Prof. Robert L. Harris, Jr. resigned his post as director of the Africana Research and Studies Center in protest of the University’s announcement Wednesday that the Africana Center — currently a unit under the supervision of Provost Kent Fuchs and separate from any of Cornell’s seven undergraduate colleges — will be merged into the College of Arts and Sciences, effective July 1, 2011.
Though Fuchs said the Africana center would enjoy increased efficiency and better support as part of the College of Arts and Sciences, the move was met with immediate backlash from Africana students and faculty alike, who said they were unhappy with the lack of dialogue regarding the administrative change as well as other concerns.
“In 41 years of service to Cornell, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Prof. James Turner, Africana studies and founder of the Africana Research and Studies Center.
“[This decision] represents a simple raw use of power in an autocratic, undemocratic manner that is certainly not transparent,” Turner said. “[Fuchs called] us into a meeting to present this dramatic, substantial shift in institutional arrangement only to tell us that there’s no sense in talking about it. I don’t see how one would expect this to go over well at all.”
Fuchs said the decision was made to provide Africana faculty and students with better support than his own office was able to provide. He said that his office did not have adequate resources to meet his own goals for the center.
“I’m convinced that 20 years from now, Africana faculty, students, alumni and staff will look back and say, ‘This is the best thing that ever happened to us,’” Fuchs said.
Fuchs cited the economic downturn as the ultimate catalyst for the decision. He said that he lost staff from his own office at the same time that his own responsibilities grew to include the need for increased fundraising and oversight of the budget model transition.
“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,” Fuchs said.
“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. A statement from Africana faculty Wednesday stated that the center was already in the process of developing a Ph.D. program after a 2006 external review.
Fuchs characterized the decision in the context of Cornell’s Strategic Plan, saying that the Africana Studies and Research Center was an area identified by the University as deserving of additional resources to bolster its reputation.
In spite of the provost’s assurances about the decision’s benefits, Africana faculty and students expressed unequivocal outrage over the change.
“I don’t feel supported at this university. I don’t think this university respects its students at all,” said Tia Hicks ’11, an Africana studies major.
“And I’m really annoyed that we’re having this meeting now with top administrators about making these institutional changes when last semester [the administration] didn’t speak up at all,” she said, referring to an incident last spring in which Prof. Grant Farred allegedly called two black female students “black bitches.”
Others were upset over the timing of the announcement of the decision and the lack of transparency leading up to it.
“It appears that this move is establishing a long-term plan to dismantle Africana studies and diminish its importance on this campus,” Alyssa Clutterbuck grad added. “It’s the busiest week of school and we have so many exams and final projects. The administration is being disrespectful of our academic progress.”
“You’re telling us. You’re not having a conversation with us,” Donelle Boose grad said. “Don’t treat us like children.”
Alumni have also begun to express their dismay with the manner of the administrative maneuver, which they say has denied any agency on the part of Africana students and faculty.
“[The decision] takes away the self-determination that the larger black community has,” Navid Farnia ’09 said, explaining that the Africana Center was founded primarily to be autonomous and independent.
Fuchs, however, took exception with the characterization of the decision as stripping the center of its autonomy and independence, arguing that it had always been under the oversight of his office.
“There’s been a perception that [the center has been] autonomous or independent, but it hasn’t been. [The Africana Center has always] reported to me and I’ve cut their budget [before], I’ve told them when they can hire faculty,” he said. “So I’ve been there virtual dean … and I can’t be both a provost and a virtual dean.”
Africana students and faculty, however, remained unconvinced.
“It’s one thing for it to happen without the knowledge of the students, and that’s problematic in and of itself,” Farnia said, citing the administration’s unannounced attempt to reassign of former Ujamaa residence hall director Ken Glover last summer. “But for all of this happen without the knowledge of the faculty or the students undermines the principles and history that Africana is rooted in. It’s completely ahistorical.”
Click here to read statements from Provost Kent Fuchs, the faculty of the Africana Studies and Research Center and two Africana studies students.