education has always played a critical role with regards to the society, always town-gown, but it’s not been our gown. It’s not been our town that’s been necessarily serviced. We need to use that historic understanding of higher education’s mission to make sure that Black Studies has a space and the resources to make a contribution, not only to bettering the lives of Black people but bettering the lives of everyone in society, both in this country and around the world.
Claudia Mitchell-Kernan (UCLA): … One of the things that I had to say here is equally relevant to thinking about the program level and other academic administrative levels with which we articulate, and I think we have been reasonably successful in at least beginning to come to terms with, [which is] the vast social change that has been taking place as we have created this field over the last thirty years. It has really been tremendous, and one of the difficulties we have, I think, at the program level is translating our understanding of what is going on socially into curriculum. We haven’t paid nearly as much attention, I think, to what has been happening with universities over the last twenty to twenty-five years, and when you’re in the middle of it, sometimes the change looks very, very incremental and it pretty much looks like business as usual. But when you step back and consider, there are really some very, very fundamental changes taking place in American colleges and universities nationally. It’s certainly, absolutely crystal clear at the flagship institutions, the big publics, like the big ten, the land grant colleges like Wisconsin and UCLA, all of those AAU institutions. It seems to me that this changing internal context really does bear watching.
Now, I’m just going to mention a few things that I think are important from the perspective of our aspirations and ambitions. The first of these is that there is a growing orientation nationwide to regard education as an individual good and not a social good. That is really important not only in terms of what we’re teaching, but it is impacting who we’re teaching. And we can see that within the University of California really dramatically, where there were probably three times as many African American students when I came to UCLA in 1973 as there are today, following Proposition 209 and also some actions by the Regents that took place a year or two before 209. The law school at UCLA probably had probably the highest percentage of African Americans of any school or division on our campus. Within two years the entering class had dropped to one or two individuals, and there may have been a year when we had none. This is quite a dramatic kind of change.
It also is manifest in the growing debt of young people, and whereas the flagships in the past have really stood for access, as they continue to raise the bill, the ticket on education, although people will deny that it is affecting access, saying we provide financial aid, it is affecting access. It ultimately may send more people back through the community college route before they get to a four-year institution, and that’s something we need to be thinking about in terms of future articulations. I think the changing financial structure of public higher education is also a factor that is impinging on us in ways that we have not fully apprehended, and we haven’t examined this. The label that is being applied to this phenomenon for the major publics over the last ten years has been so-called privatization. Now that is an interesting label, because in my estimation I think it reflects both realities as well as more hidden aspirations.
… For research-intensive universities, the Big Ten, most of the flagships, the so-called public service role is being viewed much more narrowly than formerly. We are increasingly expected to be the handmaiden of industry and corporations, the engine that drives the economy, and of course this is tilting a balance between what historically we have thought of as the two cultures. So the sciences and engineering are taking on much more importance, and the social sciences and humanities where we rest are getting deemphasized. The fate of African American Studies in this context is increasingly tied to various kinds of performance indicators and workload measures that typically create quite a distance between the ambitions that we have, the mission that we feel we have, and the resources that are available to us to achieve that mission. These are worrisome things; they reflect not so much dispositions of individuals as really something transformative that’s happening.
Maulana Karenga (California State University, Long Beach): … My paper of course conceptualizes administration as essentially an intellectual project and I conceive the role of the Africana chairs and directors as being, above all, an intellectual leader, although I recognize their role as managers, coordinators, and facilitators of certain processes. This leadership begins, from where I stand, by first of all conceptualizing the discipline in the most expansive ways. That is to say defining it with such conceptual elasticity that it becomes a world-encompassing project even though it is rooted in the African American historical experience and current life, and that it reaches out and is inclusive of all African people as a world African community.
It’s in this context that I begin by putting forth the idea of the ancient Egyptian concept called serudj, which means to constantly repair and transform the world and ourselves and to direct it toward maximum human flourishing and freedom. And so the current and insistent question of the sustainment of Africana and Black Studies in the twenty-first century points inevitably to the unavoidable task of constant reaffirmation and renewal in and of the discipline. … It is then a question of our ongoing development and enhancement of our capacity to recover, discover, and reconstruct the rich and ancient resources of our culture, speak our own special culture truths to the world, and make our own unique contribution to the historic and ongoing human quest to understand the world and ourselves in it, and to change each in the interest of human freedom, global justice, and good in and for the world.
So what I want to do is talk about this position from an intellectual activist tradition, a tradition that begins in ancient Egypt, and which libraries and schools have called houses of life. And so the concept of serudj links knowledge and social engagement, and variously means an ongoing obligation and effort to repair what is damaged, to replenish what is depleted, to strengthen what is weakened, to set right what is wrong, to make flourish that which is fragile and undeveloped, and to make it more beautiful and beneficial than it was. I think that discipline leadership is a leadership of self-reflection as well as development, and what we have to do is certainly question ourselves.
