May 9, 2012

Shortly After Joining Africana, Romance Studies Prof Named Its Director

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After being led for a year by two administrators who were not professors in the department, the Africana Studies and Research Center will be headed by Prof. Gerard Aching Ph.D. ’91, Romance studies — a professor who was appointed to join Africana’s faculty just over a month ago, according to an email sent Tuesday obtained by The Sun.

In December 2010, the University announced that Africana, a formerly independent entity, would be folded into the College of Arts and Sciences. The decision set off protests in which students blasted the University for dismantling Africana behind closed doors; the resignation of former Africana director Robert Harris Jr.; and later, claims that the move would compromise Africana’s autonomy.

As the two current administrators’ term approaches its end, it is uncertain if Aching –– despite reportedly receiving the most support of any candidate –– will quell the concerns of Africana faculty and students.

“The results of the canvass were that the person with the strongest support among the faculty was Gerard Aching,” said the email, which was sent Tuesday by current Africana co-director Prof. Davis Harris, sociology, to Africana faculty.

Aching accepted the offer of Peter Lepage, dean of the arts college, to be the director of Africana. He will serve a three-year term beginning July 1, according to the email.

“Your input was valuable in arriving at this very positive outcome, one that will have the [Africana Studies and Research Center] under the leadership of one of its own faculty members effective July 1,” Harris said in the email.

In an interview Thursday, Aching said his goals for Africana, moving forward, are to “build on the foundations that are already eminent of Africana and to create opportunities for talented faculty, as well as for students.” Additionally, he said he hopes to increase the number of undergraduates taking courses in Africana studies and help build its new Ph.D. program.

Coming to the leadership of Africana after the department’s turbulent transition into the arts college, Aching said he is “fully aware of Africana’s eminent history” and “attuned to the issues that affect Africana’s programs.”

Africana’s rich history at Cornell, Aching said, has to be valued. “Part of the discussion will entail that — how we will preserve what we are doing now within arts and sciences,” Aching said.

Lepage said that, for several reasons, he is excited that Aching will be the next Africana director.

“He is an exemplary scholar and a proven administrator. Moreover, Africana faculty have voiced their support of him as director and, in turn, he supports the faculty playing a central role in shaping Africana’s future,” Lepage said.

Aching, however, was only appointed to join Africana as a faculty member on March 29, according to an additional email sent from Harris to Africana faculty.

After Aching met with Africana faculty on March 27, professors were instructed to cast their vote on whether Aching — who is currently a professor in the Romance studies department — should receive joint appointment with Africana, which would affiliate him as a faculty member of both departments.

Two days later, Harris wrote to Afriana faculty, saying, “I am pleased to report that all Africana faculty voted in favor of appointing Gerard Aching to the Africana faculty.”

Despite his status as one of the newest faculty members in Africana, Aching said that his relatively short time both in the department and at Cornell — where he first joined the faculty in 2009 — will not put him at a disadvantage in leading Africana.

He has experience teaching Africana studies both within Cornell’s graduate field and at New York University, where he taught for 12 years.

“I don’t think it’s a disadvantage coming in; I think it’ll be an advantage coming in to facilitate the kinds of discussion about the teaching and scholarship that we need to do,” Aching said.

Several Africana faculty contacted on Wednesday and Thursday were either unavailable or declined to comment on the new leadership.

Starting July 1, Aching will inherit a department that has been not only rife with turmoil but also striving to expand.

Last April, Provost Kent Fuchs promised to increase Africana’s budget by more than 50 percent and help the center recruit new faculty with a $2 million gift. Still, Africana — which has fewer than nine tenured faculty, according to its website — has yet to substantially grow in size.

In the fall, Africana launched its search for new faculty, tapping Prof. Grant Farred, Africana studies and English, as the head of its faculty search committee. Farred, who allegedly called two black graduate students “black bitches” in 2010, stepped down as the committee’s chair in November after students and faculty, outraged by the appointment, raised concerns about the message it would send.

“The arts and sciences deans made an unwise decision by appointing someone whose comments are so controversial, so backward and so disrespectful toward black women in particular and all women in general,” said Prof. Margaret Washington, history and American studies, at the time.

Harris defended Farred and expressed his intent to “normalize this [faculty] search so that Africana can maximize its opportunity to hire a cluster of new faculty.”

As of May, however, just one new faculty member has accepted an offer to come to Cornell, according to Susan Robertson, director of communications for the arts college.

Original Author: Akane Otani