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Giants in the Classroom

Giants in the Classroom
Twenty influential scholars whose work has inspired others and made a significant impact on the academy

Over the past two decades, Black Issues’ writers and editors have featured hundreds, perhaps thousands, of faculty in the magazine’s stories and interviews. Deciding on 20 faculty members whose research, teaching and service set them above their peers in excellence has not proven an easy task. What we accomplished was selecting 20 individuals we believe have had a significant impact in the academy, and whose work has inspired and will continue to inspire others.

An “intellectual warrior in the pursuit of social justice” is how one might describe Derrick Bell, a visiting law professor at New York University. Bell, who became the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School in 1971, has brought an uncompromising and insistent voice to the public discussion of race and class in American society. For more than four decades, this lawyer, activist, teacher and writer has challenged critics and informed readers with candid and progressive views. Noted for his professional integrity and courage, Bell has abandoned both a deanship at the University of Oregon and a tenured professorship at Harvard in protest of hiring practices that overlooked minority women faculty candidates. 
As a scholar, he has contributed to legal journals published by Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Michigan, Berkeley, Pennsylvania, UCLA and Wisconsin. His most recent book is Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform.

The driving force behind the success Xavier University’s science program has had with getting its Black students into medical school, Carmichael, a physical chemist, gave up prime teaching assignments to instruct freshmen when he joined the university faculty in 1970. A guiding principle of his approach is to push for the success of all his students. “Rather than try to flunk students out, we really try to help them,” he says.
That commitment has won him such awards as the CASE professor of the year in 1990 and McGraw-Hill’s Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education in 1997. Xavier’s national track record in sending the highest numbers of Black students to medical school has inspired other researchers and institutions to set about learning the secret of Xavier’s success. 

In the push for solutions to close the racial achievement gap in education, the work by Dr. James Comer represents a leading example of the approach that insists families create a strong home learning environment as well as healthy lifestyles for their children as a precondition for academic well being. The Maurice Faulk Professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University, Comer is the author and founder of the Comer School Development Program — which stresses the interrelationships between parents, educators and the community as the means for successful academic outcomes for children. Recently, the Smithsonian Institution honored Comer with the John P. McGovern Behavioral Science Award on developing influential ideas around community, family and school models to support education. Comer’s work is said to significantly inform the research that’s being done to reduce the racial learning gaps among children prior to their enrollment in kindergarten and first grade.   
Representing Anita Hill in 1991 as part of her legal team during the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Justice Clarence Thomas, UCLA law professor Kimberle Crenshaw subsequently vaulted into the public spotlight as a leader in the intellectual movement, which has come to be known as Critical Race Theory. Named Professor of the Year by UCLA’s 1991 and 1994 graduating classes, Crenshaw teaches courses in civil rights law, critical race studies and constitutional law. “Law is clearly becoming an arena where the basic fundamental tensions about race and society are being played out,” she says.

Responding to the attacks on affirmative action policies in the mid- 1990s, this duo of Harvard professors founded the Harvard Civil Rights Project in 1996 to produce research around which policy-makers and advocates could defend such policies. The past few years has seen a steady stream of studies coming from the project around the University of Michigan affirmative action cases and the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Noting that the studies are showing reverses in school desegregation efforts, Dr. Gary Orfield, who is a professor in the school of education, has called attention to the correlation between the widening of the racial achievement gap and the “resegregation” of the schools — that is, the increasing racial isolation of Blacks and Hispanics. Christopher Edley Jr., a Harvard law school professor who will be dean of University of California-Berkeley’s law school beginning fall 2004, has helped shape the Civil Rights Project to have a role generating information not unlike the expertise he has brought to the national political campaigns and presidential administrations in which he’s worked.

