The Great ‘Misunderstanding’ at Harvard
President’s criticism of Cornel West has left supporters of Afro-American studies unsettled.
By Ronald Roach
For those who believed the long struggle to put Afro-American studies at Harvard University on solid footing had ceased years ago, the recent controversy over Harvard president Dr. Lawrence H. Summers’ private rebuke of Afro-American studies professor Dr. Cornel West has proven deeply troubling.
Although Summers publicly praised the Afro-American Studies department and expressed regret over any “misunderstanding” resulting from the meeting where he allegedly criticized West for non-scholarly public activities and urged him to pursue a work of serious scholarship, the controversy has left both supporters of Afro-American studies and higher education diversity advocates shaken and unsettled. Observers point to the outpouring of media coverage, much of which has included virulent reactions from conservative commentators, as a sign that, borrowing the title of West’s most popular book, “race matters” deeply enough in the academy for the nation to sit up and take notice.
“What (the controversy) indicates to me is how contested Afro-American studies continues to be at Harvard,” says Dr. Glenn Loury, a Boston University economics professor and a former Harvard professor who was the first Black to have tenure in the economics department.
Summers, an economist who served as the U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton before becoming Harvard’s president in 2001, is known as a brash and impatient executive who has not shied away from speaking frankly to other Harvard professors. Even after issuing conciliatory statements, Summers has been quoted as saying that the Afro-American studies department could anticipate “less of an open checkbook from my administration than the previous one.”
Nevertheless, last month’s announced departure of Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah to Princeton University underscored the vulnerability Harvard faces over retaining members of the Afro-American studies “Dream Team.” Appiah, considered one of the Dream Team stars, declared his reasons for leaving did not relate to the West controversy. A highly regarded scholar of African culture and philosophy, Appiah held joint appointments in Afro-American studies and the philosophy departments.
Prior to the formation of the Dream Team during the 1990s, a development largely credited to Afro-American studies department chairman Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., Afro-American studies had languished as a neglected program. Harvard professors barely tolerated the department’s presence and rarely helped out when the department sought joint appointments for faculty members it wanted to bring to Harvard (see Black Issues, Feb. 4, 1999).
With the history of the Afro-American studies department prior to the arrival of Gates receiving scant attention during the recent controversy, observers believe the national fight over affirmative action in higher education weighed most heavily in the minds of reporters, editors, pundits, and the general public when it came to assessing the recent controversy. Some observers note that comments by Harvard government professor Dr. Harvey Mansfield in the Boston Globe in February 2001, which laid blame for grade inflation at Harvard on the arrival of significant numbers of Black students in the early 1970s, had already fueled considerable tension around the affirmative action debate as it relates to elite schools, such as Harvard.
“The subtext is affirmative action. The idea(s) that (Blacks) are illegitimately on campus, and ‘our standards are being lowered’ are evident in the commentaries. I see at least the susceptibility of people in the ‘Dream Team’ of being stigmatized by race,” Loury says.
Loury adds that the reaction by many commentators suggests that there’s a perception that Blacks, other minorities, and ethnic studies programs have yet to earn a deserving place in the American academy.
THE MEDIA CIRCUS
While many observers lament that concerns raised by a rookie Harvard president with West should have remained private, Afro-American studies proponents concede that a public stand by Gates and Afro-American studies faculty members became necessary once the rift between West and Summers became publicly known.
There is a recognition that if Summers “could attack Cornel, any Black studies program could come under attack,” according to Dr. Ray Winbush, executive director of the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.
“That’s why (Dr. West) had to say something about (the rebuke),” Winbush says.
Predictably, the public stand taken by Dream Team faculty members has incurred all manner of conservative reaction. Reactions have varied from those deriding West as a less than capable scholar to others scolding Summers for allegedly caving in to the Afro-American studies department.
Roger Kimball, writing in the conservative National Review in late January, asserted that the “institution of Afro-American Studies is a politically motivated con game.
“It is not about scholarship, it is about the politics of racial redress, on one side, and misplaced liberal guilt and cowardice on the other,” Kimball wrote.
Another commentator, Paul Craig Roberts, went so far as to suggest that if conservative Blacks, such as Dr. Shelby Steele, assumed presidencies at Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities “these three universities could dispense with their fraudulent Afro-American Studies departments.”
For his part, Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, penned an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal that labeled West an “academic lightweight.”
Though scholars tend to dismiss such criticisms, particularly those coming from pundits outside the academic world, they worry about the potential such attacks have in tainting the public reputation of scholars and programs they hold in high esteem. Steele’s description of West as an “academic lightweight” has especially hit a raw nerve among a number of Black scholars.
“(Steele) has written books that are not serious (research) books. They’re polemics. He’s not in a position to judge people,” Boston University’s Loury says.
West, one of 14 professors at Harvard out of 2,000 to hold the distinguished rank of university professor, has been elected to the nation’s most prestigious academic societies, including the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. The university professorship at Harvard confers considerable prestige on a faculty member and allows him or her to teach in any department.
“There’s been real damage done to Cornel because of unfounded attacks on him,” Loury notes.
ON THE HOME FRONT
Despite the unprecedented media attention generated by the recent flap, scholars at Harvard are said to be worrying more about their academic freedom given Summers’ reputation. There’s a sense that Harvard under Dr. Summers is becoming less than enamored of its public intellectuals.
“The reason Harvard hired West in the first place was because he was a public intellectual,” says Dr. Christopher Foreman, a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Affairs and a former classmate of West at Harvard. “It’s ironic that the (new president) would criticize him for the reasons he went there.”
Since the 1950s, American universities have increasingly become more hostile to the presence of public intellectuals on their campuses, a number of higher education experts have noted. “Life in academe has become much more focused on the academic disciplines. Professors face much more pressure to publish within their disciplines. And it’s much harder to be a public intellectual,” Foreman says.
If the trends towards specialization within disciplines and avoidance of the public spotlight are taking hold at the nation’s elite universities, then it’s possible for a new president of Harvard to try imposing his or her own standards for public intellectuals, especially for those holding an university professorship because they report directly to the Harvard president.
Proponents of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department argue that the program came into prominence by attracting world class scholars, such as Dr. William Julius Wilson and West, who were already well-known because of their work. Five senior faculty members in Afro-American studies have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Three of the faculty were elected to the American Philosophical Society, one to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and one to the National Academy of Sciences.
In contrast, Steele denigrates the department by writing that Summers’ squandered “an opportunity” to get “Mr. West and the Afro-Am department to move from celebrity academia to serious achievement.”
Such notions about Afro-American studies at Harvard “greatly distort the serious commitment of members of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard to traditional academic standards,” according to Harvard’s Wilson.
“I think for those who care about African American studies, (this attack) has to be resisted and criticized as a matter of principle,” says University of Maryland professor Dr. Ernest Wilson, who was one of the student leaders at Harvard that helped to launch the (Afro-Am) program. “It’s not just about Cornel.”
— Ronald Roach is a senior writer for Black Issues In Higher Education and a 1985 graduate of Harvard University.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com