A target in the 1990s culture wars, Temple’s venerable African American studies department enters its third decade beset by a lingering faculty rift.
Since completing his Ph.D. in African American studies at Temple University in 1998 and joining the Howard University Afro-American studies department in 2001, Dr. Greg Carr has helped steer about a dozen Howard students to Temple’s graduate program in African American studies. Carr’s advocacy underscores his conviction that the Black studies program at Temple remains among the best in the academy.
“What students have at Temple is the ability to extend themselves intellectually and the space to pursue the development of the discipline,” Carr says.
At San Diego State University, Dr. Adisa Alkebulan, a Ph.D. alumnus of Temple’s African American studies department, has also advised and steered students to the Temple program. But in recent years he has grown hesitant to do so because he believes the department’s leadership has not fought for a coherent and sustainable vision for Black studies that ensures respect and adequate institutional support for students and faculty.
“I’m struggling with whether or not to continue to encourage students to go to Temple because current students are having a very difficult time because of the lack of leadership, because of the lack of support from the college and university. I’m very troubled by the state of the department,” says Alkebulan, associate professor of Africana studies at San Diego State University and executive director of the Diopian Institute for Scholarly Advancement.
It’s been 21 years since the nation’s first Ph.D. program in African American studies was established at Temple University. One of only 10 university departments in the U.S. that trains doctoral students in Black studies, the Temple program is the top producer of Ph.D. recipients in the field with 160 doctoral graduates, according to department chair Dr. Nathaniel Norment.
“Many of the people that we have produced have been hired to help develop programs and departments and to bring that foundation of the discipline to particular programs,” Norment says.
This fall semester, Dr. Amy Glocke, an African American studies Ph.D. graduate in 2008, joined the faculty at the University of Wyoming as a visiting professor to help turn the African American studies program into a department that will grant undergraduate degrees and offer a Black studies minor for graduate students.
“I was hired here because my training at Temple was valued because I had been in a department where the discipline was well developed,” she says.
For his part, Dr. MolefiKete Asante, the African American studies Ph.D. program founder and a leading theorist of Afrocentric theory, expresses pride over the impact the graduate program in African American studies is having in Black studies. He estimates as many as 25 Ph.D. recipients from the Temple program, such as Carr, head Black studies departments at their respective institutions. Seven of 22 editorial board members of the Journal of Black Studies are Temple graduates. And a third of the board members of the National Council for Black Studies have Temple affiliations, according to Asante.
“The golden years were the very early years, 1988 to 1994,” says Asante, the former department chair. “We’ve produced a lot of graduates. And they’re all over the world.”
Adds Dr. Ama Mazama, an associate professor and a longtime member of the Temple African American studies department:
“Those were wonderful years. It was a scholar’s dream.”
And while it’s a sign of the program’s maturity that its Ph.D. graduates are leading Black studies departments around the U.S., Asante and Mazama claim that the university has seriously shortchanged the department since the late 1990s.
Origins of a Rift
Asante and Mazama charge that after Asante’s run from 1984 to 1996 as department chair, Norment and former chair Dr. Joyce A. Joyce have allowed the department to decline by compliantly accepting diminishing support for graduate students and department facilities. One sore point has been the diminished number of full-time faculty. Asante and Mazama say during the 1990s the department had as many as 14 tenured and tenure-track professors; the current total is seven.
“Both of these chairs have been generally referred to as being nonassertive, weak and who have also collaborated with the administration in terms of the department losing its space and its resources. Basically, we have lost faculty offices; we’ve lost student lounges; we’ve lost conference rooms; and we’ve certainly lost faculty,” Asante says.
“Basically, what I see is the decimation, the destruction of a very beautiful program,” he adds.
In contrast to Asante’s view of his successors, Norment’s tenure as chair has been described in news stories and by former students as a period of rebuilding in the aftermath of Joyce’s chairmanship.(Diverse was not able to reach Joyce for comment.) A veteran scholar noted for his work in African-American literature and vernacular language studies, Norment joined the Temple faculty in 1989 and the African American studies department in 1992. He became the department chair in 2001.
“I think we’re in a better position than we have been in 10 or 15 years,” Norment says.
The Tennessee native inherited a department that had a divided faculty since Asante resigned as chair in 1996. News accounts say a rift arose among faculty members, some of whom opposed Joyce as chair because it was believed the university had backed her in an effort to undermine the department’s Afrocentric focus. At the time, Asante had stepped down as chair after coming under fire on charges that he had misappropriated a professor’s work for a book.
Mazama, who filed a successful lawsuit charging the university had improperly acted to ensure Joyce’s appointment, says the university’s interference then marked one of numerous efforts to marginalize faculty members who were committed Afrocentrists. During Joyce’s tenure, which was marked by student protests and bitter faculty fights, several faculty left the department, reducing its number by half.
Norment concedes that the faculty rift has played a role in the department’s efforts to reach consensus on potential hires. This school year, the department, after a prolonged two-year search, added Dr. Heather Thompson, a historian who also has an appointment in the history department. The joint appointment is said to be a first for the African American studies department, which, since Asante’s time, wanted its faculty committed only to the Black studies discipline in terms of academic appointments.
