Durham, NC — Under the glare of bright television lights, while in the company of gushing administrators and her support staff, family and scholarly contemporaries, Dr. Karla F.C. Holloway decided it was time to “exhale.”
“We are finally at a place at Duke where we can stop holding our breath about what’s going to happen with African and African-American studies,” declared Holloway, who was named the person to revive and expand the 20-year-old program at Duke University.
Holloway’s appointment April 14 and the program she is building here have emerged as the most visible signs that African and African-American studies has been reborn as an academic discipline at Duke after a long period of uneven history that included revolving-door leadership.
To her admirers, Holloway’s ability to leverage an unprecedented level of administrative commitment for the interdisciplinary program is also one of the most promising signs that the university is beginning to move beyond lip service and unrealistic plans to recruit Black faculty and administrators.
Although Duke’s two highest-ranking Black administrators are female, the presence of women, and in particular African-American women in the faculty and administrative ranks, has been small, says Dr. Janet Smith Dickerson, vice president for student affairs.
Both Dickerson and Dr. Myrna C. Adams, vice president for institutional equity, called Holloway’s appointment a reaffirmation of the university’s commitment to stabilizing the African and African-American studies program and to enhancing the climate for recruiting and retaining Black faculty. “It’s like struggling to get the stars lined up in the right constellation. Getting them aligned is the problem, but Holloway’s appointment is a step in the right direction,” says Adams.
The burden “is on Duke to back up its aspirations and commitment to the [African and African-American studies program],” says Dr. John Bracey Jr., a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “The burden will not be on Holloway to prove herself.”
Holloway and university officials are counting on the new John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African-American Documentation to lend credibility and name recognition to the program. The center is named for the eminent Duke historian whose personal and professional writings will form the cornerstone of the collection.
In the days before deciding to accept the post, Holloway said, Franklin’s was one of the “important” voices she heeded. “I ran into him in the airport and he cornered me and said, `Karla, you better do this, it would good for all of us.'”
Says Franklin: “The hiring of people like Karla Holloway and Paula Giddings and the new people in engineering and Psychology — these are indications that we are on our way.”
Holloway has already begun assembling her community of scholars. The first to call Duke her new “intellectual and spiritual home,” is Dr. Paula Giddings, one of the nation’s leading experts in Black women’s studies and one of the main reasons Holloway decided to accept the appointment. Giddings, a 1995-96 Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar at Duke, will become a research professor in women’s studies with a joint appointment in the African and African-American studies program in the fall.
Joint appointments, such as the one Giddings will hold, are fast becoming the norm and will account for most of the appointments to the African and African-American studies department, said Dr. William Chafe, dean of the school of arts and sciences.
“The norm has always been joint appointments. The interdisciplinary studies approach is common,” says Bracey. The appointment practice was spawned in the early days of Black Studies and grew out of a fear that the discipline would crumble or wouldn’t be accepted as legitimate, adds Bracey who boast of spending more than two decades in African-American studies without having a joint appointment.
“At places like Harvard, joint appointments don’t matter, or if you come to a university with tenure, it doesn’t matter,” Bracey adds. It does matter, he says, when Black studies programs are first being established. joint appointments, says Bracey, can wreak havoc with faculty members when it comes time for evaluation, setting teaching loads, and conducting research. “I don’t like the schizophrenia of it all [joint appointments]. If an institution is committed to African-America n studies, it should have its people all in one department.”
For now, the names of those being considered for spots on Holloway’s team remain under wraps. Two names have been mentioned: Dr. Wahneema Lubiano, a professor of English at Princeton University and Dr. Katie Canon, a professor of religion at Temple University.
But when names of other scholars surface, Holloway says, they will not resemble the celebrated collection of Black studies scholars being assembled at Harvard University by Afro-American studies chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The Harvard brain trust is filled with personalities — many of them looming and most of them male. Among them are philosopher Cornel West and historian William Julius Wilson. Dr. Evelyn Higginbotham is the lone female appointment on Gate’s self-described “dream team.” The program that Holloway is building will be mostly female. In fact, “the next three appointments will be women scholars,” Chafe said.
Media attention surrounding the Harvard coup has been pervasive, and at times served as fodder for critics who question what such an impressive assembly of scholars means. “The public proclamation came for African-American studies because of Harvard and because of the good scholars on board,” said Houston Baker, past president of the Modern Language Association and director of the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania.
The timing and spin of such a move at Harvard couldn’t be better, Holloway said. What Gates has been able to do at Harvard, says Holloway, “serves as a catalyst for a change in progress” within the discipline. As Black studies program s of the 19.(4). enjoy a revival at Duke and on campuses across the nation, the Harvard appointments are “critical to directing the kind of attention and energy” to African-American studies that it sorely needs, says Holloway.
But Howard University’s Dr. Robert Cummings, chairman of the African Studies department, isn’t encouraged by the numbers alone. “Unfortunately, the numbers of Black faculty at traditionally white institutions like Duke will remain the same as they always have. Black faculty will still be on the periphery.”
There are now an estimated 215 Black studies programs of varying kinds and qualities at colleges and universities across the nation.
During Holloway’s interim directorship, the number of courses offered by the African and African-American studies program increased from 21 to 40, and a certificate in graduate studies in the field was approved in March. Ten students have enrolled in the certificate program.
Duke’s African and African-American studies program is being revived, but it won’t be so easy to categorize, warns Holloway. “I think that you will be looking to see different and startling new kinds of work by the folks who will be involved.”