Despite the clumsy move by Harvard University president Dr. Lawrence Summers to chastise Dr. Cornel West, thus shaking up the Afro-American studies department in the process, chairman Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. appears to have strengthened Black studies at Harvard rather than seeing it weakened from the controversy that had the “intellectual entrepreneur” contemplating a departure from Harvard. Instead, Gates helped secure the administration’s support to create a combined African and African American Studies department, giving the African studies program a departmental home at Harvard for the first time.
Though his critics have accused him of being elitist, overextended and too flamboyant, Gates has fashioned an unparalleled career in academia, proving adept at fund raising, education-oriented business ownership, journalism, publishing, documentary making and scholarship. His transformation of the once-ailing, badly neglected Harvard Afro-American studies unit over the last decade-and-a-half into a thriving African and African American Studies department is arguably his best-known accomplishment.   

Dr. Sylvester James Gates has not only managed to establish himself as one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists, but has become widely known through his appearances on Public Broadcasting System (PBS) shows and other television networks. The holder of the first John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland College Park, Gates is the first African American to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major U.S. research university. His research, in the areas of the mathematical and theoretical physics of supersymmetric particles, fields and strings, covers topics such as the physics of quarks, leptons, gravity, super and heterotic strings and unified field theories of the type first envisioned by Albert Einstein.
An enthusiastic promoter of scientific literacy and understanding, Gates appeared on the program “The Path of Most Resistance,” as part of the PBS television series “Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America.”  He has also appeared in “Mysteries of the Universe” as part of the PBS series “A Science Odyssey,” as well as on C-SPAN television. 

Dr. Paul Gilroy, the chair of the department of African American Studies at Yale University, has challenged his readers, including Black intellectuals and leaders, to avoid ethnocentrism and consider the “dangers of race thinking.” As one critic writes about his provocative book Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, “Gilroy spares from his critique neither Black pride nor Black separatism, let alone racism’s most virulent forms, fascism and colonialism.” A British sociologist of African descent, Gilroy has examined the predicament of Europe’s post-colonial peoples of color as well as the cultural history of western hemisphere Blacks. Nevertheless, his ascendancy in the American academy signals to a great extent the direction of Black studies in the United States toward a broadening embrace of African diasporic studies. 

One of the most publicly visible and outspoken scholars in the American academy, Lani Guinier is the first and only African American woman to hold a tenured faculty position at Harvard Law School. In 1993, Guinier came to national prominence when President Bill Clinton nominated her to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department. After conservatives crusaded against the nomination over her views on proportional democratic representation and voter participation, the nomination was withdrawn without Guinier having the benefit of a hearing to defend her views. Rather than shying away from public attention, Guinier drew strength from the Clinton episode to forcefully engage issues while in the public spotlight.
Before and since her Harvard appointment in 1998, Guinier has put her visibility to use by speaking out on issues of race, gender and democratic decision-making and by urging honest public discussion on these issues.

Hammond has been at the forefront of the movement to increase teacher standards and recruit more minorities into the teaching profession. She is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Teaching and Teacher Education at Stanford University. Before joining Stanford in 1998, Hammond was a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“As a society, we have been willing to tolerate incompetent teachers if they are teaching Black and Brown children in the cities, but not in the wealthy suburbs. If we want to survive as a democracy in a knowledge-based economy, we can no longer allow the quality of any child’s teacher to be a matter of chance,” she says.

Until the late 20th century, few thought that Black women were worth studying. Students were hard-pressed to find any mention of Black women in the history texts. But a more complex picture of Black women’s rich history is emerging because of Hine’s efforts. Joining the Northwestern University history department this year from Michigan State University, Hine is a race woman stepping forward to rebuild the canon of history to include Black women. In 1994, she edited Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, a work she hopes will “begin lifting the veil and shattering the silence about Black women in America.”
An associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, Dr. Sylvia Hurtado’s research examines diverse college environments to gauge the success of students of color. Her pioneering efforts include several national research projects on undergraduate education and the National Study of Hispanic College Students. “I began diversity work the minute I stepped onto a college campus as a freshman. I didn’t realize it then, but I now know, from that moment forward, I would be educating others about diverse student experiences probably for the rest of my life,” she has said.

