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Moving Ahead on Africana Studies

September 14, 2011

Dear Faculty, Students, and Staff,

It is with great pleasure that I am able to begin this new semester by announcing a series of initiatives. Over the course of the summer, the leadership of the School of Arts and Sciences (A&S), in conjunction with President Monaco and Provost Newell, focused its attention on how to provide a more inclusive environment for our diverse student body. While mindful of the past, our attention has been on moving forward. There were, as there always are, some difficult choices made along the way. But we are confident we have considered the options thoughtfully and our recommendations will best serve all our constituencies for many years to come.

We didn't just start thinking about issues of inclusion and diversity because of one event or the experiences of any one group. Diversity and inclusion are inherent strengths—necessary for excellence, not problems to be resolved. That underlying principle has guided our strategic thinking and planning for most of the past year, both within A&S and within AS&E. We have made progress on a number of fronts.

In our search for a new dean of undergraduate and graduate students, Dean Abriola and I are paying careful attention to the expertise that potential candidates bring to this issue. We created a new Office of Intercultural and Social Identities, whose director will report to the new dean. In addition, Director of Athletics Gehling and I will support a new athletics coaching intern who will focus on issues of diversity for our athletics teams. In conjunction with Dean Pepall, I have established graduate fellowships to support diversity in the humanities. Deans Glaser, McClellan, and I have become more explicit in our conversations with academic chairs regarding faculty hiring, and requests for new faculty positions are now considered, in part, for how they will improve or affect departmental diversity. Conversations are also underway with Provost Newell to develop a university-wide center that will focus its research efforts on race in the United States and around the world. All of these efforts are directly to areas where we sought improvement and continue to move us toward creating the kind of community in which we can all thrive. Much has been accomplished in a relatively short time, so I thank the many faculty, students, and administrators who have brought these ideas to life.

At the heart of the matter was a curricular discussion. So, I am delighted to announce my plans to support the creation of a new academic program in A&S that will focus significantly, but not exclusively, on Africana studies. I am forming a working group to create a new overarching curricular program, which will be draw on the successful race, ethnicity, and identity programs at Stanford, New York University, the University of Southern California, and the University of California, Los Angeles. All of these programs are focused on comparative analysis of identities and culture, particularly those of marginalized groups, and how these entities intersect. These programs serve as the academic home for Africana, American, Latino, and Asian American studies, and some include gender and sexuality and/or urban studies. All of these programs include analyses from the perspectives of the humanities and social sciences, as well as undergraduate majors and minors. Perhaps most exciting, other institutions recognize, Tufts' position as a truly global university will make us uniquely qualified to provide a transnational focus to such an umbrella program— a niche many academics consider cutting-edge in the field.

It is important to recognize any curricular innovation requires faculty as the driving force: faculty members must find their own academic passions located within the curricular change: that is a prerequisite. Arts and Sciences is not an elementary, middle, or high school where a central administrative body tells teachers what to teach. Indeed, the exact opposite is true. What is taught in the classroom at a university, in large measure, is based on the research strengths of individual faculty members, which, in turn, are based on his or her creation of new knowledge in a particular field. Hence, a new curricular effort is something that I, as the dean, cannot mandate or bring to fruition on my own. Creating the details of an academic program is best left to faculty members with the expertise in the area.

With that in mind, I have asked the following faculty members to join me in creating the substance of a new undergraduate program: Frances Chew, Peniel Joseph, Natalie Masuoka, Deborah Pacini-Hernandez, Christina Sharpe, and Sam Sommers. Kris Manjapra and Stephan Pennington will serve as junior faculty consultants. As dean, I agree to support these efforts with the second cohort of A&S cluster hires (a group of faculty members hired into different departments but all of whom focus on common multi-disciplinary themes) and with the possibility of having a director of the program appointed as early as fall 2012/ 2013. It is important to note that any new curricular program requires the endorsement of the A&S faculty, and a working group can only propose such initiatives for consideration by the full faculty. I would anticipate a report on the committee's progress in the spring.

While the details of a new program will now rest, appropriately, in the hands of the faculty working group, I can share some important considerations from my perspective, and address some of the concerns raised last spring. As most of you know, then-Provost Jamshed Bharucha and I formed a multi-constituency task force to look at curricular issues relating to Africana studies. The task force provided a critical analysis of the current Africa in the New World minor, as well as other relevant academic offerings, and concluded, in brief, that the time for action had come. The task force outlined the several structural models for which there is precedent (minors, majors, departments, programs, centers), and recommended that the faculty of Arts and Sciences in conjunction with its leadership assess which would be most appropriate.

