Af-Am Dept. cultivates new talent

In the four years since a watershed Yale Corporation vote elevated Yale’s decades-old African American Studies Program to departmental status following a maelstrom of controversy, the department has pursued a unique yet effective growth plan.

With national attention in recent years focused on the contentious bidding war between Harvard and Princeton for star professors, Yale remained outside of the fray and quietly steamed forward by recruiting junior faculty as part of its plan to slowly cultivate one of the nation’s premier African American studies departments.

Yale’s recipe for success involves tapping promising junior professors and attempting to groom them into world-renowned scholars rather than competing in auctions for bigwigs, University professors said.

“We’ve been building a different way,” Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead told the News in 2002 of the department’s plan. “We’ve been building not so much by trying to hire superstars as by trying to hire new talent in the field. The superstars of today were the young talent of yesterday, and the young talent of today will be the superstars of tomorrow.”

Yale President Richard Levin said the department’s junior faculty is considered the best in the country. He said this bodes well for the University’s future.

“By focusing on the most promising younger professors, we are building something that will endure hopefully for a long time,” Levin said.

Since 2000, current and former African American studies chairmen Paul Gilroy and Hazel Carby have been building a forward-looking department that varies greatly from similar programs and departments at Harvard and Princeton, Yale and Princeton professors said.

“We’ll probably never have the personal pizazz and egotism that Skip Gates brings to his operation [at Harvard],” Yale political science professor William Foltz said Monday. “I’d give [Yale’s] department about another six or seven years — I think there’s a fair chance it’ll be a really hot-shot department.”

Skip Gates, who is more formally known as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. ’73, serves as the chairman of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies program. Gates began his teaching career at Yale in 1976 but left in 1985 when he was denied tenure at the University. After stints at Cornell and Duke Universities, Gates ended up at Harvard in 1991.

Gates’ highly-regarded program at Harvard nearly lost its lifeline when celebrity professors Cornel West and Anthony Appiah left Harvard for Princeton amid controversy in 2002 after Harvard President Lawrence Summers publicly questioned West’s scholarly contributions to the university.

After Princeton recruited West and Appiah from Harvard — a publicity coup that breathed new life into Princeton’s African American Studies program — Princeton professors said the school now aims to build the best program in the nation.

Foltz said Yale did not make West an offer because it wanted to stay out of “the superstar sweepstakes,” which Foltz said was not the best way to build intellectual companionship in a department.

“If you’ve got one [professor] who is really a great man and a superb scholar who is willing to share that scholarship with others, that’s one thing,” Foltz said. “But if you’ve got a guy whose just building himself a public reputation without scholarly backing [and] when [he is] making the kind of money these guys are making around universities, those are tough decisions.”

Yale African American studies major Lily Kolman ’04 said there is a sense of “colleagiality” among the department’s faculty because they are all “serious academics.”

“Overall I have not felt the lack of the presence of someone like Cornel West,” Kolman said. “I’m sure it would have been different in some ways, but — if someone’s well-known, it doesn’t necessarily transcend into a connection with students.”

West, who rallied Yale’s unions during last September’s three-week strike, is perhaps best known for stumping on behalf of political candidates Bill Bradley and the Rev. Al Sharpton and creating rap and hip hop compilations.

A student strolls by a painting of Yale's first black graduate, Edward Alexander Bouchet, in Sterling. Yale is strengthening its African American Studies Department.
Alexander White
A student strolls by a painting of Yale's first black graduate, Edward Alexander Bouchet, in Sterling. Yale is strengthening its African American Studies Department.

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