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Columbia Professor Latest High-Profile Defection

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by Jamal Eric Watson

NEW YORK

Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, one of the country’s most prominent Black intellectuals, is leaving Columbia University to join the University of Southern California as a joint professor of history and American studies and ethnicity.

In an age when universities are aggressively courting high-profile Black professors, sometimes offering them lucrative salaries and other perks, Kelley’s departure is one of a string of recent high-profile job moves.

Kelley’s departure from Columbia was the result of USC’s Senior Faculty Hiring Initiative, a drive to bring 100 leading senior-level scholars to the university. But he says his treatment at Columbia made the decision easy. Frustrated by not being able to secure a permanent home in the university’s history department, Kelley was more than receptive when USC contacted him.

“The reality is that the history department at Columbia didn’t want me,” he says, despite the national recognition he received for his books Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression and the collection of essays in Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class.

“Here I am at an Ivy League institution and the senior faculty didn’t think my work was sufficiently historical,” says Kelley, who was appointed to Columbia’s anthropology department and the Institute for Research in African American Studies. Kelley came to Columbia in 2003 after Dr. Manning Marable, one of Columbia’s highest profile professors, lured him away from New York University.

In accepting the position at USC, Kelley is giving up his endowed chair at Columbia. “At this point in my life, my own happiness and psychic peace is much more important than an endowed chair,” he says.

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Kelley is the latest big name faculty member to be stolen away from an African-American studies program. Several Black faculty, including Drs. Cornel West, K. Anthony Appiah and Marcyliena Morgan and her husband, sociologist Lawrence Bobo all left Harvard University within the past five years. West and Appiah went to Princeton University, while Morgan and Bobo headed to Stanford University. Dr. Michael C. Dawson, a political scientist who left the University of Chicago for Harvard in 2002, chose to return to Chicago three years later.

At USC, Kelley will teach in both the history and American studies departments, which place a major emphasis on the study of race and ethnicity. He says that, unlike other colleges, USC has made a commitment to ethnic studies and has pumped resources into hiring some of the nation’s most talented faculty. The department has also been politically active in issues ranging from affirmative action to immigration.

“There are so many reasons why USC is attractive to me,” says Kelley, who earned his master’s in African history and his doctorate in U.S. history from the University of California, Los Angeles. “USC is doing a lot more with the Latino and poor Black community. They are reaching out to the community in ways that Columbia is not. Columbia is trying to buy up Harlem.”

The larger problem with Columbia, Kelley says, is that the university’s Institute for Research in African American Studies does not have departmental status and the power to hire its own faculty.

Though the university currently offers a master’s in African-American studies, its faculty all hold joint appointments. For example, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, was forced to leave Columbia after he could not secure a tenured position in another department.

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It will be a while before USC students see Kelley in the classroom. He is taking a one-year leave to complete a biography of seminal jazz musician Thelonious Monk. USC houses the Thelonious Monk Institute, a jazz education program headquartered at the university’s Thornton School of Music.

— The full version of this article will be available in the May 18th edition of Diverse.



© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com

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