Director of Africana Research and Studies Center Prof. Robert Harris Jr. rescinded his resignation Friday as he led a group of 80 to 100 students and faculty in a march on Day Hall in protest of Provost Kent Fuchs’s decision, announced Wednesday, to fold the Africana Center into the College of Arts and Sciences.
Harris said that he is still functioning as the Africana Center’s director “as of now,” but that the future of his job is “contingent on what understanding I can develop with the provost.”
“At the unanimous request of the faculty of the Africana Studies and Research Center, [Harris] has agreed to continue serving as director with our full support," Prof. Locksley Edmondson, Africana studies, wrote in an e-mail to Fuchs on Friday afternoon.
Although Harris had announced his resignation Wednesday, he said Friday that continuing to serve as the Africana studies director was consistent with his previous position, since his original resignation had no set date.
Fuchs also said in an interview Friday that he had not accepted Harris's resignation "on principle."
Meanwhile, dozens of students and faculty marched from the Africana Center to Day Hall Friday in protest of the Africana Center changes. The manner of the administrative restructuring — which some protesters called autocratic and symptomatic of institutional racism — drew as much fire as the move itself, which Fuchs defended as a long-term investment in Cornell’s Africana studies program.
On their way to Day Hall the large group of protesters drew the attention of idle passersby, who often stopped to watch and some joined in. Banging drums, the ralliers chanted, “What do we want? Reversal! When do we want it? Now!” along Rawlings Green; “Our voice counts! Save Africana!” as they passed by Goldwin Smith; and” “Hey, hey; ho, ho; unilateral decision making has got to go” upon reaching Day Hall.
Although their criticisms of the administration varied throughout the day, the speakers persisted in their unequivocal demand that Fuchs’ reverse his decision. Still, administrators said again on Friday that Fuch’s decision was final.
Accusations of “Institutional Racism”
“This is about white supremacy,” Kenneth Glover, former resident hall director of Ujamaa, said through a bullhorn to raucous applause. Glover said Fuchs’ actions were part of a “conspiracy” and said, “If reason does not work, you have to go the way Malcolm [X] went: ‘by any means necessary.’”
Like Glover, many of the event’s speakers accused the administration of racist actions.
Outside of Day Hall, Prof. N’Dri T. Assié-Lumumba, Africana studies, said the provost’s decision reflected the administration’s “institutional racism.”
Assié-Lumumba said she was “... outraged by the way we have been treated, from their condescending attitude. It is very arrogant and condescending what they did.”
Prof. Carol Boyce Davies, Africana, compared Fuch’s model of decision-making to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, saying “they claim they want to build Africana but they want to blow it up first.” She called the decision “structural racism.”
“I know they don’t think we read up in Africana,” said Alyssa Clutterbuck grad, before reading a quote from W.E.B. DuBois, “‘How does it feel to be a problem?’”
Clutterbuck said she remains “traumatized by what Mr. Fuchs did.”
“I don’t feel cared about at this school … This is about taking black students off campus and trampling our program,” she said.
“If you’re trying to help me, then leave me the fuck alone,” Glover concluded his speech.
Before the rally, Director of the Africana Center Prof. Robert Harris said he was “very careful” about using the word racism.
“We would have to talk about institutional, systemic, societal racism,” Harris said.
Provost Kent Fuchs, however, said Friday he was personally committed to ensuring the excellence of the Africana Center.
Last year, as part of the Strategic Plan, the University identified several departments on the cusp of a top five worldwide ranking that the University would focus on improving. These departments, including Africana studies, according to Fuchs, were chosen to be “consistently considered as a top five [area of study].”
“The past [of Africana] has been good, but what I want is what's excellent, not just good. I'm here to ensure that it be excellent. I'm personally committed to that,” Fuchs said. “I’m not going to win the most popular provost award, but Cornell will be better.”
Despite Fuchs’ assurances, many students and faculty said they did not trust the administration.
“If you’re not watching, they’ll pull an okey-doke on you,” Glover said at the rally, speculating that the administration may, in the future, alter the Office of Minority Educational Affairs.
