High Jinks at Harvard
Overshadow Real Issues
If you haven’t heard about the flap between Harvard’s President Lawrence Summers and the institution’s University Professor Cornel West, you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere.
Taking a break from the war and Enron, the New York Times made the showdown into headline news, with every rambling hater in the world weighing in, including the mediocre Shelby Steele (whose publishing record hardly entitles him to call Cornel West anything but “sir,”) the Washington Post’s resident anti-affirmative action Richard Cohen, the sour Mary McGrory and the pugnacious Michael Meyers. Except for a wonderful piece from the Post’s Courtland Milloy, who opined there were hundreds of excellent Black studies scholars whose work is too often ignored, those commenting on this used the Harvard flap as an opportunity to “dis” Cornel West, African American studies, Black folks in higher education and Black folks in general. The grousing speaks of an ugly racial envy (even when the complainants are African American), the ancient desire for “happy to be here” Negroes who should sit at Harvard and be grateful to sit at Harvard. But the Harvard high jinks overshadow an array of more substantive issues.
What is the status of African American studies these days, not only at Harvard, but also at other institutions? Clearly Lawrence Summers is no Neil Rudenstine. Summers’ predecessor was determined to build a quality African American studies department, and provided Chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr. with the resources to build such a department. Summers has said he’s not writing any blank checks, and money will be harder to come by. If it is hard to come by at Harvard, what is happening elsewhere?
What is the status of African American studies scholarship? Who is producing cutting-edge work? And when will the press get over their “Black Man of the Month” phenomenon and pay attention to some of the work that others are doing? By others, incidentally, I’m not talking about Randall Kennedy and his “N-word” book. Actually, if Summers wants to call a Harvard faculty member into his office for a little chastising, he might try talking to Kennedy of Harvard’s law school. Where is the substantive scholarship in a treatise on one of the most despicable words in the English language?
What is the status of affirmative action on campuses these days? Richard Cohen used the Harvard case to opine that it is time to eliminate affirmative action. But with African American students still scarce on far too many campuses (not to mention the number of African Americans absent from so many labor forces), affirmative action still has a necessary place. Indeed, while the headlines have focused on the showdown between Lawrence Summers and Cornel West, the fact is that the African American faculty also was concerned that Summers has shown an insufficient commitment to affirmative action, a matter they were pushing him on. He seems to have offered more responsiveness than he did last fall, indicating his support for diversity. To focus on the personal aspects of the Harvard high jinks moves us away from serious conversation about and efforts toward fair representation in higher education and in the workplace.
On the affirmative action front, it is exciting that Shirley Wilcher, former director of the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, is leading Americans for a Fair Chance, a Washington-based pro-affirmative action organization. Beginning with a press conference on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and continuing with an ambitious public awareness program, Wilcher says it is her goal to fight attacks on affirmative action and to remind us why it is important.
Who will be the African American studies professors of the future? That depends on the pipeline, on the status of Black graduate students? In the past month, I’ve had at least three conversations with young African American women who have been frustrated in their doctoral studies.
Now frustration goes along with advanced study, and there are at least two sides to every
story. But I find it hard to believe that the focused, disciplined, well-spoken young women whom I met deserve the kind of treatment they described. In one case, a woman was pushed out of a program she was succeeding in because of personality conflicts and lack of funds. In another case, a woman could not persuade a member of her faculty to serve as her dissertation adviser. In too many cases, African American students can’t find mentors to guide them through the landmine that is graduate study.
While controversy swirls at Harvard, dozens of African American studies faculty members do the work without the applause, acclaim or ability to take on their university’s president in national headlines.
Those of us who respect Cornel West and enjoy his work want him to have the justice he deserves at Harvard, and chafe at Lawrence Summers’ high-handed arrogance and the racial resentment it provoked in the media. At the same time, we want the spotlight on African American studies to be focused both more broadly and in a more balanced way. Black faculty confront equity issues at campuses around the country, and Black students are suffering from lack of attention. Why won’t some of the columnists who have opined about West and Summers pay attention to Manning Marable’s magazine, Souls, at Columbia, or the work on diasporic studies that is taking place at the California State University at Dominguez Hills?
The media wants a controversy. Some of us want African American studies to thrive, at Harvard and elsewhere.
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