Af-Am Studies snags 2 junior professors

While the possible departure of several Harvard Afro-American studies professors for Princeton recently attracted national attention, Yale opted to stay out of the media circus.

Instead, Yale’s African American Studies Department performed a side show in hiring two junior professors — Alondra Nelson of New York University and Naomi Pabst of Harvard. Both scholars will begin teaching at Yale this fall.

African American Studies chairwoman Hazel Carby said the department’s current goal is to attract and develop young junior faculty, not to join the fight over star senior professors from other institutions.

“We really have come to believe that rather than competing in this bizarre market [for senior faculty], we actually like to get the brilliant minds when they’re junior faculty,” Carby said. “We’re nurturing the stars of the future.”

Nelson, who accepted Yale’s offer just last week, said the department and the administration’s commitment to junior faculty was evident. In particular, Nelson cited the department’s strong support for young scholars’ research projects and curriculum development.

“I felt like it was a program that was thinking about the future,” Nelson said. “The department was equally interested in having top-notch senior faculty, which it obviously has, and also having junior faculty.”

With social movements and activism as her primary areas of concentration, Nelson will hold a joint appointment in the African American Studies and Sociology departments. For her first year, she will teach primarily at the undergraduate level.

Pabst, who arrived in New Haven Wednesday night for a visit, could not be reached for comment. Currently a fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, Pabst’s work mainly focuses on race and gender issues.

The African American Studies Department, in conjunction with the Political Science Department, has also made a junior level offer to Mark Sawyer of the University of California at Los Angeles. Sawyer is scheduled to come to Yale for a visit in February.

“We really are very careful to go after the finest in the country,” Carby said. “And we’ve had incredible success in attracting these people to Yale when every school in the country would love to have them. They have brilliant minds.”

But while the department continues to support junior faculty, it remains unclear if the department will be able to retain those young professors for years to come. Traditionally, it has been very difficult for current junior professors to earn tenure at Yale.

While Carby acknowledged the difficulty of the tenure process, she said being promoted to tenure at Yale is by no means an impossibility, citing African American studies and political science professor Cathy Cohen as an example. Cohen arrived at Yale as a junior professor in the mid-1990s and was tenured in 2000.

African American studies and political science professor William Foltz said financial reasons may have kept Yale from bidding against Princeton for Harvard professor Anthony Appiah and other members of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department, including Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West.

A month ago, many of Harvard’s star Afro-American studies professors had threatened to move to Princeton because of disagreements with Harvard President Lawrence Summers.

“I could understand why Yale might find the price of bidding for the West-Gates circus prohibitive,” Foltz said. “These are big bucks. Real big bucks.”

But Foltz added that Princeton has had a much longer history of racial tensions than Yale has. He speculated that Princeton’s department and administration might have been willing to invest a lot of money and energy in order to change that historical position.

“Yale’s department is not as much in need of a star as Princeton is right now,” Foltz said.

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