Another rallying cry voiced by protesters Friday was that the administration had made its decision without consulting those the decision most affected.
Zach Murray ’11 said, “How can they determine what’s best for people without speaking to them? I thought that was just racist.”
“When you say let’s have a dialogue, let it be a dialogue — a give and take. Not just a take. Not a monologue or an edict. What we got was an edict,” Glover said.
Brittany Thompson ’14 echoed Glover’s sentiments.
“[The decision] was done in the dark — literally, the night of the blackout,” she said. “It was done behind closed doors without giving people the opportunity to challenge it.”
Fuchs said he did not consult with students because they will not be affected by the move. Neither students’ courses nor their degree will be changed, he said.
He added he had spoken with the program’s current and former directors, and that he therefore “knew this would not be popular.”
Still, even though he was told by the directors that “faculty and students would have concerns,” Fuchs conceded that he underestimated protesters perception of the symbolic importance of the ASRC's autonomy.
He added he thought the backlash resulted because “it is difficult for anyone to change.”
“I think we are all comfortable with the present and the past — and the future can be scary,” Fuchs said.
The 2005 Report of Visiting Committee to the Africana Studies and Research Center
Fuchs and Harris also sparred over the correct administrative location of the Africana Center, with Fuchs arguing he was not alone in believing the Africana Center would be better positioned under the College of Arts and Sciences.
Calling it “critical” to his decision, Fuchs cited the Report of Visiting Committee to the Africana Studies and Research Center, written in 2005 by professors outside the University, to support his decision.
The external review calls the Africana Center’s place under the provost a “peculiar arrangement,” according to a small portion of the report Fuchs gave The Sun. In the passage, the committee recommends that the University “revisit this arrangement.”
Fuchs said the full report would not be released to protect the identities of its writers, who he said were experts from Northwestern, Yale and New York University. He said he was unsure of whether the experts were paid for their consultation work because he was not provost at the time.
“One of the consequences of this administrative anomaly and the conditions that prevailed at its inception is that Africana Studies and Research Center has been allowed to exist on its own terms and thus has operated without a full capacity faculty for a number of years,“ a portion of the report says.
Harris assailed Fuchs’ use of the report; since, according to 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.
The Africana Ph.D Program
Fuchs said the shift would also enable the Africana Center to develop a Ph.D program, and that its current administrative structure was what was preventing the Ph.D program’s implementation.
"We, nationally, have a unique reporting arrangement. We are one of the very few places in the whole world where a[n] Africana studies program reports directly to the provost,” Fuchs said. He said this is “not what you need to succeed and, I think, one of the reasons after 41 years we don't yet have a PhD program."
The protesters lambasted Fuchs for this explanation.
Harris explained that the proposed Ph.D program, while admitting there are “some things we need to fix,” is close to completion. With the program close to implementation, “We don’t need the assistance of the College of Arts And Sciences,” Harris said.
Assié-Lumumba said the University had created a “deceptive correlation” between the creation of the Ph.D program and the Africana Center’s transferal to the College of Arts and Sciences.
Timing of the Announcement
Many of the protesters said Fuchs had purposefully made his announcement this week because of its proximity to finals, when many students are busy.
Before the rally, Clutterbuck said the announcement was made this week because everyone is “very stressed out” at this “very busy time of the semester.”
Citing last year’s string of student suicides, Davies also faulted the timing of the announcement.
“People should be studying and doing exams now. If [the administration] cares about students, why would they do this this week?”
Fuchs said he “consulted with Professor Harris … just before Thanksgiving and we agreed that if I was going to announce it — he did not want me to announce it — but if I was going to announce it it had to be before classes actually ended but not before Thanksgiving break."
Fuchs added he "wanted, after I made up my mind and made the decision, to share it as soon as possible."
“This is a very sad day in the history of Cornell University. In my 35 years here, I have seen nothing like this before,” Harris said at the rally. “Look, we’re adults … I’m older than the provost and the president. We have a plan. We don’t need their help.”
Margo Cohen Ristorucci contributed reporting to this story.