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Columbia Professor Latest High-Profile Defection

Columbia Professor Latest High-Profile Defection 
Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley heads West as the University of Southern California
makes push to hire senior-level scholars
By Jamal Eric Watson

Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, one of the country’s most prominent Black intellectuals, is leaving Columbia University to join the University of Southern California as a joint professor of history and American studies and ethnicity.

In an age when universities are aggressively courting high-profile Black professors, sometimes offering them lucrative salaries and other perks, Kelley’s departure is just the latest in a string of recent high-profile job moves.

Kelley’s departure from Columbia was the result of USC’s Senior Faculty Hiring Initiative, a drive to bring 100 leading senior-level scholars to the university. But he says his treatment at Columbia made the decision easy. Frustrated by not being able to secure a permanent home in the university’s history department, Kelley was more than receptive when USC came calling.

“The reality is that the history department at Columbia didn’t want me,” he says, despite the national recognition he received for his books, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression and the collection of essays in Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class.

“Here I am at an Ivy-League institution, and the senior faculty didn’t think my work was sufficiently historical,” says Kelley, who was appointed to Columbia’s anthropology department and the Institute for Research in African American Studies. Kelley came to Columbia in 2003 after Dr. Manning Marable, one of Columbia’s highest profile professors, lured him away from New York University. 

In accepting the position at USC, Kelley is giving up his endowed chair at Columbia. “At this point in my life, my own happiness and psychic peace is much more important than an endowed chair,” he says.

Kelley is the latest big name faculty member to be lured away from an African-American studies program. Several Black faculty, including Drs. Cornel West, K. Anthony Appiah, Marcyliena Morgan and her husband, sociologist Lawrence Bobo, all left Harvard University within the past five years. West and Appiah went to Princeton University, while Morgan and Bobo headed to Stanford University. Dr. Michael C. Dawson, a political scientist who left the University of Chicago for Harvard in 2002, chose to return to Chicago three years later.

At USC, Kelley will teach in both the history and American studies departments, which place a major emphasis on the study of race and ethnicity. He says that, unlike other colleges, USC has made a commitment to ethnic studies and has pumped resources into hiring some of the nation’s most talented faculty. The department has also been politically active in issues ranging from affirmative action to immigration. 

“There are so many reasons why USC is attractive to me,” says Kelley, who earned his master’s in African history and his doctorate in U.S. history from the University of California, Los Angeles. “USC is doing a lot more with the Latino and poor Black community. They are reaching out to the community in ways that Columbia is not. Columbia is trying to buy up Harlem.”

Officials from Columbia did not return repeated calls for comment on Kelley’s departure.

The larger problem with the university, Kelley says, is that the Institute for Research in African American Studies does not have departmental status or the power to hire its own faculty.

Though the university currently offers a master’s in African-American studies, its faculty all hold joint appointments.

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, who now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, was forced to leave Columbia after being unable to secure a tenured position in another department.

It will be a while before USC students see Kelley in the classroom. He is taking a one-year leave to complete a biography of seminal jazz musician Thelonious Monk. USC houses the Thelonious Monk Institute, a jazz education program headquartered at the university’s Thornton School of Music.

“Robin Kelley’s imaginative and forceful brand of history has provided inspiration to almost a generation of graduate students and established scholars,” says Dr. Joseph Aoun, dean of USC’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Students in the college will benefit from his enthusiasm for teaching and his depth of knowledge.”

At the age of 32, Kelley became one of the youngest full professors in the United States in 1994. Before moving to Columbia, he had been chair of the history department and professor of history and Africana studies at New York University. Kelley had also taught at the University of Michigan, where he was a professor of history, African-American studies and American culture, and last year he spent a semester at Harvard University’s Institute for African and African American Research.
 Still, he remains skeptical of Ivy League institutions.

“There’s a whole generation of young people who are taught that it is better to be at Harvard or one of the Ivy League schools,” he says. “That is just not true.”

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