Tufts University Moving to Expand Black Studies Program - Higher Education
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Tufts University Moving to Expand Black Studies Program

by Kenneth J. Cooper

Since 1980, Tufts has offered a minor called Africa in the New World, but for reasons lost to time, the private university north of Boston did not join other schools in the 1960s and 1970s in creating a major in what was usually called Black studies. A faculty-student committee’s recommendation in 1972 to do so went unimplemented.

African-American students began petitioning the Tufts administration anew in 2009 for an Africana studies major, later holding campus rallies. Momentum toward a resolution to the student protests built with the arrival the next year of a new dean of arts and sciences, Dr. Joanne Berger-Sweeney, an African-American who compiled a strong record on diversity at Wellesley College.

“Student advocacy played a role,” Berger-Sweeney says, “but I would also say that I came to Tufts feeling issues related to diversity and diversification of faculty are just very important to the future and relevancy of the academy.”

The new major is just one of a number of diversity initiatives at Tufts. Africana studies will fall under a new academic program on race and ethnicity. A Center for the Study of Race and Democracy also is being launched this fall.

In the School of Arts and Sciences, the hiring of minority faculty has made a leap, as has the recruitment of underrepresented students at the medical school, which has begun providing grants to minority faculty to seed their research projects.

The administration also has boosted its diversity. In addition to Berger-Sweeney, Dr. John Barker was named dean of students last year, and, in late March, Dr. David R. Harris from Cornell University was tapped as the new provost, beginning July 1. Barker and Harris are African-American.

Several panels have been formed to enhance the campus climate, including a university-wide one led by President Tony Monaco, who arrived last year.

“The level of commitment to diversity here at Tufts really runs deep,” says Dr. Joyce Sackey, dean of multicultural affairs and global health at the medical school. “There are multiple threads of effort that are all working in the same direction.”

A year ago, a faculty task force commissioned by Berger-Sweeney found that Tufts had indeed fallen behind on Africana studies. Eleven private schools regarded as peers have departments, centers or programs in the field. Those schools include Columbia, Duke and Northwestern universities.

The minor that existed at Tufts, the task force concluded, had difficulty “creating a coherent curricular experience” for students. The panel cited a lack of core faculty assigned to the minor, insufficient coursework on the other African diasporas in this hemisphere and minimal resources — an annual budget of $1,000.

Rather than trying to reproduce older academic programs, Berger-Sweeney says Tufts aims to leap forward by creating a broad, innovative program suited to these times and built on the school’s strength in international relations, its most popular major.

“I don’t want to recreate something that’s at some place else,” Berger-Sweeney explains. “I want to take the special, unique characteristics that we have here at Tufts and build something interesting and dynamic and cutting-edge around that.”

The curriculums of the Africana studies major and the broader academic program that will house it are still being designed. Berger-Sweeney suggests the international focus of the overall program is likely to explore diasporas, migrations and disparities.

The dean praises the comparative approach to racial-ethnic studies at Stanford and New York universities that explores “intersections” between Africana and Latino studies, for instance. A comparison of the civil rights movements in the United States and India might be another topic for study, she says. What the new program will not be is an academic department, which Berger-Sweeney sees generically as a rigid structure “based on 19th century practices.” She thinks an interdisciplinary program will be more flexible and reduce the risk of Africana studies becoming marginalized.

The Long March

In 1969, Black students occupied a Tufts dormitory and demanded, among other initiatives, an Afro-American Studies Department. Around the time a later generation renewed that request in 2009,

Berger-Sweeney’s predecessor as dean was preparing to step down after serving a five-year term.

The Africana studies major and an Asian studies minor are due to be presented to the faculty for approval this spring. The broader program will be submitted in the fall.

“We should have had this program 43 years ago,” says Jameelah Morris, a junior who is vice president of the Pan African Alliance. “Part of me is satisfied on the very basic level that we’re moving somewhere. My concern on one level is with it being a program, not a department. Departments have the ability to hire their own faculty.”

Of the 11 schools that Tufts identifies as peers, three have departments, four have centers and four have programs in Africana studies, according to the task force report. Berger-Sweeney has committed to hiring three tenure-track professors to support the new program, starting this fall. Not all of them, she anticipates, will specialize in Africana studies, with some in cross-ethnic studies.

This fall also will see the debut of the Center on Race and Democracy, the brainchild of Dr. Peniel Joseph, a history professor. It will be independent of the academic program but complement its courses with research, conferences and speakers.

“We are a Research I university, so we have to integrate our teaching mission with our research mission. It just seemed the right thing to do to try and launch them as close as we could in time,” Berger-Sweeney says.

Joseph says the center will attempt to elevate the nation’s dialogue on race to the level that existed in the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kerner Commission on race riots were leading participants.

“It’s at the core of American history, race and democracy. Race is an integral part of our democracy,” Joseph says. “We need a dialogue on these issues. When you can dialogue in cool and hot times, it’s better.”

Other private universities long ago created Black-oriented institutes, such as the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at nearby Harvard University. Once again, Tufts is striving to create a new model, with the breadth to explore local, national and global issues, and a focus that extends beyond the African-American experience.

“Why would we want to repeat what either Harvard or Brown has done and be 30 years behind, trying to catch up, rather than creating something new, innovative and interesting?” Berger-Sweeney asks. “That’s what we were trying to do.”

Dr. James Jennings, a Tufts professor of urban and environmental planning, will function as the center’s associate director. Jennings says the center will differ from the humanities-oriented DuBois Institute, for example, by applying research to “very concrete local issues.”

Joseph says the center will focus on “minorities across the board,” particularly disparities in outcomes they experience, “one of the biggest areas of racial inequality in the United States.” He cites disparate outcomes in health care, wealth accumulation, retirement savings and access to higher education.

The center initially will be university-funded but will seek sustaining grants in the future. Its first four research projects, Joseph says, will be President Obama and American Democracy, American race relations in the 21st century, “transnational democracies” and Stokely Carmichael and the 1960s, which is a civil rights project focused on the Black Power leader.

Joseph cites immigration, criminal justice and mass incarceration as ripe topics for

the race relations project. Transnational democracies will explore how the American experience has shaped emerging democracies around the world.

“One of the most interesting aspects of the Arab spring was people in Tahrir Square were talking about not just Barack Obama, but Martin Luther King Jr.,” Joseph says, referring to the center of Egyptian protests in Cairo. “That’s amazing.”

Besides planning the research center, Africana studies major and racial-ethnic studies program, Tufts has been increasing minority representation among medical school students and arts and sciences faculty. Sackey says the enrollment of first-year medical students from underrepresented minorities has gone from 6 percent in 2010 to 11 percent in 2012 — almost doubling in two years.

In the arts and sciences, the minority presence among tenure-track faculty had remained stagnant for about a decade before she came, Berger-Sweeney says. For 2010-2011, 19 professors had already been hired: 15 White, two Asian, two Hispanic and none Black.

The new dean met with department chairs and challenged them to do better, and they did. Of 15 hires this academic year, three are White, nine are Asian, one is Hispanic and two are Black.

Berger-Sweeney notes that two hires arriving this fall will fit well into the program that will house Africana studies. Dr. Lisa Lowe specializes in Asian-American literature and migration; Dr. H. Adlai Murdoch in Francophone literature of the Caribbean.

The creation of the program and the Africana studies major looks like a makeup call for an unexplained lapse that lasted four decades, but Tufts is not looking back. Berger-Sweeney says the university relishes “the opportunity of getting to start now and say what’s most relevant for the future and not, in some ways, be tied to what happened in the past.”

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