Looking for Africa

An African Studies graduate student investigates the program's decline and Yale's new focus on Africa
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My welcome to Yale was quieter than I expected. On orientation day in August 2012, I took my seat among the seven other first-year African Studies Master’s students in a small classroom on the first floor of Luce Hall. We could hear chatter and laughter coming from other department meetings upstairs, but the atmosphere in our room was subdued. We introduced ourselves and waited for the meeting to begin. The eight of us came from all over — the West Coast, the East Coast, China, Ethiopia — but we had all come to Yale for the same reason: to learn about Africa.

I had just graduated from Arizona State University, where I’d fallen in love with Africa after getting involved with campus advocacy efforts to raise awareness about the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group in Uganda and Congo. I’d fundraised to rebuild schools in the region, met with elected officials to discuss U.S. involvement, and devoted hours and hours to learning about the conflict.

After graduating, I was ready to deepen my understanding of the region. I couldn’t wait to study under Yale’s Africanist scholars, whose names had grown familiar to me after four years of work on Africa: people like political scientist Christopher Blattman, who studied war-affected youth in Uganda and whose blog I kept bookmarked, and anthropologist Mike McGovern, the director of the African Studies Master’s of Arts (M.A.) program, who specialized in some of my own interests — insurgency, violence, and the state.

But on orientation day, my fellow students and I — the biggest cohort of African Studies graduate students since 2004 — learned that over the summer, McGovern had left for a job at the University of Michigan. Blattman and another political scientist who worked on Africa, Ato Onoma, had also left Yale.

At the end of the day the eight of us trickled out the glass doors, murmuring about the changes in the department and our excitement about the journey we were embarking on. There was so much to plan  — what courses to take, how to begin my research  — that I wasn’t too worried about a few faculty members leaving. At the time, I didn’t know I should be.

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Photo by Kathryn Crandall

Ann Biersteker was the next to go. Biersteker, a linguistics professor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the African Studies major, left last spring after over 25 years at Yale. (I would later learn that her contract had not been renewed.) Rumors of other imminent departures flew. Kamari Clarke, a tenured anthropologist I’d spoken to before coming to Yale, had already stepped down as Chair of the Council on African Studies by the time I arrived, citing the University’s neglect of the program. This fall, Clarke moved to the University of Pennsylvania.

The Council on African Studies is part of the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. It houses the undergraduate major and the M.A. program, as well as the Program on African Languages. Since it is a council and not a full department, it does not hire its own faculty. Professors from other departments who study Africa choose to affiliate themselves with the Council. The hiring of Africanists is determined entirely by other departments, based on need and interest in the field.

The Council’s lack of influence in hiring decisions is part of the reason why, when the two Africanist political scientists and the two anthropologists left Yale, they were replaced by only one junior faculty member in each department. But while the Political Science and Anthropology departments were responsible for the decisions not to fill the two other positions, the losses were a hard hit for the Council on African Studies. “There is a net loss of two people,” said McGovern in a recent conversation about changes to the Council. “And the level of staffing for courses and intellectual community around African subjects at Yale was already far too low.”

It became a lunchtime routine for African Studies majors and M.A. students to commiserate about sparse course selections and the lack of potential thesis advisors. We wondered what was making so many Africanists leave Yale. While every university experiences a natural ebb and flow of faculty, it seemed like more than pure coincidence that all of the professors involved in administering the Council  —  the heart of African Studies at Yale —  were among the five who had left.

McGovern declined to comment on his personal reasons for leaving Yale, as did the other professors I contacted in my search for answers about African Studies. But all of them were eager to talk about Yale’s relationship with Africa. From their comments, a trend began to emerge.

“I think the University treated African Studies and Africanist scholarship abysmally,” Biersteker told me. She pointed to recent firings and downsizing in the Council, like the elimination of an associate director position and the termination of two African languages. Much of the downsizing was triggered by drastic cuts in federal funding during the recession, but Biersteker thought the University could have done more to make up for the loss in federal funds.

Clarke, the anthropologist who left this fall, told me that during her four years as Chair of the Council, she had tried to direct resources towards Africanist scholarship, but found that financial support was hard to come by. She said that the Yale administration was supportive of her ideas but was ultimately unwilling to commit to hiring more faculty or creating a larger role for African Studies at Yale. “The economic recession contributed to the dismally low administrative support for rebuilding African Studies,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, the continent of Africa was becoming a site of growing industry, innovative technology, diverse and vibrant arts, and increasing importance on the global stage — all of which demanded the attention of the University. It worried me to see the most active members of Yale’s Africanist community leaving for greener pastures. African Studies was declining — and rapidly.

