As African-American studies disciplinarians celebrate the expansion and 20-year anniversary of African American doctoral studies this year, some are wondering when there will be a similar development at historically Black colleges and universities.
“It is one of the nastier sores in the curriculum belly of Black colleges,” says Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, creator of the first Ph.D. program in African-American studies at Temple University.
This year, Temple is commemorating its 20-year anniversary and two more doctoral programs have been established at Indiana University Bloomington and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Adding in Brown University, which will soon launch a program, to a list that includes Michigan State University, Northwestern University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard University and Yale University, then there are now 10 African-American studies doctoral programs at traditionally White institutions (TWIs). Meanwhile, there are still zero programs at HBCUs.
“We should be leading the way,” says Dr. Mayibuye Monanabela, a professor of Africana Studies at Tennessee State University. “We should be the citadel.”
HBCUs have yet to build bastions of African-American studies doctoral programs because of a lack of vision, resources and doctoral programs in general — and an uncertainty about whether HBCUs are even in need of them, disciplinarians posit.
The question is whether “HBCUs are Black universities and Blackness, or the perspective of Black people is built into the curriculum because if it is, then you can not proceed with the development of master’s and doctoral programs,” says E. Ethelbert Miller, the director of Howard’s Afro-American Studies Resource Center, who teaches in its Afro-American Studies department. “What has happened since we have not answered that question is that other programs have developed at White institutions now reaching the doctoral level.”
Monanabela already knows the answer.
“When we look at the curriculum at HBCUs, they are still 95 percent Eurocentric,” he says. “Education should connect the student, the learner to himself, to his past, to his people, to his community. If it doesn’t do that, then you have to raise some questions about it, and most of the curricula at HBCUs do not connect us to ourselves.”
In contrast, Morgan State University’s Dr. Jeremiah Dibua, argues that Black studies has been integrated into the curricula.
“Those who get their doctorates in history, English, psychology — these various fields in the humanities — usually their dissertations include themes or center around themes about African-American life, history and culture,” says Dibua, a professor in MSU’s history department which houses the only master’s in African-American studies at an HBCU. “So in a sense, you already have African American issues being addressed in these various disciplines. In comparison, at traditionally White institutions, these various disciplines do not address these issues.”
The dearth of doctoral programs at HBCUs in general looms as another major reason.
“Most HBCUs don’t have doctoral degree granting status,” says Dr. David H. Jackson, Jr., chair of Florida A&M University’s department of history, political science, geography, and African-American studies.
“The pool is already small,” adds Dibua.
For example, there have not been any discussions about establishing a doctoral program in African-American studies at MSU because “the focus now is to first of all build the doctoral programs in the (existing) respective disciplines,” Dibua says. And then there is the issue of resources, which HBCUs lack, Dibua adds, an assessment shared by UW-Milwaukee’s Dr. Joyce F. Kirk.
“It is quite an endeavor and I think some HBCUs simply can’t afford it,” says Kirk, associate professor and chair of UW-Milwaukee’s department of Africology. “I think it may be primarily resources.”
Kirk can attest to the challenging nature of the endeavor. Earlier this month, UW’s Board of Regents finally gave the approval to establish a doctoral program at UW-Milwaukee after 10 grueling years of planning. “This was a historic occasion,” Kirk says, as the first class will be welcomed in fall 2010.
Another reason HBCUs may not have succeeded in such a demanding endeavor is the absence of vision.
“Because it has not been the vision of presidents at historically Black colleges, it has not taken off,” Howard’s Miller says. “You have to have somebody who is saying that I want to make my college the key place for Afro-American Studies.”
Administrators at HBCUs lack that vision because they have a “limited consciousness about African or African American studies,” Asante says. “Some of them believe that because they are in an African-American environment they do not need a Ph.D. program in African-American studies.”
More than six years ago, the Florida Board of Regents turned down a proposal for a doctoral program in African-American studies at FAMU, says Jackson, who was on the committee that designed the proposal. The board told FAMU it need more faculty and research materials to launch the program.
“The university had to show the true commitment, and FAMU did not put resources towards the development of that program,” Jackson says
Several proposals for an African-American studies graduate program have been put on the table at Howard over the years, but they “have gone nowhere because it is not a priority,” Miller says.
Monanabela identifies this as the major barrier — not the scarcity of resources or doctoral programs.
“You can always be innovative,” he says. “We started [our bachelor’s program] by bringing people from various disciplines. In fact, in order to get it approved we had to show that we were not going to require any additional resources to start this program.
“Unfortunately, that was the attitude, but we did it,” he adds. “You are always going to have a certain amount of resources. Therefore, it is an issue of priority. Is it a priority or is it not?”
Monanabela and his colleagues in the Africana studies department are trying to make it a priority at TSU and begin the development of African American doctoral studies at HBCUs.
“We are pushing now to put ourselves in a position to establish a master’s program and we are hoping we can do that in the next four years,” he says. “Once we get our foothold with the master’s, we certainly want to go forward with the Ph.D. program.”
TSU may not be the first to start a program though, as FAMU is aiming to re-propose a doctoral program in African-American studies in the next two or three years, Jackson says.
“Because the board turned us down doesn’t mean that it died,” he says. “It is just a matter of when are we going to go back and when is the university going to put the resources into it. My target is after the university turns itself around in the next couple years to try to get that proposal back on the table.”
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