Students, Alumni Lament the Closing of Columbia’s African Studies Institute

NEW YORK

Dozens of current and former students of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) are expressing outrage over a decision by the Ivy League institution to temporarily shut down its Institute of African Studies.

In recent weeks, students and alumni have bombarded the administration with letters and e-mails, demanding that the university reopen the institute to coincide with the start of the academic calendar next month.

They charge that the university’s decision to abandon the 47-year-old research center and to shift financial resources elsewhere indicates an overall lack of commitment toward the continent of Africa.

But Dr. Lisa Anderson, dean of SIPA, says the temporary suspension was necessary, and that there has been no change in the school’s focus. Over the next year, officials plan to reorganize the institute and strategically plan out ways for it to better serve students on campus, she says.

The problem, she says, has been finding senior faculty who are experts on Africa and are willing to direct the institute’s various initiatives. She says the university has made job offers to several Africanists, and she remains confident that a new director could have the institute up and running again by 2007.

“We need senior people who want to take this and run with it,” she says.

Anderson also says the institute never fully recovered after losing a competitive $200,000 research grant from the U.S. Department of Education about a decade ago.

SIPA still intends to offer an African studies program this year, which Anderson will run as interim program director. She says she has begun assembling a small advisory committee of faculty, staff and students to assist in recruiting speakers, organizing extra-curricular events and developing programming for students interested in Africa.

“Although this arrangement is clearly only a temporary expedient for African studies at Columbia, it has the merits of both being transparent about the limitations of the program now and creating the critical pressure to rectify the situation that our previous practice of recruiting temporary institute directors, however dedicated, did not,” Anderson wrote in a June letter to students, faculty and alumni.

But many students and alumni aren’t unsatisfied with the explanation.

They charge that, unlike other initiatives on campus, the institute has always operated without a permanent director. They also contend that weak administrative and financial support and a succession of interim leaders has meant that the institute can’t serve students full time.

Some have also questioned the timing of the announcement. Columbia made the decision to inform students about the institute’s closure over the summer months, when most of the students were not on campus.

Christabel Dadzie, a second-year graduate student, started an online blog to keep students and alumni updated on the turn of events.

“Within 24 hours of setting up the blog, I was getting phone calls and e-mails from students and alumni who were saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’” says Dadzie, who is pursuing her master’s in international affairs. “Everyone is really outraged by this decision.” 

-Jamal Watson

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