The Ivy League’s oldest undergraduate degree-granting program of its discipline, Yale’s African American Studies department is starting its fourth semester this spring. Begun amid high tensions about the appreciation of cultural studies on campus, the department has settled to the quiet task of recruiting faculty and students while another conflict over a university president’s perceived lack of support erupted involving Yale’s closest academic rivals, Harvard and Princeton universities.
African American Studies began granting degrees in Yale College in 1969, offering master’s degrees in 1978, and providing a doctoral program in 1994. In February 2000, Hazel Carby, the department’s chairwoman, resigned in protest of comments made by Yale President Richard Levin at a dinner at Calhoun College, which she cited as evidence of the University’s lack of commitment to the program. Weeks later, the Yale Corporation voted to make African American Studies an official department, which, among other perks, gives them the opportunity to tenure professors.
After the announcement, Carby withdrew her resignation, and the newly-minted department set to work trying to attract larger numbers of students and more diverse faculty to the interdisciplinary department.
“My sense of the program is that it has maintained pretty high scholarly standards in its appointments,” said William Foltz, professor of African studies and political science. “It’s doing a very good job, if not a flashy job.”
“I suppose the great comparison,” he continued, “is with Skip Gates’ circus up at Harvard.”
Who Foltz knows as Skip Gates, a former Yale professor long ago denied tenure, is who most people refer to as Henry Louis Gates Jr., a famous Afro-American scholar and the chairman of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department. The circus Foltz was referring to is a recent near-evacuation of Harvard’s program.
And while media attention surrounded its inception, Yale’s department remained media-shy during the Ivy League-wide brouhaha centered in Cambridge, Mass., this December.
The New York Times reported a few weeks ago that because of a spat with new Harvard President Lawrence Summers, the school’s stars were considering moving en masse to Princeton, which has no pre-existing department and was looking for instant renown by courting all of Harvard’s professors. In particular, they cited Summers’ hesitance to speak out decisively in favor of affirmative action and diversity.
“[It seems] as if this traveling team of folks who have been at Yale, at Cornell, at Duke, at Harvard, have decided that it’s time to up their salary and see what they can do in the academic marketplace,” Foltz said.
Asked whether he knows of any Yale attempt to court such dissatisfied scholars as Cornel West or Gates, Foltz said he knew of nothing proactive.
“But,” he said, “I think there’s no doubt that if Anthony Appiah [Harvard professor of Afro-American studies and [philosophy], for example, if he showed some interest in coming to Yale, I’d be rather surprised if Yale wouldn’t be very interested in having him.”
African American studies professor Gerald Jaynes, for one, said he sees no such relationship between the two schools.
“I think this is something that has to do with Harvard, period,” he said. “The entire affair has nothing to do with us.”
Jaynes said that Yale’s young department right now is most concerned with “suring up the interdisciplinary nature of courses and faculty,” and that it is too soon to try to measure the effects of African American Studies’ upgrade to departmental status three semesters ago.
Stephanie Webb, one junior in the major, said she thinks African American Studies is doing well for a young department, but it could use additional classes in some specific areas, particularly in political science.
“They could always use more classes,” she said. “There are always more black issues that can be explored further, for example, legal issues with black people. There’s one course that gets down to the nitty gritty, but otherwise, there’s not much.”
Foltz, a member of a committee charged with recruiting new faculty, said the department is actively looking to increase the social science side of the faculty, which right now is largely but not exclusively literary. He said they’ve made an offer to Mark Sawyer, a “Politics of Race” professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“[He’s a] very attracted-seeming political scientist,” Foltz said. “He’s got a good offer from Yale, and we hope he’ll accept it.”