 ***

On September 24, 2013, I got an email from Helinna Ayalew GRD ’14, a fellow African Studies M.A. student. “Did anyone go to this?” the subject line read. The email, which Ayalew sent to me and other students in our program, contained a link to an event she had just seen on Facebook: “Appealing to Africa: Revealing Yale’s New Africa Initiative.” It had ended two hours earlier.

We later found out that the event was a lunch conversation between Ian Shapiro, director of the MacMillan Center, and students from a new South Africa-focused undergraduate organization called With Love from the World. Shapiro had contacted the students for feedback on a new Yale campaign focusing on Africa. He wanted their help in identifying ways to recruit more African students to Yale.

But none of the students in the African Studies program had been notified about the lunch. “I remember reading it and being very confused,” Ayalew recalls. “I didn’t understand why no one had told us, and why it was the first time I had heard about the Africa Initiative.” When I asked Shapiro about the event later, hoping for more information about Yale’s new focus on Africa, he seemed surprised that I’d even heard about it.

At this point, I had been speaking with professors and fellow students for a year about Yale’s declining African Studies program. But for some reason, I found myself totally in the dark about this so-called “Africa Initiative.”

Two weeks later, on Oct. 8, Linda Lorimer LA, Vice President of Global and Strategic Initiatives, held a town hall meeting with African students to talk about the University’s new focus on Africa. About 30 undergraduate and graduate students from 13 different countries filled the room, in the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS). African Studies major Akinyi Ochieng ’15 and I sat in the front — determined not to miss another meeting about Africa. We were the only two in attendance who hadn’t been invited. This meeting had not been advertised to African Studies students, either.

Lorimer explained the goals for the Africa Initiative: more courses, more visitors to speak and teach, more conferences, more alumni networks, and, most importantly, more students from Africa. She spent most of the time talking about this last topic. But afterwards, as Lorimer fielded questions, students in the audience voiced other concerns: there aren’t enough professors; there aren’t enough classes; there aren’t enough languages. What would the Africa Initiative do to address these issues?

I shared these concerns. But after a year of frustrating conversations about African Studies at Yale, my classmates and I were hopeful about the new initiative. The University finally seemed to be taking action on Africa.

Still, something bugged me about these early meetings. Noticeably missing from the conversation were students who study Africa — students in the Council on African Studies have yet to be approached by those planning the Africa Initiative. I wanted to find out why. I wanted a full picture of what the “Africa Initiative” was, and how it would affect African Studies at Yale. So, with one year left in a program that had lost five valuable professors in less than two years, I set out to learn about what, exactly, Yale was doing to focus on Africa.

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Photo by Kathryn Crandall

Early responses to the Africa Initiative were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Just four days after Lorimer’s town hall meeting, Liberian alumnus Ethelbert Cooper ’74 donated $1 million to Yale to provide scholarships for African students. In the weeks that followed the conversations with Shapiro and Lorimer, several students started to plan a program to help African students prepare for higher education in the U.S.

“The primary goal of the program will be to encourage driven African high school students … to consider applying to U.S. colleges,” said Nicola Soekoe ’16 in an email. Soekoe, who is from South Africa, is a founder of the new program and a member of With Love from the World.

Yale could certainly benefit from a recruitment drive in Africa. According to OISS, in 2012 there were 97 enrolled undergraduate and graduate students from Africa, while 1154 came from Asia, 515 from Europe, and 130 from Latin America. African students make up just 4 percent of international students, while East Asia alone comprises 32 percent.

But recruiting more students from Africa does little to address concerns about the future of Yale’s African Studies program. What about class offerings, faculty positions, and the availability of African languages?

With these issues in mind, I was intrigued to hear about a series of meetings that had taken place last spring between President Peter Salovey, Provost Ben Polak, Shapiro, and Chris Udry, the current Chair of the Council on African Studies. The result of these meetings became widely known in Salovey’s Oct. 13 inaugural address: “This is the moment to bring scholarship and teaching about Africa at Yale into sharper focus,” Salovey said to the crowd gathered in Woolsey Hall. “We can foster new directions in research on Africa, identify new partnerships with those on the continent, and strengthen our recruitment efforts, all while emphasizing teaching and learning,” Salovey said.

