February 9, 2011

Where Is the Dialogue on the Africana Center?

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In President David Skorton’s interview with The Cornell Daily Sun he states: “I know that there has been discussion about this [putting the Africana Center under the auspices of a dean] the whole time I’ve been president.”  President Skorton became Cornell’s 12th President on July 1, 2006.  He emphatically notes: “the one assertion I reject is that all of a sudden this came from nowhere because I know that this has been talked about for at least five years.”  We as faculty of the Africana Center would like to know with whom it was talked about.  On Nov. 8, 2006, accompanied by Provost Biddy Martin, President Skorton met with the faculty of the Africana Center as previous presidents have done at the beginning of their tenure.  At that meeting, we informed him about the mission and structure of the Africana Center. There was no inkling during that meeting that he was considering an administrative move to place the Africana Center under a dean.  Shortly after that meeting, Provost Martin on Nov. 13, 2006, communicated her summary of the discussion points, none of which concerned reconsideration of the Africana Center’s reporting arrangements.

During the last year of Professor Salah Hassan’s term as Director of the Africana Center, in 2010, we had conversations with then Deputy Provost David Harris about future needs and selection of the next director of the Africana Center.  We adhered to our well-developed procedure that we have used for more than 30 years and recommended Professor Robert L. Harris Jr. to succeed Professor Salah Hassan.  At no time during those discussions was there a hint that the Africana Center would be transferred to the College of Arts and Sciences.  The organization chart for the Provost’s Office indicates that Professor Harris reports directly to the Provost with day to day interactions with the Vice Provost for International Relations.  The Provost did not discuss a transfer to the College of Arts and Sciences with Professor Harris when he appointed him as director less than a year ago.  The Provost has indicated that he discussed a reorganization of the Africana Center with the previous and the current director.  Did he at any point ask them to discuss the matter with us the faculty?  It is our understanding that when he mentioned his decision to the current director, Professor Harris tendered his resignation.

The Provost requested a meeting with the faculty of the Africana Center on Dec. 1, 2010 and asked that Professor Harris not discuss the purpose of the meeting with us.  When the Africana faculty insisted on an agenda for the meeting, the Provost responded the evening before the meeting that “the purpose of the meeting is to discuss my plans for the administrative oversight of Africana.”  We came to the meeting expecting a discussion and not an announcement.  We were completely blindsided by the Provost’s announcement that he was moving the Africana Center into the College of Arts and Sciences with a vague promise of more resources.  Given our surprise at the Provost’s announcement, we asked for two days to digest his decision and to get back to him. He refused that request making it clear that this was a closed matter and made a public announcement within a few hours of the meeting.  Although President Skorton said this matter had been talked about for five years, we would like to know why it was not discussed with the faculty of the Africana Center.  Why was such a momentus change kept secret from us?  If it was being talked about over a period of five years, would not common courtesy and decency dictate that there would be some discussion with the individuals most directly affected by the change?

President Skorton indicates that every top-ranked Africana program is under the auspices of a dean.  President Skorton is probably not familiar with the development of Africana Studies at Cornell and in higher education.  Most programs started as units that offered a minor field of study, evolved over time into departments with a major, and look toward becoming centers like the Africana Studies and Research Center. The Africana Studies and Research Center is unique in combining an academic degree and research component.  At the so-called “top-ranked” institutions, the academic and research components are separate.  Is this what the President and the Provost want for Cornell?  Are they prepared to establish a research component for the Africana Center, similar to the Du Bois Institute at Harvard, the Rites and Reason Theatre project at Brown, or the Africana Media project at U. of Pennsylvania, among others?  The Africana Center at Cornell is not like programs at other schools in that from the outset it combined African, African American, Caribbean and broader Black Diaspora Studies.

The Africana Studies and Research Center was started in 1969 with a director who in effect held the status of a dean.  He attended the Dean’s Council meetings.  In reporting directly to the Provost, he negotiated the development of program and budget similar to a dean.  The purpose of that structural arrangement was to make the Africana Center rank among the pre-eminent programs in the country.  Now the administration wants to diminish that position.  The Provost has explained that he can no longer administer the Africana Center, but that is the reason why the Africana Center was established with a director so that its operation would be similar to that of a college.  The Cornell administration in 1969 agreed that the “advantages of a Center over an academic department are (a) a Center cuts across college lines, (b) the courses offered by the Center will be more accessible to students throughout the University and (c) the director will have direct access to the central administration of the University rather than through the dean of an existing college … the director of the Center will have the authority to recommend professorial and other academic appointments in the Center for Afro-American Studies without the stipulation that they also be appointed as members of an academic department.”  That was the arrangement for the establishment of the Africana Center and for its operation over forty-two years.  Had there been an opportunity for the faculty to discuss this matter with the administration, rather than have a unilateral decision dictated to us, perhaps there would be the measured and less charged dialogue that President Skorton hails as the hallmark of an institution of higher education.


Prof. Robert Harris and the Faculty of the Africana Studies and Research Center

Prof. Robert Harris is the director of the Africana Studies and Research Center and can be reached at [email protected] Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Robert Harris