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Students, Alumni Lament the Closing

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

By Jamal Watson

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.

Anderson adds that she understands why people might think the suspension represents a lack of commitment to African studies, but “that’s 180 degrees from the facts of the matter. There is a strong commitment to the African Studies Institute.”

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 satisfied with the explanation.
They charge that, unlike other initiatives on campus, the institute has operated without a permanent director for too long. 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 informed 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.” 

Dr. Carolyn Brown, an alumnus of Columbia and currently a professor of history at Rutgers University, says she was disheartened by the decision.

“They have weakened the program,” says Brown. “I don’t know why they feel that this particular move to shut everything down will support the institute in the long run. That makes no sense to me.”

The decision to shutter the institute was the last straw for Kimberly B. Lehmkuhl, a dual degree student in the Law/SIPA program, who withdrew from SIPA. She says students have difficulty “even registering for the required credits to specialize in African affairs,” with some forced to take African performing arts classes to meet graduation requirements.

“Though I began the Law School portion of my program first, my decision to attend Columbia at all was predominantly based on SIPA’s reputation as one of the probably top three schools in the country for graduate work in African studies,” Lehmkuhl wrote to Dean Anderson in a letter that she recently made public. 

“While this situation was already untenable, the formal shuttering of the Institute of African Studies in recent weeks has convinced me that the current administration does not have the will to remedy these problems and that it is not an appropriate use of my time or money to commence a program in African studies at SIPA in the foreseeable future,” she added.

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