NEWS’ VIEW: Fix African Studies

For a successful Africa initiative, Salovey must focus on academics.

When President Peter Salovey injected Africa into his inaugural address, he surprised much of the community. It is time, Salovey said, “to bring scholarship and teaching about Africa at Yale into sharper focus.

We applaud this pivot. Africa is the world’s fastest growing continent, and is rising rapidly in political influence. It also possesses some of the world’s most dangerous challenges: genocide, war and extreme poverty. Yale students have much to benefit from centralizing African studies in our curricula, just as research here can promote progress there.

Salovey and other faculty members have emphasized several major features of the initiative: recruitment of African students, partnership with African institutions and the creation of global intellectual networks. These features show the flash of promise, as evidenced by a $1,000,000 donation just hours after Salovey’s speech.

But the first step must be to strengthen Yale’s existing African Studies program.

African Studies has been declining in recent years. Only five undergraduates are in the major; only 15 courses are offered; and only three African languages are taught. In the 2012-’13 academic year, four prominent Africanist professors left. Kamari Clarke, who stepped down as chair of the Council on African Studies in 2012, declared that the University had “neglected” the program.

If the University is to attract students and faculty passionate about engaging with Africa, its core program cannot remain in shambles. Before reaching out to African institutions, Yale must ensure that students have adequate resources to study the continent.

The most significant step is to increase faculty hiring. As a program, African Studies cannot formally hire professors and must lobby departments, such as History, for Africanist scholars. While two Africanist professors will begin at Yale next year, the program will still be reeling from last year’s losses.

Currently, many departments only hire one or two Africanists. Each should have multiple experts on Africa — ensuring that an entire field of scholarship will not be neglected due to the natural ebb and flow of faculty.

To ensure that Africanist faculty will be retained, Salovey should endeavor to find donors for endowed professorships devoted to African scholarship. An endowed chair would allow Yale to transition in new distinguished faculty whenever a position is left vacant.

We acknowledge that the University is limited in its capacity to bring on new faculty, particularly given this year’s high yield rate. But given the new initiative, Salovey must commit the faculty necessary to growing the African Studies program. Former President Richard Levin’s leadership was heavily defined by his emphasis on East Asia. But what made his work possible was the foundation of a strong East Asian Studies program.

Our peer institutions are leaping forward. Harvard recently received $15 million to launch the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies. If Yale is to compete, we must first elevate our own Council of African Studies to having the capabilities of at least its East Asian counterpart.

An initiative in Africa is the type of innovation Yale deserves from a new president. But while broader horizons make for better speeches, we implore Salovey not to overlook the teaching of Africa in New Haven.

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