Black Studies came into being relentlessly questioning society and the university as its academic servant, and it can only proceed and continuously develop by constantly questioning itself in equally rigorous and relevant ways. Chairs and directors … must not be simply agents of the administration as instructed in the campus handbook, but capable representatives and committed advocates of the discipline, its faculty, students, staff, and its mission, which reaches out to its local and world community. I think it’s important for chairs also to hire people with a terminal degree in Black Studies. This is important for several reasons. First, it reaffirms the importance of direct and deep-rooted grounding in the field itself. It also produces and reproduces a critical mass of scholars for community, continuity, and continuum. It also ensures production of a discipline-specific body of literature and methodologies, and conceptual generation. It also creates an ongoing discipline-specific conversation and narrative that reflects the evolution and growth of the discipline, and it creates a context and ground for both self-determination and mutual respect as a discipline within the academy itself. Without your own discipline, you’re just a collection of classes. You don’t have the same status or respect in the academy. I think there’s a diversity of interests and emphasis in our early directions and discord, but Black Studies, as Stewart has said, developed into a coherent intellectual enterprise as expressed, I believe, in a triple mission. That is: culture-grounded, academic excellence, and social engagement. … I think the integrity of the discipline requires that the core data and methodology we use to teach Africana Studies actually are rooted in and rise out of the actual culture of African people, continental and diasporan, ancient and modern, regardless of supplementary and secondary sources of our knowledge and practice. … The central ground of concern and engagement is the world African community. However, our focus on the world African community will compel us to deal with the world as a whole as it impacts our lives. Our task then is to not only understand the world and ourselves in it, but to change each in the interest of human freedom, justice, and good in the world. This requires, in the best of our ancient intellectual activist traditions, that we enact our own best understanding of the world to teach our students to reaffirm and renew our discipline, reconstruct the academy, community, and society, and dare even to make a significant contribution to the Fanonian project of a new history of humankind.
Molefi Kete Asante (Temple University): I have a comment, and I guess my comment is that we’re a generation, most of us here, of ground-breakers in this field. One of the aims, it seems to me, is for us to replace ourselves, but not replace ourselves with people who have been trained in the same way we have been trained. Most of us probably have been trained in the social sciences or humanities, but if we are going to establish and institutionalize the field of Black Studies, it is essential that in this process we commit discipline suicide from those traditional fields, in the sense that we can then grow this new discipline by hiring individuals into our departments who have terminal degrees in Black Studies and to allow the departments of history, political science, sociology, communication, to continue to do what they did for us. In other words, we should not assume that history or political science or English somehow will stop admitting and producing graduate students who are African American. They should continue to do that. They should continue to hire people. But for us, we should be the last generation of people in Black Studies who do not have terminal degrees in the field. I think if we make that kind of commitment, then we have a collection of individuals who are in the discipline, who love the discipline, are trained in the discipline, and we have a new architecture of conceptual realities that need to exist in the community.
Abdul Alkalimat (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign): I want to go back to this concept of privatization, because it seems to me that we are really under that cloud, and I’m wondering, first, to what extent people think we have to fight to protect and expand the notion of the public? And then secondly, and perhaps in contrast to that, is the question of are there models in other parts of the university that we should take up in order to link with an entrepreneurial impulse in the African American community. If you think of engineering, one of the ways that they have been able to maintain their position is in partnering and becoming an incubator for new technology and spinning off entrepreneurial enterprises. In fact, in some places they have even constructed dorms with special rooms where the students learn how to make presentations to venture capital. So there is a whole direction in that way. So I just want to raise the question, are there any best practices or guidelines for connecting with that impulse in our community in order for us to survive?
Claudia Mitchell-Kernan (UCLA): I don’t myself know of any best practices in that area, but I think it is an interesting area to think about harnessing as it were. I think we’re in for another stage of improvisation. Because when the university becomes so bottom-line-oriented, it is essentially transformative. Not just for African American Studies, but for, I believe, humanities, social sciences, and professional schools. The sense of permanence of a discipline that we have, we need to entertain the idea of impermanence as well. The boundaries are shifting. Fifteen years ago, I was stunned when our university came out with a plan to disestablish three schools, not three departments, three schools. I still recall that every time I hear people say, “You think African American Studies is safe?”
