“Question One” was formulated as a way to provoke conversations regarding the uneven development of Black Studies programs and begin the discussions around the needs and “best practices” for sustaining the field. Although Black Studies has reached departmental status at a few elite institutions, each year a significant number of programs struggle to maintain as budget cuts threaten dissolution or consolidation. Rojas (2005) suggests, “Successful institutionalization depends on framing and tactics and an accurate understanding of the institutional design.” The first panel consisted of James Turner of Cornell University and Esther Terry from the University of Massachusetts. Each brought to the discussion perspectives based specifically on their own institutions offering a kind of “experiential” approach to the question.
Although Molefi Asante was not originally included in the panel for question one, he contributed a position paper that provides an important perspective to the understanding of the institutionalization of Black Studies. Therefore, his paper is included here. Asante interpreted the historical development of the field, and argued that the establishment of a discipline is the primary direction needed to sustain Black Studies in the twenty-first century. He further suggested, as others did in conversations throughout the convening, that freestanding departmental status and the hiring of PhDs in the field are equally as important to continued development.
While methods for institutionalizing the field differed at the various universities and colleges, the discussants formed the consensus that Black Studies departments must situate themselves within the academy in ways that enable them to be functionally independent; having the ability to grant both degrees and tenure is important to that pursuit. Esther Terry suggested that departments design courses that meet general requirements in order to attract diverse enrollment. The point was raised that eventually, institutionalized programs, regardless of joint appointments, should grant their own degrees and prepare students for career choices both within and outside the discipline.
According to James Turner, race-driven perceptions poison the “American Academy” and undermine Black Studies. “What we mean by ‘where the discipline is’ has little to do with its inherent intellectual viability and capability and more to do with its institutional positioning. This is fundamentally relevant to Black Studies because it informs how the programs are perceived, how they perceive themselves, and their ability to generate the necessary institutional support for long-range success.” A most significant point addressed by both Turner and Terry is formed by the interpretation of the concept “institutionalized.” Both agree that Black Studies is institutionalized by its very existence in the academy, but the panel’s question directs one to consider “dominance.”
There was enthusiastic agreement that growth in the number of interdisciplinary programs and approaches incorporated into the academy since the first Black Studies programs were founded, emphasizes a major historical contribution of the field that is little known and rarely discussed. However, the future of Black Studies depends on the departments and programs operating as a collective to combat the aggressive and dynamic push to steal autonomy, destabilize departments, and undermine the legitimacy of African American scholars.