Holloway is thoughtful and exuberant when she discusses positioning Duke to become part of that renaissance of Black studies in the 1990s, but she bristles at the thought of “personalities” overshadowing her curriculum, students and scholars or media hype replacing substance.
“I want people to recognize not only the scholars who are here at Duke, but the programmatic strengths that are here,” says Holloway. “When the program is discussed, I want there to be a coming together of foci on the wonderful group of students … I want them to focus on the breadth and reach of our curriculum which has grown a hundred percent in a year and I want them to focus on the scholars.
“When the program is discussed it will be discussed very broadly, not only in terms of our personalities, but our work,” adds Holloway.” Critics eager to see the program stabilized and its cause advanced, have questioned Chafe’s decision to appoint Holloway instead of someone more well-known.
To detractors, Chafe says Holloway was already on the faculty and had “the winning combination” the university was looking for — “stability, creativity, imagination and proven leadership.”
Holloway delights in letting her “work” and not her quiet personality precede her. “I have been a very private scholar,” said an unapologetic Holloway. It is in her book, “Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character,” that Holloway discusses the schisms between the personal and public domain of her life as a Black professor.
The struggles, writes Holloway in “Codes of Conduct,” “sift me within, without, and between their various territories.” “I feel very good about the fact that my work is known and I have not come along with it,”. said Holloway, who has also written “Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women’s Literature.” She is currently working on “Passed On: African American Mourning Stories,” a book about death and dying.
In the coming months, as her new post forces her out front and center of a discipline on the rise, Holloway has already resigned herself to keeping a foot in both a private and public world. “Whatever the program’s leadership needs or if it calls on me to change that profile, I am willing to do it to strengthen and develop the program. “After that I am going to be very happy to go back into my very quiet and secure realm. “
Before joining Duke’s faculty in 1993, Holloway, 46, was a visiting professor in the English department for a year. She previously taught at North Carolina State University, Western Michigan University and Old Dominion University. She is a graduate of Talladega College with M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in English and English Linguistics from Michigan State University.
In recent years, Duke has launched several ambitious drives to bring more Black faculty to campus. The most recent campaign can be traced to 1985, when the faculty council adopted a policy calling for the university to double the number of Black professors in five years certain departments.
Looking back, Chafe called, the earliest effort “an idealistic notion. It would have been a very positive goal if we were able to achieve it. But in my judgement it wasn’t the way to go.”
Today a more achievable goal is in place and is “going well,” announced Duke Provost John Strohbene during Holloway’s news conference. The university hopes to double the number of African-American professors across disciplines over the next five to 10 years.
Some administrators and students here say the university is making strides–new appointments have been made or are being negotiated in psychology, literature and women’s studies. Duke has made small gains in filling Black faculty appointments in history, English, and religion, Chafe said.
With the appointment of Holloway and Giddings, said the University of Pennsylvania’s Baker, Duke University joins the first rank of American academic institutions that have put stated commitments into action. “Many institutions have said we are committed to diversity and multiculturalism, but few have transferred those statements.”
In time — “the next three to four years” — Duke’s African and African-American studies program will emerge as a success story, Chafe said, but for now “the ups and downs” of the universities still evolving plan for stepping up Black faculty recruitment, will remain a thorny issue.
After serving as interim program director for a year, Holloway didn’t agree to assume her new post until she had “a commitment from the university that it would build on the program’s strength. “That was absolutely essential to my deciding to take on this responsibility. I wanted to be absolutely clear that this is what Duke was going to support. [African and African-American Studies] is not a program that is finished with itself.”
When the program lost two directors in four years, many here questioned whether it would ever achieve the stability and respect it sorely needed.
Duke lured cultural critic and Afro-American studies professor Gates from Cornell in 1989, it thought it had latched on to a Black studies superstar known for attracting Black faculty. But less than a year after his celebrated and controversial arrival at Duke, Gates left the university under a cloud of contention. He left after being recruited by Harvard in 1991.
While at Duke controversy had flared over a multicultural, non-Western approach to university studies, his criticism of conservative academics and what some have called a “superstar” approach to faculty hiring. The combination put him on a swift collision course with many of his colleagues and some have described the atmosphere as hostile and increasingly divisive.
“The bottom line for me is that Skip Gates is a great man. It’s just unfortunate that his accomplishments were not realized when he was here,” declared Dr. Stanley Fish, former chairman of Duke’s English department, who recruited Gates and is now director of the Duke University Press.
“I always felt that there should have been more institutional and verbal support for him,” says Fish. “He felt that the English department was a very hospitable place for working and teaching. The university, while supporting him materially, did not support him at crucial moments or support him when he was the object of criticism from some conservative and hostile sectors of the university community,” Fish says. “Those critics were totally without ground.”
Gates congratulated Duke President Nannerl Keohane on Holloway’s appointment. “Professor Holloway is a brilliant scholar and an imaginative administrator. I can think of no one more ideally suited to realize the enormous potential that the program at Duke has always possessed,” wrote Gates in a letter to Keohane. “A strong and vital program at Duke can only serve to strengthen our field, still emerging and attempting to define itself as an academic discipline,” adds Gates.
Gates’ successor, Dr. George Wright, left the program after a two-year stint in February to become provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. Before stepping down, Wright had been on leave from Duke since August 1995, serving as interim provost at UT-Arlington.
“I’m very pleased to hear about Karla’s appointment,” said Wright. “From day one at Duke, three years ago, Karla was a person I looked to — she’s bright and full of great ideas.”
“I said to everyone that, when I stepped down, if Karla should become director, people would forget I’d ever been there. She’ll do a wonderful job.”
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