Claflin University is recruiting young scholars for a new institute focused on the study of African-American history and culture in the South. The institute hopes to become a voice to shape public policy on issues affecting Black Americans.
The Jonathan Jasper Wright Institute for the Study of Southern African American History, Culture and Policy is the first of its kind, says Dr. Brian L. Johnson, the institute’s director.
“We want to bring to bear all of the university’s resources to create a cohesive group of young scholars,” he says. “This isn’t an exercise to see if it works, then we’d back out. We want it to be a permanent part of the fabric of Claflin University.”
Johnson adds that the research conducted at the institute will shape the debate around contemporary issues affecting Blacks and Whites. “The experience of White Southerners is intimately tied to Black culture,” he says.
During Reconstruction, Wright was chairman of Claflin’s law school after he resigned from the South Carolina Supreme Court. As the court’s first Black jurist and the first Black appellate court justice in the nation, Wright was hailed as a clear thinker who produced solid opinions.
Dr. George E. Miller III, Claflin’s vice president for academic affairs, says the institute’s mission is to follow Wright’s example.
The institute must produce well-researched and well-reasoned conclusions to place public policy in a historical context of the Southern Black experience, he says. “I don’t believe there is another institute that has that mandate.
“When you look at how policy-makers go to think tanks, we need a voice that speaks specifically to the issues that concern African-Americans,” Miller says. “We need an institute that speaks to the spectrum of views in the Black community.”
Approved this summer by Claflin’s board of trustees, Miller says the institute is part of university president Henry N. Tisdale’s long-term vision.
Claflin officials say they plan to draw between seven and 11 scholars to the think tank within five years. All will hold dual appointments in the institute and in an academic department, such as economics, public health and science. Johnson, who received his doctorate in English in 2003 from the University of South Carolina, joined Claflin in January. Adam Biggs, a doctoral candidate in the history of American civilization at Harvard University, is another recent hire. Although they will have dual appointments, Wright Institute fellows are expected to have reduced teaching loads, to allow them time to research and publish in their area of study.
Johnson says the institute can also serve as a useful tool to recruit faculty to the 1,900-student campus. “We have a strong suspicion that once people see this institute, they will want to come,” he says.
The effort to attract faculty, however, does not end with building a quality institute, Johnson says. Claflin must also disabuse prospective fellows of the higher incomes and potential academic celebrity that could await them at a major university.
At the core of the university’s recruitment effort is the message that good scholarship can exist at a mid-sized, historically Black campus. And if Claflin builds a quality institute staffed with talented junior scholars, he says, the money will come.
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