It appeared that change was quietly taking place in Yale’s ties to Africa. The next time I met with Shapiro, on Nov. 12, I learned that he had just returned from a trip to Ethiopia with a group of Yale professors. They had been promoting the beginnings of what he said was officially called the “Yale Africa Project.”

***

The Yale Africa Project, Shapiro explained, was the term Yale was now using to refer to what had previously called the “Africa Initiative.” From what I had learned thus far, recruiting seemed to be the most visible part of Yale’s new focus on Africa. I was assured by several administrators that the initiative included other aspects, too, but the details about these components were vague. I wasn’t satisfied, so I decided to continue my search to understand Yale’s plans for Africa by returning to the relationship’s beginnings.

Yale’s link to Africa is nearly as old as the University itself. In the 18th century, African language classes were offered to Divinity School students to prepare them for work as missionaries. More recently, during the Cold War, the government funded language and area studies to help inform U.S. foreign policy.

African Studies students say that knowing the local language leads to better research. Kevin Winn GRD ’14 found that speaking Swahili when he was in Tanzania helped him gain the trust of the people in his village. During my own research in the Congo this summer, while halfway through a two-day bus ride on a muddy jungle road, I found that Swahili was the only way to make sense of where I was and figure out how to make a phone call.

Africa has more than 2000 languages; there are hundreds spoken in Nigeria alone. The University of Florida offers seven African languages, and the University of Pennsylvania offers 12. At Yale, students can choose from four African languages for credit: Swahili, Yoruba, Zulu, and Arabic. Igbo, a language spoken in Nigeria, used to be offered but was recently cancelled due to budgetary constraints. Plans to teach Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, were also abandoned.

When Ifeanyi Awachie ’14 heard that Igbo was cancelled after she had completed one year, she tried multiple times to study it through the Directed Independent Language Study (DILS) program, but was repeatedly denied, for budget reasons.

Further doubt was cast on Yale’s commitment to African language instruction when, without explanation, some senior lecturers in African languages had their contracts reduced from five-year-contracts to three-year contracts. Biersteker, who taught Swahili for over 25 years, wasn’t offered a contract at all, and there aren’t plans to replace her.

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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg

“This is a really exciting time to be an Africanist,” says Chris Udry, the current chair of the Council on African Studies. While he’s known on campus for his wardrobe of colorful African prints, today he sits in the sparsely decorated African Studies faculty office dressed in a plain gray shirt. His excitement about the Africa Project makes up for the bare surroundings.

Udry is excited about a future faculty position that will develop new ways to teach African languages. But, Udry clarified, the position is only a part-time teaching position, concentrating on development of language pedagogy more than teaching itself.

The more I learn about African languages at Yale, the more I hear about budgets. That’s because language acquisition is central to how Yale funds   African Studies (and how colleges fund area studies in general). Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 was drafted to strengthen “uncommonly taught languages” by funding universities that taught them. The federal government deemed these universities “National Resource Centers” for language instruction (NRCs) and provided Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships to students. More than half of Yale’s current M.A. students, including myself, are receiving money from FLAS.

The current Title VI grant ends soon. But Udry’s not sure whether Yale will win another award next year, or if the Council will even apply. He explains that Yale’s small Africanist faculty, along with its lack of teacher training and community outreach services, may hurt the University’s chances for funding. If Yale loses FLAS fellowships for African Studies students, the Council will have to find new ways to attract applicants who may be turned away by Yale’s high costs.

The Africa Project seeks to recruit more African students to Yale, but soon there may not be funding for students interested in studying Africa. Udry said that he and Shapiro have talked about seeking funding for African Studies graduate students, but nothing is currently planned.

 ***

After so many meetings with administrators, I had begun to lose track of what was happening to African Studies students. Five professors had left in less than two years. I saw the effects of the faculty shortage all around me in my classmates’ struggles.

“This year, especially, I feel as if Yale has let me down for my major,” says African Studies major Annie Mullen ’15. She wants to work in development, but the course listings often limit her to political science classes that focus on conflict or corruption. She often has to petition for other classes to be counted toward her major.

