Harvard Afro-American Studies Chairman Henry Louis Gates, Jr. ’73 announced last week that he would remain at Harvard, ending nearly a year of speculation that he would follow two fellow Afro-American Studies professors to Princeton.
Princeton and Stanford Universities both expressed interest in recruiting Gates. But Yale, where Gates taught from 1976 to 1985, did not actively try to bring Gates back to New Haven.
The competition began nearly a year ago, when Harvard President Lawrence Summers reportedly questioned Harvard Afro-American Studies Professor Cornel West’s academic contributions. West left Harvard for Princeton last April. Shortly before that, Afro-American Studies professor K. Anthony Appiah also left Harvard for Princeton.
Yale did not actively recruit Gates because the department lacks an endowment comparable to Harvard’s, African American Studies Chairman Paul Gilroy said.
“We don’t have the resources to pursue people of that caliber,” Gilroy said. “We made the decision to bring in younger scholars — if we had the kind of endowment the Harvard department had then we would pursue some of the more spectacular enterprises — we’ve developed a different approach.”
Gates left for Cornell University when he did not get tenure at Yale, Professor of Political Science and African Studies William Foltz said.
“It was a dumb decision to let him go,” Foltz said.
West and Appiah also taught at Yale, Gilroy said. Yale offered Appiah tenure in 1986, but he left for Cornell.
“Everybody who is anybody had passed through,” Gilroy said. “The Yale system is a very ruthless one when it comes to judging people’s scholarship.”
While departments at other schools receive publicity for the movements of their faculty, the Yale African American Studies department continues to make strong appointments, Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said.
“If great people start their careers and then move elsewhere then we are happy to have been part of their intellectual formation,” Brodhead said. “It certainly would be my hope that we would keep some of our own home grown products.”
John Rickford, Director of Stanford’s program in African and Afro-American Studies, said Gates met with students and faculty members at Stanford while on a speaking tour in California last year.
He said the Yale department is doing unusual but exciting work.
“If, in their own conception of things, they do not see the need to go after a [Gates] then that is very justified,” Rickford said. “We’d like to hire half of those people.”
Harvard Professor of Government and Afro-American Studies Jennifer Hochschild GRD ’79 said the departments at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford are similar in quality but have different emphases.
“[Yale’s African American Studies Department] doesn’t have as high a profile,” Hochschild said. “In the fields that it specializes in, it is as well know as any other.”
Hochschild said she was delighted with Gates’ decision to stay, but said that with five searches and two new senior appointments, the department was strong even without Gates.
“We would have survived if he had left,” Hochschild said. “People move. That’s built into the system — But it’s not like the whole thing was crumbling.”