Alma Mater Evokes Pride and Pain
After the founding of the Afro-American studies department, why did it take Harvard University 20 years to get serious about building it into a first-rate enterprise? Why did 29 years pass before Harvard’s law school hired its first woman of color in a tenured faculty position after bringing on board the first African American male in 1969? How can Harvard officials trumpet the value of diversity when the university employs the lowest number of Black faculty compared to its peer institutions?These and other questions nagged at my colleagues and me — a graduate of the university — when we began plans to explore diversity at Harvard. Having attended there during the early 1980s, I had some insight into the workings of the institution, and I expected to bring it to bear on my reporting.I remembered the institutional culture of Harvard being a highly competitive one. There was a palpable sense that the administration, faculty members, and students thrived on staying abreast of the latest academic, political, and social developments around the world. As a government major, I benefited from access to major political figures who showed up on campus usually just days or weeks after breaking political developments.I had known Afro-American studies as a department that had an able leader in Dr. Nathan Huggins, a number of good courses, and a few dedicated concentrators. But I also recalled that the tiny department seemed remote from the center of Harvard academic life.I had met Huggins when I was there, but unfortunately, I did not take any of his classes. His death in 1989 saddened me all the more knowing that I had missed the opportunity to study with him. The prospect of writing about Afro-American studies under the charismatic Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. surely proved exciting to me. But I knew from my own experience that illuminating the department’s long struggle would put the Gates saga into a broader and more sobering context. As our examination took note of Lani Guinier’s historic appointment to the Harvard law school faculty, we would be equally compelled to revisit Derrick Bell’s long fight to get a woman of color hired by the law school. I felt particularly motivated to ask hard questions of my alma mater, although I admit that I take a certain pride in seeing Harvard lead the nation — and the world — on many scholarly fronts. Watching the “Dream Team” come together and recognizing that the Afro-American studies department had taken a leading intellectual role in the Harvard community had enlarged my appreciation of the field. But I have felt embarrassment and pain when I read stories in national newspapers about the law school’s failure to hire a minority woman faculty member when rules were seemingly altered to facilitate the mass-hiring of four White males. It doesn’t bring cheer to study the minority faculty numbers throughout Harvard and wonder if they will ever improve. Harvard’s president, Dr. Neil Rudenstine, deserves credit for his public statements defining and defending diversity as a value in higher education. He has written extensively about the virtues of having a diverse student body. Working on the Harvard diversity stories gave me an opportunity to question him on the university’s efforts to hire more Black and Hispanic faculty. Was faculty diversity equally as important in Rudenstine’s view as student diversity?Rudenstine acknowledged that while minority faculty numbers are low, Harvard is working to encourage minority students to pursue graduate degrees. That is because he fixes blame for the minority-faculty dilemma largely on the fact that few minorities are entering the academic pipeline. Whether or not that is the case, Harvard’s Afro-American studies department has had some on Blacks in the academic pipeline. From my conversations with classmates Dr. Farah Griffin and Dr. Jeffrey Ferguson, I learned how their relationships with Dr. Nathan Huggins and Dr. Werner Sollors — another Afro-American studies department faculty member — helped put both of them on the path to becoming scholars.Last year, Griffin became the first Black woman to win tenure in the English department at the University of Pennsylvania. A native of Philadelphia, Griffin also teaches in the Afro-American studies program at Penn.“I would not be a scholar today had it not been for the encouragement of Nathan Huggins and Werner Sollors,” Griffin says.Ferguson, a visiting assistant professor of history and Black studies at Amherst College, finished his dissertation on the Black journalist and intellectual George Schuyler in the fall of 1998, thus completing a Ph.D. in American Civilization studies at Harvard. He expects to join the faculty of a college or university where he can teach and influence young students in the same way he was taught and influenced by the faculty of Harvard when he majored in Afro-American studies.“Individuals like Sollors and Huggins made all the difference in my career,” Ferguson says.
— Ronald RoachB.A.; Harvard ‘85Technology Editor
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