“Room to grow”: African studies program at a crossroads
Five years after faculty criticized a lack of institutional support for the program, African Studies has strengthened in size — but some say that more attention to the program is needed.
Yale Daily News
Five years after the African Studies program criticized University administration over a lack of faculty recruitment and retention, some faculty members say progress has been made to increase its academic support.
According to former Director of Undergraduate Studies Daniel Magaziner, the University deserves credit for several “really good hires” that have been achieved since the “emergency situation” in 2018 — particularly in the humanities. The program’s growth, he said, represents significant expansion in areas such as English and history. But Magaziner says that the growth is somewhat limited, in part owing to the “pretty obvious need” in the social sciences, such as anthropology, political science and economics.
“[The question] is whether or not the University wants to rest on its laurels, having done this exciting expansion, or wants to consolidate what this expansion makes possible,” Magaziner said. “Which is the probability of Yale becoming one of the centers, if not the center, for African Studies in the northeast, if not the country.”
Magaziner felt positive about the administration’s progress in expanding African Studies at Yale through hires, especially in the humanities sector. For example, the University has doubled its capacity in hires who specialize in the history of Africa, which is “pretty remarkable.”
But he said that subjects traditionally at the heart of African Studies, such as political science and economics, have been neglected at Yale over the last decade. Although the existing faculty in these areas who specialize in Africa are talented, Magaziner said, there are not enough to compensate for the value of studying the African continent.
“So there’s real areas of really clear need in the social sciences, and then areas that would need to be augmented in the humanities,” Magaziner said.
Steven Wilkinson, who serves as the vice provost for global strategy, told the News that new leadership appointments create a fresh opportunity to bring more of Africa to Yale and Yale to Africa.
He referenced Lauren Falcao Bergquist, who was hired last year with a joint appointment in the Jackson School of Global Affairs and Department of Economics, as well as Cajetan Iheka, who this month took over as the first African-born chair of the Council on African Studies.
“Hiring faculty who work on Africa is a continuing priority,” Wilkinson wrote in an email to the News.
Magaziner recalled the state of African Studies program over a decade ago, and how over time many of its faculty had left Yale. The administration has rebuilt the pool of humanities faculty talent, he said, but has not been able to replicate that success in the social sciences. While students can engage in African Studies at Yale, there seems to be something missing. What stands out, Magaziner told the News, is a lack of “comprehensive faculty.”
“We haven’t created a program where so many interested in Africa can approach it from all the various disciplinary angles and perspectives that are necessary for a comprehensive understanding,” Magaziner said.
But Magaziner explained that hiring discretion is not up to the African Studies program, since it lacks departmental status. It is up to the academic departments to make these decisions on hiring, Magaziner told the News. According to him, these departments “haven’t prioritized hiring in African Studies.”
“We continue to search for experts in comparative politics,” Gregory Huber, chair of the Department of Political Science, wrote in an email to the News. “Some of whom will focus on sub-Saharan Africa, and some of whom we hope will focus on north Africa.”
Huber told the News that while many offers have been made to experts in African politics over the last few years, no new faculty have been hired. But he maintained that there are still faculty in the department who specialize in the African continent. He pointed to professors Kate Baldwin and Elisabeth Wood and senior lecturer David Simon.
As Yale’s efforts to expand its international outreach and promote a diverse education have increased in recent years, Magaziner said that eyes across campus are watching.
“We have increasing numbers of African Students and students of African descent on campus who are really invested in building on African Studies and strengthening it as a really important part of the University’s overall mission,” Magaziner said.
Kennedy Odiboh ’25, a double major in African Studies and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the president of the Nigerian Students Association, told the News that all of his African Studies courses thus far have started out with a basic introduction to the African continent. This, he said, speaks to the fact that Yale does not offer many opportunities for students to formally explore Africa.
While he thinks the language department within the African Studies program is relatively well established, Odiboh also said that hopes to see more African languages offered in the future.
According to the Yale University Bulletin, Yale currently offers courses in five out of Africa’s nearly 2,000 languages: Swahili, Yoruba, Twi, Wolof and Zulu.
“A lot of my friends want to learn their family’s languages, but those simply aren’t offered,” Odiboh said. “If I had the ability to, I’d push for the expansion of languages taught within the African Studies department. There are tons of people out there who have the ability to teach these languages at the university level, but they just aren’t here at Yale.”
Both Odiboh and African Studies Major Fatoumata Soumare ’24 told the News that while they have had a relatively positive experience with the program thus far, they want to see Yale invest more resources into the department in the future.
“Funding is definitely a no brainer,” Soumare wrote. “For a continent that is continually growing and changing economically, politically, and socially, there needs to be more funding set aside for students to explore those topics.”
She added that while she was supportive of the administration’s effort so far, there is still “room to grow.”
Soumare said she also wants to see more efforts by the administrative body to hire faculty with African heritage to teach subjects in the department, which she believes lack faculty diversity.
Soumare also said she hopes more trips to the continent are offered, specifically to less visited areas.In addition to South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, Soumare hopes to see travel opportunities to places like Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Seychelles and Cape Verde.
“African Studies needs just as much funding as every other continental department,” Odiboh said. “It’s an entire continent with a global diaspora that we’re talking about. I don’t think there’s a shortage of scholars asking questions about the African continent, but rather a shortage of funding to get these scholars to Yale.”
The African continent is home to approximately one third of the world’s languages.