A historian of the highest order, Dr. David Levering Lewis has redefined expectations for historical scholarship since receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 and again in 2001 for chronicling the life and times of intellectual and social activist Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. Lewis’ work demonstrates that outstanding scholarship, research and writing can appeal to general as well as academic populations. Lewis has taught at the University of Notre Dame, Howard University, University of California-San Diego, Harvard and Rutgers. Currently, he is a history professor at New York University. He is one of the recipients of the 2004 John Hope Franklin Distinguished Contributor to Higher Education award established by Black Issues In Higher Education magazine.

Serving as the co-editor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature with Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Dr. Nellie McKay collaborated with Gates on the historic anthology whose publication in 1996 marked a milestone for Black American literature. As a professor of American and Afro American Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, McKay specializes in 19th- and 20th-century African American literature with an emphasis on fiction, autobiography and the writings of Black women. She is the author of Jean Toomer, The Artist: A Study of His Literary Life and Work.

An English instructor and book editor early in her career, Toni Morrison is best known for her monumental achievement as a novelist. Winner of the Nobel prize in literature, she holds the Robert F. Goheen Professorship of Humanities at Princeton University. “I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing,” Morrison said upon her acceptance of the professorship in 1987. Morrison’s literary career is marked with numerous honors, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Award. She was the eighth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and first Black woman to win it.

It’s a fitting tribute that Dr. Michael T. Nettles has become the first researcher to hold the Edmund W. Gordon Chair for Policy Evaluation and Research at the Educational Testing Service. The chair, dedicated earlier this year in honor of Dr. Gordon, a co-developer of the Head Start program and leader in research-based education initiatives on academic performance, provides veteran scholar Nettles a worthy platform for his work on African American student achievement. Nettles has been a professor of education at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. He also helped create the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at the United Negro College Fund.

This conservative critic and economist is arguably the most influential academic to question the priorities of traditional Black American leadership, the reliance on race-conscious affirmative action and the prevalence of identity politics said to be embraced by African Americans. As the senior conservative among Black American intellectuals, his views have set the context for others, such as Dr. Shelby Steele and Dr. John McWhorter, who are also recognized for their opposition to affirmative action and identity politics. What sets Sowell apart from both liberal and conservative scholars alike is the expansive breadth of his scholarship, which extends from classical economic theory to civil rights, from race relations to education and beyond.

Largely associated with the idea of “stereotype threat,” Dr. Claude Steele has conducted the psychological research many see as an answer to the nagging problem of why Black students’ tests score lag behind those of White students. Black students are vulnerable to “stereotype threat,” according to Steele, which results when they perform poorly because they have internalized the stereotype that they don’t and won’t do as well academically as Whites. Steele, who is the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences at Stanford University, developed the stereotype threat idea when he was at the University of Michigan. To Steele’s credit, he has developed programs at Michigan and Stanford that have helped close the gap between Black and White students. Steele is the twin brother yet ideological opposite of Dr. Shelby Steele, an outspoken opponent of affirmative action.

In the 1990s, Dr. Cornel West wrote Race Matters, his best-selling book, and gave Americans a handy phrase that summarized the message of many African American public intellectuals of that time and now. When West joined the Harvard faculty in 1993, his visibility as a public intellectual practically made the philosopher a household name and may have sparked considerable envy among his Ivy League colleagues. In 2002, West returned to Princeton where he taught prior to his Harvard appointment. The return followed a much publicized private meeting between West and Harvard president Dr. Lawrence Summers where Summers is alleged to have questioned West’s academic priorities. Undaunted and unbowed, West, who is a professor of African American studies and religion, has remained outspoken and highly regarded as a public intellectual. 

Though Wu will be the dean of the Wayne State University law school in Detroit this fall, his work as an influential Howard University law professor does not go unheralded. Wu joined the Howard law school faculty in 1995, and through his writing and television appearances, he virtually became the public face of Howard’s law school. Wu has written more than 200 articles, which have appeared in such periodicals as the Washington Post, L.A. Times, Detroit Free Press, Baltimore Sun, Atlanta Journal & Constitution and Asian Week. Wu, an Asian American who is known as a bridge builder between racial and ethnic communities, is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, which was published in 2002.  

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