For the past four months a critical battle has been waging on the campus of Cornell University. Faculty and students apart of the Africana Studies and Research Center have been at odds with the decision of university Provost Kent Fuchs to merge the center with the College of Arts and Sciences, effective July 1, 2011. This decision came abruptly on December 1, 2010 during the week of class finals on the college’s campus. The announcement came as a surprise to students and faculty of the ASRC who were not consulted in the decision making process.
Reason for the change was stated by Kent Fuchs as followed, “I’ve done a thorough evaluation of the programs that report to me directly — Africana is one of those — and I’ve decided that some of those programs need better support than my office is able to provide.”…… “Therefore, they should be in a college environment where they have the support of the staff … and the support of the deans.” “Fuchs added that the move would allow Africana studies to add a Ph.D. program and double the size of the Africana studies faculty, though he said the majority of the increase would come from joint appointments with other departments in the College of Arts and Sciences.”
Upon hearing the decision, a statement was released by the faculty of the ASRC decrying the announcement and the manner in which it was carried out. Director of the center Prof. Robert Harris Jr. resigned from his position in protest, but later rescinded the decision and went on to lead a student and staff demonstration on the campus to publicly voice their disapproval. In their protest demonstrators labeled the decision “autocratic and symptomatic of institutional racism.”
This event has drawn the attention of many individuals to decry the decision leading to the circulation of an online petition signed by “nearly 1,000 alumni, academics and others, started by two professors from institutions outside of Cornell. Organizations such as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the National Council for Black Studies have written letters strongly criticizing the reorganization and requesting a reversal of the decision
Since its creation the center has operated independently of Cornell’s seven undergraduate colleges. It has successfully done so since 1969, with an international faculty of scholars from the African, African-American, and African-Caribbean diaspora. Great scholars such as John Henrik Clarke and Yosef Ben Jochannan have respectively been visiting and adjunct professors at the center during the 1970ies and 1980ies. James Stewart, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, in his open letter to President David Skorton states, “Cornell has one of the most highly regarded Africana studies/Black studies centers in the country,” and that “Many, if not most, departments would like to have the structural arrangement that has given it strength for the past 41 years.”
The decision to reorganize the structure of the ASRC was supported by a 2005 Report of Visiting Committee to the Africana Studies and Research Center, written by professors outside the University. However, “according to Robert Harris, Provost Biddy Martin had said she would not use the report to pursue an examination of the Africana Center’s structure within the University at the time of its release.”” James Stewart called the members of the 2005 Visiting Committee”…….. “hand-picked consultants” with “limited knowledge of current trends in Africana studies.” Furthermore, it was established that when the center was created, the objective was that it should operate independently of other colleges at Cornell.
In a February 8th article in the Cornell Daily Sun, university President David Skorton responded to the backlash over the school’s decision in an interview. He defended the university’s move giving the same reasons Fuchs asserted as reason for the change. However, one interesting comment he made came when he explained that a student asked him, “What’s my vision for the future of Africana? What is it going to change?” He responded, “ I told him that the details are going to be worked out by the dean of Arts and Sciences, the director of Africana and the provost.” Such a statement is evidence that the university leaders had not fully developed a plan for the ASRC and that no careful thought was put into the decision.
When any institution decides to undergo such organizational changes, advance planning must take place and the people affected must be included in the process. If the director of Africana is supposed to be included in the determining the future of the ASRC, why wasn’t Robert Harris consulted in the decision making process? Is it because the university understood that he would have out rightly objected to the change? Such decisions are dirty politics. Additionally, to use the desire to create a PHD program as motivation for the change is problematic because after a 2006 external review, the center was already developing such a program.
Such a change to the ASRC would ultimately weaken and minimize the efficiency and effectiveness of the institution. Instead of having scholars who are specialist and totally dedicated to Africana studies, you will now have professors and administrators from other disciplines affecting operations and the curriculum of the center. When such things occur, the quality and authenticity of the education provided will diminish in value and purpose, because of the increased potential for mis-education of the students.
One important lesson to be learned from this current battle is the importance for African people to have total control of the education they receive. This requires having jurisdiction over the institutions that provide the education they so earnestly need. No group of people who are being oppressed can realistically expect their oppressors to do what is right and provide them with education that will truly empower them. John Henrik Clarke accurately states, “Powerful people cannot afford to educate the people that they oppress, because once you are truly educated, you will not ask for power. You will take it.” So, until African people in the United States control their education system, or at least unify themselves in a way to exercise the power to influence the education system, situations such as what is occurring at Cornell will continue to repeat themselves. Thank you for reading.
Africana Director Rescinds Resignation: http://cornellsun.com/section/news/content/2010/12/04/africana-director-rescinds-resignation
Day Hall Merges Africana Center Into Arts College; Director Resigns in Protest: http://cornellsun.com/section/news/content/2010/12/02/day-hall-merges-africana-center-arts-college-director-resigns-protes National Organizations Oppose
Africana Studies and Research Center Overhaul: http://cornellsun.com/section/news/content/2011/01/24/national-organizations-oppose-africana-studies-and-research-center-o Skorton
Responds to Africana Backlash: http://cornellsun.com/section/news/content/2011/02/08/skorton-responds-africana-backlash