Paternalism and Temple’s Enduring Black Studies Crisis

Ibrahm RogersIbrahm Rogers

Back in November, I blogged on the crisis in the Department of African-American Studies (DAAS) at Temple University. I would like to update you on what happened.

In the summer of 2012, Teresa Soufas, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, rejected the department’s nomination for chair, distinguished dance professor Kariamu Welsh, to replace retiring long-time chair, Nathaniel Norment. It was a bitter pill for the department to swallow. Then, allegedly, the dean denied the department’s request for a line to hire an outside chair (a denial the dean said never happened). To top it off, Soufas placed the department in receivership, and appointed as interim chair, Jayne Drake, a White vice dean with no background in African-American studies.

In effect, as the doctoral program celebrates its 25-year anniversary, the department sits in the dreaded receivership, with no autonomy.

I discussed this situation in my November blog, a blog instigated by the activism of DAAS graduate students, who publicized the crisis and demanded, among other things, a national search for a new chair for fall 2013. In the aftermath of the national firestorm of concern about this crisis in this nationally renowned African-American studies department, Soufas stood steadfast in her decision.

“One of my responsibilities is to pick the right person to chair the department,” she told Diverse in December. “Dean Drake brings enormous administrative skills to the job and is the right person at this time. I would do it again.”

Soufas qualified this statement by stressing her appointment is only temporary, and a search will soon begin to hire a senior scholar. She also told Inside Higher Ed that based on the university’s funding approval timeline, fall 2014 is the earliest the department could add a new senior professor.

I walked away from this controversy in late 2012, and I’m sure other concerned DAAS alumni and members of the Black Studies community walked away from the controversy, disturbed the department had to be governed directly by the dean’s office for a year or two.

As this year began, I was under the impression the department would be in receivership for two years at the most, and in the fall of 2013, DAAS professors would conduct a national search to select their next chair. Maybe I am naïve, but I thought an outside search was a no-brainer. The department has lost two senior professors to retirement in the last year, and Soufas even told Inside Higher Ed, “they didn’t have somebody within their own group to choose.”

I was wrong. Two weeks ago, DAAS professors were told they had to select their next chair, internally. What happened to the national search?

I and other alumni are now reeling in frustration — incomparable to the frustration of students and faculty at Temple — since the department has been disallowed from conducting a search for a chair. I am reeling in frustration because I am not confident the professors’ nomination will be appointed. There could be a second rejection and imposition in successive years, an act almost unheard of in an academia where professors hang their hats on their academic freedom, and where deans (usually scholars themselves) hang their hats on organizing, preserving and enriching that academic freedom.

This ordeal boils down to the age-old struggle of faculty for academic freedom. However, it is hard to not see the situation in racial and paternalistic overtones. The department is made up of mostly Blacks (for the study of Blacks from their perspective for their advancement), and a White dean dismisses the wishes of these Blacks, and then, the kicker, imposes another White dean unschooled in the discipline of Black Studies as chair. It is this White imposition on Black agency that is, and has always been, at the tragic nexus of American race relations. It is this belief that Whites know what’s best for Blacks and can lead them better than they can lead themselves that is, and has always been, the guiding idea of American paternalism.

This simmering situation does not have to boil over. I am hoping for a reasonable outcome: the appointment of the department’s elected pick as chair, or moreso giving the department a line to conduct a national search for the next chair. I know that a second rejection and White imposition on these professors would not go over well with students, faculty, alumni, North Philadelphians and concerned members of the Black studies community around the nation, who, like me, heard about the crisis from students this past weekend at the National Council for Black Studies annual conference.

In a “free” academy, I have the right to critique. I have the right to care about the future of the department that trained me. I have the right to aspire, and I am aspiring for an outcome based on reason and cooperation. I want to see Temple University value academic freedom, not academic paternalism, not consistent dictations to a department against its will to purportedly help it. As my doctoral program celebrates 25 years, it should be moving freely forward on the back of its professors. I will let you know what happens next, what course Temple takes.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana studies at University at Albany — SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Follow on Twitter at @DrIbram