“Since I’ve been chair we’ve been authorized to make at least six hires, and it was internal (disputes) rather than the university that prevented us from fulfilling those positions,” Norment explained.
“The university’s been committed to building the department, and the dean, the provost and the previous president have said this and they have provided us with positions.”
Affront to Afrocentricity?
Asante says the Thompson appointment, which was opposed by him and Mazama, represents the most recent effort by the department and the university to marginalize Afrocentricity as a theoretical foundation for Black studies and the basis around which the Temple department has been organized.
Under Asante’s direction, Afrocentricity, or Afrocentric theory, provided the intellectual foundation for Temple’s African American studies department and the graduate program launched in 1988. Asante, an author of 70 books, defined Afrocentricity as a theory that gave prominence to African-centeredness, or the idea that one’s world view could be constructed through knowledge and norms originating from an African context.
Many Western scholars in the 1990s found fault with Afrocentric ideas, particularly the historic interpretation of ancient Egyptian society contributing directly to the development of Greek culture and Western civilization.
While scholars have not found fault with all Afrocentric scholarship, much of what the public understands about Afrocentricity has been shaped by the books and articles that have examined the most provocative Afrocentric works, observers note. One classicist, Dr. Mary Lefkowitz, gained considerable attention for attacking Afrocentrism in Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History.
From the start of his efforts to develop graduate programs in African American studies, Asante says he faced intense opposition from Temple faculty. “It was a hard push and it was constant.There were a lot of fights,” he says. “I was fighting all the time with the various committees within the university. And I was fortunate because I had at that time a president, Peter Liacouras, who was very supportive. I had also a provost who was very supportive, and I had a supportive executive vice president who later became president of Howard University.”
On the Thompson appointment, Asante says, “It represents a great breach. … The impetus of this has to be with the chair of the department and the dean of the college who basically encouraged this kind of action, which is an attempt to undermine the Afrocentric perspective.”
Asante says a department committed to building its discipline must have its faculty committed only to that department because dual appointees are not fully invested in building the emerging discipline on its own terms.
“My argument has been if we’re going to create a discipline of Black studies, African American studies or Africana studies, then we have to train people in our special language, our special methodologies, and our special theories. We can’t simply be biting off of the people in history or biting off of the people in sociology even though most of us will have had our degrees in those fields,” Asante says.
Norment offered the perspective that while Afrocentricity has been the theory for which Temple’s program in African American studies is known, the department has room for other Black studies theories and approaches.
“(Afrocentricity is) just one perspective and that’s what we’ve been about. … But we have a person that teaches from a historical perspective; we have someone who teaches from a sociological one,” Norment says. “Any mode of inquiry that’s functional within analyzing and interpreting the African-American experience is what we need to provide to our students.”
Dr. Teresa Soufas, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Temple, wrote in an e-mailed response to Diverse that it wasn’t her position to “have any bias toward one particular theory.”
“There are many different theories, and we always welcome vigorous debate,” she says.
“Temple’s African American studies department is a pioneer in the field and we’re very proud of its contributions and leadership.The college and university are absolutely committed to the growth of the department and it has our full support.”
Despite a divide still looming over matters such as faculty searches and hiring, the department has maintained solid enrollments in its undergraduate and graduate programs, according to Norment.
“We are the largest – both undergraduate and graduate – program in the country,” Norment says of the 1,800 to 2,000 students each semester who take courses, the 85 undergraduates majoring in Black studies and the 35 master’s and Ph.D. students.
He notes that Temple, unlike many other universities, funds a limited number of its Ph.D. students and does not provide any fi- nancial support for its students in the master’s program.
Norment has taken the view that Temple continues to benefit from its position of having been the first Black studies graduate program to offer the Ph.D. He says at the time there was considerable pent-up demand for a Ph.D. program in African American studies and Temple benefited for almost a decade of getting the most talented students entering the field during those years. Not until 1996 did the University of Massachusetts, Amherst approve its Black studies Ph.D. program, the second U.S. institution to do so.
“There was a cohort of people, students, who were interested in the field, in the discipline. And my understanding is that there were hundreds of applications from top students from all universities in the initial cohorts,” Norment says. “I think the fact that it was the first was the primary attraction, and, as a result, Asante’s concept of Afrocentricity was popularized at that time.”
Norment wants Temple’s African American studies department to contribute more to social policy and development. As chair, Norment led the effort to develop the Center for African American Research and Public Policy, which is affiliated with the department.
“I’m at a point in my old age that unless we are doing research that has some utility and is going to effect change in areas of the Black experience I don’t see the point of pursuing it any longer,” Norment says. “We have much, much scholarly, intellectual and theoretical research, and whether you create an applied Black studies or critical Black studies I think we need to be doing things that’s going to affect the lives of African-American people. That’s a challenge I see not only for African American studies at Temple but for the discipline as a whole.”