April 12, 2011

Support for Africana from Across the Hill

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Asma Barlas is the director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity — Ithaca College’s counterpart to Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center — and writes on behalf of the CSCRE as a whole.

There’s an old saying in freedom struggles: “If they take you in the morning, they will come for us that night.” Heeding that important lesson, the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College stands in solidarity with the Africana Studies and Research Center  and its supporters in our struggle to keep Africana’s institutional positioning at Cornell.

We thought we would send a public note to explain why we, along with thousands of prominent scholars, community folks, and students across the nation, stand with Africana.

After making a “top-down” decision to move Africana to the College of Arts & Sciences last December, and without engaging faculty or students, the Cornell administration recently made an official commitment to increase Africana’s base budget and to provide a one-time infusion of $2 million for hiring, research and the development of a Ph.D. program. Since this budget increase comes in a time when other programs are being cut, it has forced Africana into an antagonistic relationship with other departments, inviting animosity and resentment from people who might have otherwise been their allies. Using such divide and conquer strategies, the administration has succeeded in painting Africana as an “ungrateful, spoiled child” in times of scarcity. Accepting the move to Arts and Sciences appears to be a small price to pay for such “generosity.”

So, why does Africana insist on keeping its institutional positioning at Cornell?

First, “traditional” schools and disciplinary silos often have climates that are ambivalent (at best) or hostile (at worst) to the perspectives offered by race and ethnicity programs like Africana’s. When the people and her/histories of the oppressed raise ethical questions to the powerful and advantaged about how they got their economic, political and institutional influence, hostility and ambivalence tend to brew. Because of this, race and ethnicity programs like Africana’s have not fared well in “traditional” institutional silos. In fact, the origins of ethnic programs were created outside of traditional silos because there was “no room” for their inclusion.  Their move into these existing structures often means the depoliticization of these programs and the elimination of courses and faculty that accurately represent historically oppressed peoples and their struggles for equity. For the same reasons, race and ethnicity programs that are subsumed into “traditional” structures often lose their autonomy in hiring, retaining, tenuring and promoting faculty of color and faculty who do critical research in race and ethnicity studies.

Second, such administrative “restructuring” is part of larger trends to run universities like corporations, where top execs make decisions without engaging the people most affected in decision-making processes. The pressure to corporatize higher education has recently been intensified by a massive federal and state disinvestment from public and higher education and by the recession. Corporatist logics and practices not only tend to marginalize working, poor and historically excluded people’s access to education. They also seek to weaken people and programs that challenge corporatist systems of value and production. Any education that doesn’t produce “disciplined workers” is devalued, while the price of “inclusion” into corporatist systems is political silence.

Third, the resurgence of national public sentiments against Black, Latino/a, Arab and Muslim, Asian and Native American peoples and women in the wake of our current recession and state of crisis has amplified climates of fear, intimidation and violence on higher educational campuses. This fear, intimidation and violence is expressed in overt and covert everyday acts; it is felt in racially coded terms, stereotypes and sexually coded language about race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. This climate has challenged all students’ and faculty’s ability to succeed academically and to create supportive social networks. But it has been particularly detrimental to the success and sanity of underrepresented students. In the wake of such fears, higher educational administrations are cutting crucial forms of support in student affairs for retaining and recruiting diverse students. Though Cornell seems to stand against this trend by increasing Africana’s budget, they do so on the condition that Africana sheds some of its institutional autonomy to determine future directions in hiring, promotion and research.

Thus, the CSCRE, whose position at Ithaca College is similar to that of Africana’s at Cornell and who experienced a similar “restructuring” decision when the Division of International and Interdisciplinary Studies was disbanded over the winter holiday, issues this collective statement of solidarity. The CSCRE stands with Africana, the students, faculty, parents and community folks who fought to make room for those marginalized and oppressed by past and present systems of racial, gender, class and other forms of discrimination. We demand the immediate reversal of Cornell’s administrative pronouncement to undermine Africana’s autonomy and self-determination.

Asma Barlas is the director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College. She may be reached at abarlas@ithaca.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Asma Barlas