Cornell University Provost Blasted for Plan to Move Africana Center

Barely a year after celebrating the 40th anniversary of the trailblazing Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, the center’s faculty, students and staff are fighting to keep the center in its current form — as an independent entity.

A fiery debate has been brewing on the upstate New York campus ever since Provost W. Kent Fuchs announced last December that the center would no longer be autonomous but under the direction of the College of Arts and Sciences as of July 1, 2011. The resulting outcry has become so fierce that Fuchs is now considering reneging on his decision.

“I’ve made a decision, but I’m now taking input from everybody,” he says. “As I told the director of the Center: If there is ample evidence that the Center would be stronger by continuing to report to me instead of being part of a college, and that it’s best for the university, I’d be happy to change my mind.”

Alyssa Clutterbuck, a graduate student in the Africana Center and a member of the Save Africana Campaign, says students felt blindsided by the move.

“To just assume you know what’s best because you’re in a position of power we find that to be very paternalistic,” she says.

Faculty in the Center also expressed outrage that Fuchs made the decision  without reaching out to them. “You feel totally marginalized, totally devalued because nobody cares about talking to you,” says faculty member Dr. Carole Boyce Davies.

Fuchs says faculty members were part of a self-study of the program that led to his decision, and he maintains that Center Director Robert L. Harris was involved in discussions. Davies, however, says the move did not follow proper procedure. She says the faculty senate was “scandalized” by Fuchs’ decision, and responded by putting forth a motion for the provost to adhere to protocol.

“They were shocked that there was no discussion at all with us,” says Davies, adding that universities often hold meetings to ensure faculty buy-in before making significant administrative decisions.

Still, Fuchs is defending the way he handled the move and his decision.

The Cornell Institute for Public Administration, for example, formerly reported to him just as the Africana Center does, but he moved it under the College of Human Ecology to provide it with better administrative support.

Now that there are three fewer vice provosts and the deputy provost position was eliminated, Fuchs says he doesn’t have enough staff to adequately support the Center.

 “It’s an acknowledgment that we don’t have the capacity, and secondly that these programs deserve better academic support and administrative support than we are able to provide,” says the provost.

An external review of the Center and an internal review of his office led Fuchs to conclude that the Center needs to be moved to the College of Arts and Sciences.

While faculty had initially worried that the Center’s $2.3 million budget would be significantly diminished, Fuchs says it will be increased by more than 50 percent after the move, even considering $100 million budget cuts in the past two years.

“I knew there would be resistance to change, even if it meant an increase in the budget and providing more support,” he says. “This is the only program in which we are making a significant new investment.”

According to Davies, the College of Arts and Sciences is eager to bring the Center under its umbrella, knowing the Center’s substantial budget would likely come under their control. Dr. N’Dri Assié-Lumumba, who has taught at the Center for 20 years, believes that optimism may be misplaced.

“Financially, if Africana goes under Arts and Sciences, there will no longer be the guaranteed budget that comes from the central administration,” she says.

Another concern for the Center’s faculty is tenure. As part of the College of Arts and Sciences, future Center faculty would have to be taken in by another department in the college to receive tenure. Candace Katungi, an alum of the Center and a doctoral candidate in the history department, says new hires with graduate degrees in Africana studies will now have to approach the anthropology department or history department for a joint appointment.

Fuchs’ plan to add a doctoral program to the Center also has not been well received by Center faculty. Assié-Lumumba, for example, calls the plan “insulting” because faculty have been working to create a doctoral program at the Center for years now.

“I feel personally insulted by all this,” says Davies, echoing Assié-Lumumba. “This is not the way you make faculty of color feel welcome on the campus.”