Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, the prominent African American scholar known for his writings on hip hop and African American life and culture is heading to Georgetown University in the fall, where he will hold the distinguished rank of University Professor—the highest position that a faculty member can have at the nation’s oldest Catholic university.
But some university officials at the University of Pennsylvania, where Dyson has held the Avalon Professor of Humanities since 2002, said that they didn’t even know that the 49-year-old scholar was leaving.
“The conversation that I am having with you is the most extensive conversation that I’ve had with anyone about Michael,” said Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, the director of Penn’s Center for Africana Studies, commenting to a reporter after he was told that Dyson had accepted a position at Georgetown. “I don’t talk to him very much.”
Minutes later, Zuberi logged onto Dyson’s website to find out that Dyson—who was scheduled to teach a class at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall– had already changed his bio, replacing the University of Pennsylvania with Georgetown University as his place of employment.
“This is news to me,” said Zuberi, who has been at Penn for 19 years. “Professor Dyson is definitely a unique scholar. He is a great celebrity and people really look forward to the books that he writes and people really do read them. I wish him all the best in his endeavors at Georgetown University.”
Diverse first contacted Dyson several weeks ago after receiving an advance copy of his latest book “Know What I Mean? Reflection on Hip Hop,” scheduled to be released next month. On the cover of the book, Dyson is named as a Georgetown University Professor. At the time, Dyson said that he was in negotiations with Georgetown University and could not comment until the deal was official.
Several weeks later, a few websites including his own, listed Dyson at Georgetown instead of the University of Pennsylvania. When contacted by Diverse again, Dyson promised a phone interview later in the week but could not be reached for comment.
The fact that Zuberi doesn’t communicate very often with Dyson and has not even been notified that he is leaving the university is odd considering that he recruited the black intellectual from DePaul University in 2002 where he was the first Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor, a teaching post that he only held for three years.
Before heading to DePaul, Dyson taught at Columbia University, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
In 1999, a search committee at Vanderbilt University unanimously recommended that Dyson be named to head up the university’s Black studies program. But in an unusual move, the Vanderbilt dean refused to make the appointment. It is unclear why he rejected the search committee’s recommendation.
The fact that Georgetown University is Dyson’s fifth teaching job within a decade has some faculty members at the Jesuit institution privately expressing some concerns about his future. Some have also said that the process that Georgetown used to appoint Dyson—who is scheduled to teach Theology, English and African American Studies—to the top faculty post was done without much faculty input.
“I think it’s a bonus for Georgetown to have someone with his experience to join us,” said Dr. Diana L. Hayes, a professor of Theology and one of the university’s few tenured African American professors. “The faculty was not told about Dyson until after the fact. . . that did catch us by surprise. It would have been nice if they had consulted the faculty, particularly the African American faculty.”
Still, Hayes thinks that Dyson, an ordained Baptist preacher, who has also written controversial books about a wide range of topics including Dr. Martin Luther King’s infidelity and a critique of Bill Cosby rhetoric, could bring visibly to Georgetown’s growing African American Studies program. His best-selling books “Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur” and “Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Love and Demons of Marvin Gaye” have appealed to readers outside of the academy.
“I think this is a big step forward for Georgetown,” said Hayes, who has never met Dyson but is curious about why he wanted to come to Georgetown. “I hope that he is willing to sit down and meet with faculty members.”
Currently, Georgetown has several University Professors, a rank that enables the professor to teach across several disciplines. Deborah Tannen, the high-profile linguist, is included among this distinguished cohort.
Scholars like Raymond A. Winbush, who directs the Institute for Urban Affairs at Morgan State University, a historically Black college in Baltimore, does not fault Dyson and other Black intellectuals who regularly move between colleges and universities. He only wishes that scholars like Dyson would bring their celebrity status to one of the nation’s HBCUs.
“I’m happy for Mike. I just think we have to invest as much as we can in our black colleges,” said Winbush. “I truly believe that good scholarship can be expressed at any institution.”
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