Kimberle Crenshaw (UCLA): So I want to make an allied point, and I want to thank Claudia for giving voice to some concerns that I have about the lessons that I think should be learned from a post-affirmative action institution. Claudia mentioned that the law school had the most progressive, expansive affirmative action program in the country. We admitted up to 40 percent of our class out of traditionally excluded groups. One would think that an institution that’s done that for twenty years would have had a commitment to figuring out how to sustain that commitment in the aftermath of the decline of affirmative action. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Claudia Mitchell-Kernan (UCLA): In fact, they reinterpreted the constitution.
Kimberle Crenshaw (UCLA): They did. So one of the things I want to put on the table for us to consider is using what happened in California, just as a worst-case scenario, what are the best practices that we can begin to put into place now? I think we need an emergency preparedness plan. Some part of that involves trying to figure out whether there are other models around campus, but the other thing to remember is if we don’t have students, it doesn’t matter whether we can find those other models.
What happened with us, and frankly the reason we developed a CRS program, is that we had one of the most integrated faculties in the country, but we had no students. So the one little piece that we could do was we could admit 5 percent of the class into a program. So we created a program so we could actually have some impact on admissions. Our distance learning technology, when we had two Black students in the entering class, we said we can’t teach with two Black students. So we linked up with Columbia, where there were some more Black students, and taught a class that way. These are ways of using these strategies and anticipating what is going to happen.
We don’t know, from institution to institution, what would be the effect on admissions, if in all of our institutions we could no longer use race. People were shocked to find out that you couldn’t admit 20 percent of the Black students that used to be admitted. We’ve got one Black woman in our first-year class right now. We’ve got fewer Black students in our first-year class than we had in 1968. So everyone needs to look at admissions now. Get on those admissions committees, build relationships with politicians, so if this ever comes down the pipe for you, you already have some relationships that you can use as an emergency contingency plan.
Maulana Karenga (California State University, Long Beach): I just wanted to respond to what Abdul said, and I think that what Claudia said is very important about the shift from stress on social good to individual good, because a lot of the students have that, and we have to answer that. That’s why cultural grounding is so important, because if you teach the culture and history, the values, the vision, of our coming into being, both as a people and as a discipline, you then can in fact begin to change that and begin to challenge the values that they have. But if you talk outside the discipline, if you borrow a language from other disciplines and you spend more time analyzing text rather than life, then what happens is that you undermine your own status. The second thing is the whole idea of the activist intellectual tradition. That we actually have to go back and return to the source. We have to rebuild the movement, and we have to, in doing this, not only do service and policy, but also practice. We have to lend our minds and skills to rebuilding structures that defend us and that develop us as a community. Without that you don’t involve the people except at an intellectual and distant level. You’ve got to go back to the community, like Nathan Hare said, take the campus to the community and bring the community to the campus.
Warren C. Whatley (University of Michigan) and Edmund T. Gordon (University of Texas, Austin): Sorry, but I’m flipping back to the changing university environment thing and emergency preparedness …
Claudia Mitchell-Kernan (UCLA): Just a quick comment. An observation: the 10 percent plan was what governed education at Indiana when I was coming through, this was going back to the late 50s. Now, how is it that we allowed admissions to become at-large? It’s just like elections at-large, right? You will not get Black representation. But we now have admissions at-large. And we need to think about it because it is, for us, affecting who we are teaching.
Tsuruta reintroduces the idea of supporting the professional organizations as a means of sustaining the discipline and encouraging students to become members of those organizations. She further suggests that departmental administrators should insist that the professional organizations and journals of the field are criteria for Black Studies, but a part of the university-wide tenure process.
In response to innovative ways of integrating Black Studies into the university, Bailey suggests that the business school model of business plan competitions and collaborative projects with applied fields should be considered.
Ronald W. Bailey (Northeastern University): … A group of students get together and design a corporation and sometimes they can actually come away with capital to invest in that corporation. I think that’s useful, because we could do that with our students in African American Studies. I tend to have students at the end of the semester work on group projects, so we could have students actually develop plans for interventions in terms of community needs. … I think that’s very helpful in terms of this applied notion of Black Studies. I have students look at health disparities issues, and so on, and what would be an intervention that [they] would propose? I think it’s also useful if we think about that with Afro-Studies in relationship to the business school. We could get students in the business school to come in and design some community-based economic enterprise. Our students in engineering at Northeastern actually designed a bridge, and built a bridge to address the needs in terms of access to parts of the community. There are a lot of philanthropies now and investors that want to do social projects.
Irma McClaurin (Ford Foundation): [Panelists’ presentations] were provocative. We’ve got a changing landscape in higher education. We also have ideas about how one can sort of innovate in terms of the position of Black Studies within the academy. And then sort of a different model in terms of thinking about what is an administrator. Is it really just sort of a functional kind of task of doing certain kinds of things, or does it involve the sort of intellectual agenda as well?