There was consensus on the task force that the current minor, Africa in the New World, is not meeting the standards we require and the needs of the students on multiple levels. This is by no means a criticism of any faculty members who participate in this program but rather a reflection of the lack of coordination and support of interdisciplinary efforts on the part of the school. The proposed new program will house a number of majors, including at its core, one focused on Africana studies. And the new program will have stronger administrative support than the previous minor.

But why a program and not a department? I have said before there are a range of structures within universities to meet the curricular and academic needs in a given subject. Within A&S, we have a number of successful programs—think about international relations or community health for a moment—that provide a coherent, comprehensive approach to a given subject area. Students in those programs receive a strong theoretical grounding, with courses at a variety of levels, including capstone experiences, offered with sufficient frequency. Programs often offer more flexibility and allow for faster implementation and a more robust curriculum, university-wide, than a department would. We could have simply upgraded the current minor to a major. But that do not seem a sufficient improvement and, in any case, majors need departments or programs as a disciplinary home. So why not establish a program focused exclusively on Africana studies? I go back to what we learned from the task force. Across academe the definition of Africana studies varies widely; the field's definition breaks into Africa, on the one hand, and U.S. or Caribbean race history on the other. Given this definition, where do the Arts and Sciences faculty members who study the African continent fit? Do they fit in our already strong IR program or Africana? Many academic programs are moving away from regional specializations to consider a more comparative approach. For example, how do the Watts Riots of 1965 help us understand the London Riots of 2011? A regional approach would miss many important similarities that a comparative approach would bring. The U.S. population is becoming more multi-racial and multi-ethnic. How is the academy thinking about multiple social identities, for example, an African-Asian American who is gay? The faculty working group will take different definitions and perspectives in the field into consideration and assess current trends. The group will also assess relevant course offerings within A&S, such as those in American studies, English, political science, history, sociology, anthropology, international relations, and music—to design a program that builds on our current strengths without diluting them.

Now what about institutions that have departments focused exclusively on Africana studies and embrace all the possible definitions. Is Africana studies, in all its complexities, not worthy of its own program? To be clear: of course it is. And so are Latino studies, Asian American studies, Judaic studies, and gender studies: indeed all the arenas that comprise the complex make-up of our social identities. Yet: Are there not commonalities that bind our experiences and identities? Are these commonalities and complex relationships among groups not equally if not more important than the very often painful histories that separate us? Separately, do these entities feel more marginalized or does the coalition of experiences and a comparative lens provide a more powerful centralized place in the academy? Do faculty members who study the Africana experience feel more grounded in their disciplinary homes than in an interdisciplinary department? Leaving aside feasibility for just a moment, is it desirable to have departments for each of the myriad valued groups?

Here is the truth: I don't know. I do know that my goal is to make the study of race and identities at Tufts a curricular and research strength. I care passionately about analyzing the experiences of all our students. But for good or for ill that is not the decision I get to make. Arts and Sciences doesn't have unlimited resources with which to explore all possibilities; we are prudent stewards of the valuable resources that we do control. And one doesn't make such decisions in isolation: A&S departments, programs, and centers are all part of a whole. Shifting enormous resources to one program would be felt keenly across a raft of other—equally important—programs. We didn't get to ask: What would be best in all possible worlds? Our questions were more circumspect. What entity could Arts and Sciences as a school and Tufts, as a whole, best support? Where would a new program sit within current strategic priorities and planning? What is best given the current expertise of Tufts' A&S faculty? What ideas do our current faculty members embrace?

Ultimately, I need to do what I think is right, even if it is unpopular or politically inexpedient; even if it makes some of us unhappy in the short term. My job is to make the best plan for the future of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts.

And the future I seek suggests a comparative model where students and faculty from different groups can think both horizontally and vertically; that is, across the discrete subject areas of race and ethnicity (and possibly gender) and deeply within them. Africana studies will be a critical core because there is significant history that demands the attention; and such placement also demonstrates we have heard our students. But at the same time, by locating Africana studies within the context of race and ethnicity we ensure that the program reflects the world in which we live, fitting into current and forward-thinking academic trends, as well as speaking to the multiple identities and needs of an evolving student body. Equally, if not more important, we create opportunities for students to develop analytical tools to examine themselves and others, which is and has always been the basis of a liberal education.

Our work together continues anew.

My best wishes for a successful semester,

Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Dean
School of Arts and Sciences