A Sister’s Perspective On Harvard - Higher Education

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A Sister’s Perspective On Harvard

by Black Issues

A Sister’s Perspective On Harvard

Black Issues’ original impetus for going to Cambridge last December, was to talk with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his colleagues in Harvard’s Afro-American studies department. The extent to which Gates has transformed the profile and quality of that program, and the impact this enhanced status has had on the discipline of Black studies within the academy are the focus of this edition.
Yet, what struck me most about our visit to Harvard, and subsequently about our coverage, is the virtual absence of Black women among the university’s influence peddlers. As is explained in the Blacks in Crimson story (see pg. 29), to date there is only one senior-ranking African American woman in the faculty of arts and sciences, Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. She is the only sister in an university where, in 1997 there were 419 senior professors, 52 of whom (12.4 percent) were women. Not surprisingly, she is appointed to the only place at Harvard where Black professors are in the majority: the Afro-American studies department.
Gates, who chairs Afro-American studies, says he hopes to add at least one more woman to his team in the ensuing months. But what about the other departments at Harvard? What about history, English, or philosophy?  These disciplines have been around for centuries. Surely the nation has produced at least a few exceptional Black women with doctoral degrees in these disciplines over the years. I guess none of them has been “Harvard material.”
Black women, like all women, are pursuing higher education at unprecedented rates. They already have surpassed their male peers, in degree acquisition at all levels. African American women also have a long history in higher education leadership. People like Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of what has become Bethune-Cookman College, former Spelman College president Dr. Johnetta Cole, and most recently Dr. Shirley Jackson – the new president of Rensselear Polytechnic Institute who will be featured in an upcoming BI Profile – have demonstrated the ability to not only lead, but to expand postsecondary institutions. Meanwhile, scholars like Dr. Nell Painter, bell hooks, and Dr. Mary Francis Berry continue to make valuable contributions to the canons of their respective disciplines.
Amidst this evidence, the old “we just can’t find any who are qualified” excuse rings hallow. When I was a kid, my grand aunt – who was a seamstress – taught me a valuable lesson about assessing how badly I wanted something. As long as you know how to sew, she’d say, you can always get the dress that you want because if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for in the store, you can make it yourself. The only things stopping you, she’d add peering over her bifocals, are a lack of planning and a lack of will.
Perhaps Harvard, and other like institutions that are steeped in patriarchical traditions, should consider Nana Rose’s words.

 Cheryl D. Fields
 Executive Editor

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