Professor Cornel West provided the latest, biggest twist in the ongoing saga of the Harvard Afro-American Studies Department when he finally announced this weekend that he will leave Cambridge for Princeton next fall.
West represents the second high profile defection from Harvard’s highly touted department –philosophy professor K. Anthony Appiah also left for Princeton in February — that has come into the national spotlight after Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers reportedly criticized West several months ago for his lack of high-quality scholarship.
The bidding war between Harvard and Princeton may not end here either, since possibly the biggest Afro-American studies catch of all, Harvard department chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr., has said he is also considering a move to Princeton.
While Yale may have been tempted to get involved in the dissolution of the Gates’ “circus” at Harvard — as Yale professor William Foltz called it — the University’s African American Studies Department should be commended for its decision to stay out of the process.
Instead, chairwoman Hazel Carby and her team in Yale’s department have used this opportunity to cast light on their unique approach to building top faculty: snag top junior professors and mold them into world-renowned scholars rather than compete in the auction for haughty senior faculty.
While this may not be the best strategy for other departments, it seems to fit perfectly with the current state of African American Studies. Hiring a star professor in a coveted field often costs the equivalent of three junior faculty members — a reality which department chairmen must always keep in mind. In African American studies, that cost simply outweighs the benefits today’s top professors could bring to the University.
Furthermore, some of the field’s top professors have hardly conducted themselves in a manner worthy of their reputation. West, for instance, has spent considerable time recording a rap CD and campaigning for Bill Bradley and Al Sharpton. Harvard’s dwindling group of stars has also started to resemble a “traveling team,” as Foltz said, which has now spent time at Yale, Cornell, Duke and Harvard. Poor scholarship and a propensity to leave are hardly the attributes around which Yale should built an important department.
The right approach, then, is to do just what Yale has done: recruit younger, less expensive, less pretentious professors, and hope some of them become the top scholars of the next generation. The key is that Yale must avoid its record of poor judgment in tenuring African American studies professors — the University inexplicably denied Gates tenure years ago — if it hopes to stand a realistic chance at luring top young scholars away from other schools.
It may be years, perhaps decades, until we see whether Yale’s strategy proves successful. But at the very least, Carby’s plan will ensure that Yale for now avoids the headaches caused by people like West and instead keeps its department focused on improving itself in the future.