Recent declarations from two national Africana organizations may bolster the opposition to the proposed transfer of the Africana Studies and Research Center to the College of Arts and Sciences, announced by the administration Dec. 1.
Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 alumni, academics and others have circulated an online petition, begun by two professors at institutions outside Cornell, decrying the administrative move and continuing to oppose the change.
Both national organizations, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the National Council for Black Studies, authored letters strongly criticizing the move and calling for a reversal of Provost Kent Fuchs’ decision, which is scheduled to go into effect at the end of this academic year.
“[Cornell has] one of the most highly regarded Africana studies/Black studies centers in the country,” wrote James Stewart, president of the ASALH, in an open letter to President David Skorton. “Many, if not most, departments would like to have the structural arrangement that has given it strength for the past 41 years.”
Stewart called the members of the 2005 Visiting Committee, whose report Provost Kent Fuchs cited in defense of the administrative restructuring, “hand-picked consultants” with “limited knowledge of current trends in Africana studies.”
President of the National Council for Black Studies Sundiata Keita Chua-Jua asked Skorton to “reverse the descent of your institution.”
In a statement, Chua-Jua said the Africana Center has “largely evaded the debilitating hiring and tenure battles endemic to Africana/Black Studies departments located in liberal arts colleges” because of its unique administrative structure. Yet she said these “tales of bitter hiring and tenure battles,” which have achieved “apocryphal status,” would occur to Cornell if the proposed changes are put into effect.
Among the petition’s signatories are students at Africana and Ph.D. candidates from other Cornell departments. Many are not currently affiliated with Cornell and academics from Africana programs across the nation have signed the online document.
The authors of the petition, Prof. Leslie Alexander, history, Ohio State, Ph.D. ’01 and Prof. Scot Brown, history, UCLA, Ph.D.’99 are alumni of the Africana center.
Most objected to the manner that the administrative decision was made: an online press release a few days before the semester ended.
“This is outrageous behavior,” wrote Alyssa Clutterbuck grad. “Africana Studies will and must remain an inter-college unit and a center governed under the principle of self-determination ... Reverse the decision now!”
A significant number of the petition signers are members academia, many from the greater Ithaca community. They include City Council Member Maria Coles (D-1st Ward), and Tompkins County Legislators Kathy Luz Herrera (D-5th District) and Nathan Shinagawa ‘05 (D-4th District).
The administration has responded to the charges. In a contentious public forum last month, Skorton and Fuchs defended the planned change.
Skorton said the Africana Center can no longer remain under the control of the provost due to budget cuts that resulted in staffing reductions in Fuchs’ office.
“Because the University is going through an unprecedented time of austerity, we’re cutting at the top,” Skorton said. “The provost and I have agreed that it’s in the best interest of the [Africana] office to report to a dean.”
Alumni and professional organizations have contacted the administration expressing outrage at the proposal. The Director of Africana Research and Studies Center Prof. Robert Harris Jr. has been leading the public advocacy against the proposed transfer.
Cornell’s Africana Center was established after the 1969 Willard Straight Hall takeover and its organizational structure was meant to ensure academic independence, according to Harris.
Irene Fuchs ’71, a graduate of the Africana program and a participant in the takeover, said she opposes the administration’s proposal: “As someone who was at Cornell before Africana, during the struggle for Africana and now what could be post-Africana, we as Black Alums need to do due diligence,” she said.
According to Harris, the majority of the 10-member Africana faculty are actively opposed to the proposal because it would undermine Africana’s longstanding tradition of autonomy from administrative interference.
The Africana faculty penned a statement to the Faculty Senate, in which they labeled the proposal as the “Administration’s Unilateral Decision.”
“The lack of prior consultation and transparency inevitably raises suspicions about the real intentions of the administration for the future of Africana studies,” the letter stated.
“We have been the model, and many colleagues in the discipline have told us that they would like to move in the direction of our organizational structure,” Harris said. “A large number of the individuals who signed the petition identified themselves as Cornell alumni and indicated the significance of the Africana Center in their education and career development.”