April 14, 2010

Africana Controversy Prompts Debate

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During a heated forum at the Africana Center Wednesday night, students, faculty and local residents raised concerns about racism at Cornell and the University’s response to offensive remarks made by Prof. Grant Farred, English and Africana studies.

In February, Farred invited two of his graduate advisees to a conference at the University of Rochester entitled “Theorizing Black Studies: Thinking Black Intellectuals.” After the two students arrived late, Farred approached his advisees and thanked them for coming. According to one of the two students present, he then lowered his voice and said, “When you both walked in, I thought, ‘Who are these black bitches?’”

Farred then changed the subject and walked away, but later apologized when the two students confronted him about the offensive comment. Once word reached Prof. Salah Hassan, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center, a University launched an investigation on the incident.

Many students, faculty and alumni, however, have expressed discontent with several inconsistencies in the story, the speed that the university reacted to the event and whether Cornell fosters a tolerant academic environment.

According to a letter written by Hassan detailing the formal steps the University has taken following the event, a group of faculty members decided to strip Farred of his position as Director of Graduate Studies in the ASRC and replace him with Associate Prof. Judith Byfield, Africana studies. He was also asked not to participate in this weekend’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ASRC. Farred chose not to attend Wednesday’s conference because of a confidentiality agreement, according to his wife.

However, Jane Juffers, his wife and associate professor of English at Cornell, noted during the forum that Farred actually submitted a letter of resignation from his post as Director of Graduate Studies and chose to miss this weekend’s events on his own accord.

“He has a long career of redressing intolerance in his scholarly work and teaching,” she said. “I would simply ask this group to understand that it’s unfair to use this one incident as the lens through which we look at him.”

While some students testified that Farred had consistently treated them respectfully, others said he has a reputation for offending and harassing students.

“He does have a history of belittling Africana students, even if this doesn’t happen in the English department,” one graduate student said.

Several faculty and students also said they worried whether the University was moving swiftly and effectively in addressing the situation. According to Hassan, although “Mr. Farred’s statements were racist, sexist, and utterly disgusting,” formal investigation and discipline for a tenured professor is a rigorous and often slow process that requires various levels of administration and testimony. Many said they felt this procedure has not addressed more immediate issues like Prof. Farred’s current presence on-campus.

“I’m concerned about his responsibility and duties at Cornell at-large, particularly his position as associate chair in the English department,” Cheryl Finley, professor of art history and Africana studies, said. “We know it hits close to home here in Africana, but it hits students and faculty all across the campus as well.”

As associate chair of the English department, Farred is in charge of appointments and promotions, among other duties. One student suggested creating a report card for each faculty member that counts offenses such as Farred’s insulting remarks.

“We don’t want this to happen again, and we don’t want it to be forgotten,” she said.

Another asked whether a committee existed to deal with the anonymous complaints of students and faculty. Hassan responded that anyone is always welcome to write him or any dean anonymously, upon which they will receive advice and appropriate action will be taken.

Several alumni and faculty members nonetheless said that Hassan’s actions had not been swift and attuned enough. In consulting “the Africana faculty” following he incident, Hassan only invited two professors to meet with him and the two female graduate students who had been verbally assaulted, according to N’Dri Assié-Lumumba, professor of Africana studies.

Additionally, faculty and community members criticized the administration for not seeking the advice of the Africana professors, several of whom have dedicated their scholarly work to racism and sexism in society. Others, however, expressed concern that Africana professors may be too close to the incident to provide objective advice.

“That those who understand the history of these incidents have not been brought into the administration questions the efficacy of the investigation and the University’s perspective on Africana,” Eldred Harris, member of the Ithaca City Board of Education, said.

The entire forum was recorded to document the various issues community members raised during the night. Moving forward, Hassan pledged to investigate all possible sanctions including Farred’s removal and pay cuts. Many in the room, however, left unsettled.

“How are students supposed to come up to us and express themselves when we’re excluded from this process?” Prof. Assié-Lumumba asked. “The collective effort was missing from the beginning, and two months later here we are.”

Original Author: Dan Robbins