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Question One: How Far Have We Come in Institutionalizing Black Studies, and How Far Do We Have to Go? What Efforts Must Be Made to Move the Field From the Periphery of Academia to the Core?

“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.

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iBlack Studies by marilyn m. thomas-houston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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