January 24, 2011

A Pragmatic Move for Africana Center

Print More

After the unexpected announcement that the Africana Center will join the College of Arts and Sciences, the director of the Center, Professor Robert L. Harris, Jr., immediately decided to resign. It was obvious he made this decision with thorough consideration and full confidence that his outburst would reverse the University’s decision. It didn’t.

Fortunately, he quickly realized the futility of his resignation, rescinding this poor career choice. Maybe he realized that his chances of getting another job would be greatly dimmed if, during a future interview, a potential employer were to ask for a reason for his resignation, his only response would be the following: “Because the Cornell administration merged the Africana department with Arts and Sciences, providing it more resources, a PhD program and an increase in faculty.”

And yet his act of defiance was only the beginning of a series of demonstrations. Before long, we began to see University students and professors accuse Day Hall of “institutional racism,” “white supremacy,” “arrogance” and “condescension” for this “unprecedented” decision.

Indeed, this decision was unprecedented. Never before has such a dramatic budget decision been made in the our school’s recent history — aside from the closing of the physical sciences library, the elimination of the education department, the reduction of language programs and the budget cuts to the theater department, the athletic programs, the math department, the Johnson Museum and the Cornell Cinema.

Or maybe these decisions, also made with little consultation, were based on institutional racism as well — or in the case of the physical sciences library, a creationism bias in Day Hall against the sciences.

What is paradoxical is that the demonstrations were against a decision that results in the establishment of a PhD program and the doubling of its faculty.

With this heightened sensitivity, you’d think that the department was a facsimile of France, a country which has resorted to demonstrations in protest against a two year increase in their retirement age to 62 — also a budgetary decision made by the bureaucracy in response to a burgeoning debt-fueled economy. It makes you wonder whether these protests are for the sake of protest.

Normally, efficiency is not Day Hall’s forte — it is beleaguered by its bureaucratic red tape and every decision takes more time than necessary. But in this case, it has made the correct decision through a justified process. The fact of the matter is that the Africana Center decision was not spurred by racial motivations.

No, the decision was motivated by common sense and pragmatism. It reflected a need to shift oversight from an insufficiently staffed Provost office to an environment in the College of Arts and Sciences in which its students could be adequately provided. It was based on budgetary reasons and solely on those reasons — it does not intend to eventually disintegrate the department, as some believe. Rather, it is to improve and maintain the integrity of our University as a whole.

If anything, those who believe themselves to have been maligned by the decision should have been complaining if it were never made. In an age of economic paucity, painful budget cuts are inevitable and are seen everywhere, and consequently, politics will naturally pervade any discussion — as we have seen across the country as it recovers from the recession. Yet it is important to focus on the pertinent issues at hand rather than distractions.

And, unfortunately, these demonstrations have done the opposite. They have shifted an argument contending the lack of transparency to one that accuses the school officials of racism. And this shift has reduced the definition of racism to one that is less meaningful. Like the boy who cried wolf, the demonstrators’ use of racism as a basis for their arguments against Day Hall’s actions has slowly chipped away at its potency.

What these demonstrations have done is confuse the study of Africana, which can be learned and taught by people of all backgrounds, with a single race. To elevate a mere economic decision — and unquestionably, that is what this decision was — to one of racial, philosophical and ethical proportions is to dangerously confuse what is genuine racism with non-racism. And that is doing a great disfavor for those who are actually being mired by racial injustice and an insult to those who have been fighting for racial equalities.

We, students and faculty alike from every department in every college, have been suffering from these budget cuts. From a restricted freedom to hire new professors to larger class sizes, Cornell University as a whole has undergone an austere transformation. Sacrifices are, and will continue, to be asked from all corners of the school and their result will undoubtedly be bitter. For the preservation of our school’s future, we must acquiesce.

Original Author: Steven Zhang