“The lack of courses has been crippling,” says Ayalew, the M.A. student who sent the email about Shapiro’s lunch. Born in the U.S. to Ethiopian immigrants, Ayalew and her family moved back to Ethiopia when she was 10 years old. After college, she worked in international institutions in Ethiopia’s capital city. She came to Yale “to read solely about Africa for two years” before going to law school. Ayalew’s thesis examines why certain groups choose to rebel against the state while others don’t. McGovern, the professor who moved to Michigan, has worked on two books related to Ayalew’s research — but he is no longer at Yale.

Without the guidance of Africanist professors, graduate students can only receive help on the theoretical aspects of their research. They often forego in-depth analysis within an African context. “Many of us are forced to work very independently,” Denise Lim GRD ’14 said. “You just hope to survive.”

In his inaugural address, President Salovey said that Yale would move forward with Africa “while emphasizing teaching and learning.” But Christopher Miller, who teaches Francophone African literature, says that, without faculty rebuilding, “I do not see how this initiative can improve our current curriculum on Africa.” Miller says that improving African Studies should be the center of any new efforts.

New visiting professorships will likely be part of the Africa Project, but these positions are in no way equal to tenure-track positions, which McGovern calls “the gold standard of a university’s new or renewed commitment to a field of study.” He cautions that creating non-tenure-track positions should not be interpreted as true support from the University.

Udry explained that part of his job as Chair of the Council is to encourage other departments to focus on Africa. But when asked if new hiring would happen soon, Udry responded: “That is one thing that is not part of this initiative.”

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Photo by Kathryn Crandall

In informal meetings about the Africa Project, both Shapiro and Lorimer referred to Yale’s India Initiative as their model. In November 2008, at a gathering in New Delhi, former President Richard Levin unveiled a new campaign before a gathering of India’s leaders. “Yale’s India Initiative will create new faculty positions and new curriculum across the arts and sciences,” he announced. He added, “Yale has committed $30 million of its own unrestricted endowment resources to this enterprise.” Yale’s South Asian Studies major had only been created one year earlier.

By 2012, the India Initiative had established four chairs; hired a dozen new faculty members; started initiatives like the Himalaya Initiative; created research partnerships in India; and provided leadership training for India’s government, business, education, and nonprofit sectors. The Initiative also created the largest program of visiting faculty and post-doctoral fellows in South Asian Studies in the country. If this was a model for the Africa Project, it seemed like a successful one. But there were key differences between the two initiatives.

When the India Initiative first kicked off, George Joseph, then-assistant secretary for international affairs, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the recession wouldn’t affect Yale’s plans. “Although there is a crisis going on, we’re not going to shift away from our institutional priorities,” he said.But in conversations about African Studies, the recession looms, cited as the source of cuts. When I ask Shapiro about the funding for the Africa Project, he tells me that it will come from donors and foundations — the University won’t be contributing anything from its endowment. It’s hard to ignore the wide gap between what the India Initiative included and what the Africa Project seems to prioritize.

***

At universities across the country, area studies programs are fading. Last year, the federal government cut 43.6 percent of funding to all NRCs, marking the end of Igbo and Amharic at Yale. The cut was only the most recent in a chain of farewells: in 2010, each area studies council at Yale lost its outreach coordinator, the staff member responsible for community outreach and assistance to students and professors.

The cultural understanding that comes from area studies can’t be replicated by simply studying a discipline like political science or history. Moreover, studying a region lets students in the field see the limits of their disciplines. Laura Seay GRD ’00, a political scientist and alumna of the African Studies program, studies development interventions in Africa. “As a political scientist, I conduct surveys, run regressions, and attempt to determine causality,” Seay said, “but because I was an Africanist before I became a political scientist, I have also developed a research specialty in figuring out why interventions sometimes don’t work.”

Seay recently finished a project to determine why Nigerian pregnant women weren’t going to health clinics. Her team found that transportation costs, cultural norms, and a curse by a traditional medical practitioner were all deterrents. To figure this out, she used a method she learned not from her political science Ph.D. program, but from her two years at Yale.

As the Africa Project continues to unfold, I’ll be anxiously awaiting each step of the process. I’m applying to Ph.D. programs in anthropology now, with plans to focus on Africa. As I work on applications, my friends ask me whether or not I’ll apply to Yale.

I like what I’ve been able to do here, I tell them; I just wish I could do more. I’ve learned a lot in my classes; I just wish they fit my interests better. I’ve had great experiences with my professors; I just wish there were more of them. Maybe the Africa Project will be able to make these things happen. But I don’t know for sure. As far as I can tell, no one does.

 

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