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.

  • factuality

    African Studies has the potential to become one of the most vibrant departments at Yale. What worries me, however, is how Yale students tend to gloss over many realities of the African continent today. A YDN op-ed from October 16th harped on the necessity of teaching classes in Wolof and Twi, languages spoken by a relatively paltry 10 million people with extremely limited spheres of geographic distribution. The reality today is that French (and English) are the two most widely spoken languages on the continent in terms of the number of fluent and literate speakers. French is spoken in more than 30 countries in Africa; English is not far behind. With projected sustained population growth and increasing levels of education, the number of French speakers in Africa is expected to swell to nearly 350 million by 2050. The fact, then, that short of Prof. Christopher Miller there is little overlap between the French and African Studies faculties baffles me. African authors are shaping the body of French literature; the future of the French language arguably lies in Africa. Should French not be considered as “African” a language as, say, the Arabic that can fulfill the major’s language requirement?

  • ldffly

    These sorts of matters require a fish or cut bait attitude. Either be prepared to do what it takes to run a first rate program or get out. If the administration believes that it costs too much money or is not consistent with the university’s missions, then they should say so and the program should go. Given Salovey’s inaugural statement, something will probably happen to sustain the programs. Yale should not be second rate at anything.

    • ldffly

      After reading Matthew’s post, I’m beginning to question Salovey’s sincerity.

  • theantiyale

    Africa isn’t ready for Yale and Yale may not be ready for Africa.

  • http://backslashscott.wordpress.com/ Scott Ross

    Firstly, I applaud YDN for writing in defense of Africanist scholarship, but I feel like much of the YDN’s writing on this topic is from the wrong perspective. While we do need more faculty studying Africa, it isn’t just because of growing economies (as President Salovey said), war, and poverty. It’s important to highlight that Africa is a growing source of new technologies, award-winning literature, and vibrant culture. Yale needs more Africanist social scientists, of course, but there are barely any humanists studying Africa here whatsoever. Yale needs a university-wide push to hire professors who study Africa, similar to 2009’s India Initiative.

  • Matthew Kustenbauder

    As an alumnus of the African Studies program at Yale, I am glad this article draws attention to the crisis. It is ironic that just a few years ago Peter Salovey (then Provost) and his cost-cutting hatchet men ‘pruned’ the Council on African Studies of its most committed and productive administrative faculty member, Ann Biersteker, without so much as a ‘thank you for the millions of dollars in US government funded Title VI grants you earned us’. Ann served as DUS and DGS for years, writing the cumbersome Title VI grant proposals that funded the Council (and its MA students), and managing somehow to teach and write. She remains my most faithful reference writer, and has since taken up a job at Michigan State University as director of African Studies, where their undergrads and grad students will no doubt benefit from her care and dedication. At about the same time, another excellent Africanist in the Anthropology department, Mike McGovern, left Yale to take up a tenure-track post at the University of Michigan. Kamari Clarke’s assessment that the University had ‘neglected’ the program is a gross understatement; the University seemed determined to sabotage African Studies. Meanwhile, as the article correctly points out, Harvard has turned a non-existent African Studies program into one that receives not only coveted Title VI funds, but considerable private donations as well. The swift pace of these changes – in the wrong direction for Yale, sadly – make for a strange juxtaposition with predictions in government policy and investment circles that see an Africa rising as the last great frontier for a range of sectors, including: agriculture, raw materials, energy, infrastructure construction, and manufacturing. Perhaps Salovey’s newfound commitment to Africa is a presidential act of penance for provostian sins. Whatever the case, if he is serious, African Studies at Yale will now need to be re-built from the ground up, and without any of the institutional memory, most of these people having been purged in the name of post-economic recession belt-tightening. Above all, it will take money. Faculty hiring lines, as the article rightly points out, are not cheap. Yet while Yale dithered, Harvard’s Africanist faculty members, together with the development office, courted the Oppenheimer family – of South African DeBeers diamond fortune fame – to fund several special research chairs in African studies. The result: While Yale was bleeding Africanist talent, Harvard courted and wooed away from Chicago two of the most prominent and prolific Africanists of our time, John and Jean Comaroff. It’s now time for Salovey to put Yale’s money where his mouth is.

    • ldffly

      I’m beginning to smell a rat.

  • choocheeduck

    Honestly, students need hard skills in order to be successful. An undergrad in African Studies is one of the surest ways to be unemployed.

    • ldffly

      That would all depend on whether you could convince an investment firm that your knowledge could help it make investment decisions in Africa.

      • Yemu

        I am an undergrad in African Studies and I was offered a job even before I left Yale. It is a credible and valid degree!

    • yale12

      Maybe that’s true coming out of a state school, but two years out of Yale, most of my humanities major friends have lucrative jobs, or could have them if they wanted. An undergrad African Studies degree from Yale can get you an extremely high-paying job without a problem if you have the drive to back it up.