Harvard Takes a Hit

Leading expert on race and politics, returning to Chicago, is latest émigré from African-American studies department.
April 6, 2005

Three years ago, Michael C. Dawson surveyed his professional landscape and concluded that Harvard University offered the better view. So in 2002, he packed up and left his academic home in the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture for Cambridge, eager to join such luminaries in Harvard's government and African-American studies departments as Lawrence D. Bobo, K. Anthony Appiah, and Cornel West. He hoped it would be his last move.

Much can change in three years, and it has. Appiah, a philosopher, left for Princeton University in February 2002, days after Dawson arrived. West, a professor of religion, followed Appiah to New Jersey that July, citing his falling out the previous year with President Lawrence H. Summers.

And this January, Bobo, a sociologist with whom Dawson has conducted national surveys on racial attitudes and co-founded and co-edited DuBois Review: Social Science Research on Race, left for Stanford University with his wife, Marcyliena Morgan, a linguist who took her archive of hip-hop culture with her.

Citing those shifts and a set of "personal family matters," Dawson, who specializes in quantitative analysis of the intersection between public opinion, race and political theory, has decided to return to Chicago as of July 1, the university announced Tuesday. He will be a professor of political science, and his wife, Alice Furumoto-Dawson, will become a researcher in a Chicago center that studies early-onset breast cancer among African-American women.

"Harvard has changed radically for someone with my research interests since I accepted its offer in 2002," Dawson said in an interview Tuesday. "Four of the people I hoped to work with" have left. That's a "relatively small" proportion of the faculty in Harvard's African-American studies program, Dawson said, "but of the people who I came to work with, it's a significant fraction."

The Chicago center on politics and race, meanwhile, has "expanded tremendously since I left," Dawson added.  "The university has continued to aggressively recruit throughout the humanities and social sciences, and it has improved not only the study of African-Americans, but of race more generally. There's an exciting core of senior people at the top of their fields and bright young stars."

Dawson took pains to say that he thought Harvard's Department of African and African-American Studies "is in very good shape and about to enter new and exciting period."

"I expect it to grow and achieve even greater prominence than it has now. But for my specific interests," he said, "the situation has changed."

Officials in Harvard's African-American studies department could not be reached for comment. William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard's main undergraduate college, said in a prepared statement: "I am of course saddened to lose a scholar of Michael Dawson's stature. He is an eminent political scientist and he has played an important role in two Harvard departments. I hate to lose him to another great university. I wish Michael nothing but the best and every success on his return to Chicago."

For their part, officials at Chicago were gleeful. "Michael Dawson has been the key scholar in deepening our understanding of race in relation to politics in the United States," Mark Hansen, the Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science and dean of Chicago's social sciences division, said in a news release. "It is both a professional and a personal pleasure to welcome one of my closest colleagues back home again. The whole campus is buoyed by his return."


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