Vanderbilt Rising

University recruits Houston Baker and Hortense Spillers -- stars in black literary studies -- as part of major faculty hiring drive.
May 22, 2006

Vanderbilt University has been on a faculty hiring spree and is about to officially announce a series of moves that have been rumored in recent weeks in literary and black studies circles as extremely significant.

Houston A. Baker and Hortense Spillers -- each considered a leading figure in black literary studies nationally -- will be giving up endowed chairs at Duke and Cornell Universities, respectively, to take endowed slots at Vanderbilt. Also joining Vanderbilt's English department will be Charlotte Pierce-Baker, who will be based in women's studies and who is Baker's wife and currently teaches at Duke; Ifeoma Nwankwo, who is leaving an associate professorship at the University of Michigan and is an expert on African American and Caribbean literature; and Alice Randall, who will be a writer in residence and is best known for The Wind Done Gone, her parody novel of Gone With the Wind.

The hiring in black and literary studies comes in a year in which Vanderbilt has already announced numerous other senior faculty hires -- including a duo giving up tenure at Harvard Law School to create a law and economics Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt, a historian moving from Princeton University, and more.

The round of hires that will be announced in the next week build on recruitment over the last few years in both black studies and the English department that is seen as a repositioning of the university. Several young scholars have been hired in what was a very quiet black studies program and another search is under way there. In English, once seen as a traditional department best known for Southern literature, hires in recent years have included Joan Dayan, a specialist in Caribbean social and literary history who was recruited from the University of Pennsylvania; Vera Kutzinski, another scholar of the Caribbean and also of Latin America and the intersection of cultures across the Americas, who was recruited from Yale University; and Dana D. Nelson, whose work focuses on colonial literature and race and gender theory, a recruit from the University of Kentucky.

Many of the scholars will be involved in Vanderbilt's interdisciplinary programs, several of which focus on the Americas broadly defined. And multiculturalism and interdisciplinarity have been key qualities that the university has been seeking out.

"I think people see the opportunity at Vanderbilt to come in and not only make a difference in English but within a larger context," Gordon Gee, chancellor of Vanderbilt, said in an interview Friday.

Gee went personally to Durham to recruit the Bakers, was involved in several discussions with Spillers, and is currently involved in recruiting other professors. "I think it's very important for me to be personally involved," he said. "I think a major role for the university president in today's world is in faculty recruitment."

Several faculty members involved in recruiting there said that Gee has both presented an intellectual vision for intedisciplinary work and backed that up with the money needed to go after stars who would be giving up endowed chairs. They also said that there was a clear sense that Duke University's huge rise in stature during the last 20 years had a major push at the beginning from its English department and from that department's reputation for being out front on some key scholarly trends -- and that Vanderbilt was commited to a similar course. "At Vanderbilt, we're not just talking the talk, but making these incredibly great hires," said Tracy D. Sharpley-Whiting, director of the African American and Diaspora Studies Program.

Sharpley-Whiting's research topics range from Paris in the Jazz Age to women in hip hop and she said that the university is showing unusual willingness to embrace a range of multicultural work and minority scholars.

The latest round of recruits did not respond to messages seeking comment on their moves. Baker has been sharply critical of Duke's administration for its handling of the recent lacrosse scandal and Duke administrators have been unusually public in their anger over his criticism. Vanderbilt officials took pains to stress that the discussions with the Bakers were well advanced prior to the lacrosse scandal.

Jay Clayton, the English chair, called the new hires "extraordinary" and said that they represented a "next step" for the university's sense of the study of literature. While Vanderbilt would never abandon its commitment to the study of Southern literature or of British literature -- traditional strengths -- Clayton said that the scholars in the department and those joining "don't want to pretend that the old boundaries make sense." Southern literature can't be studied as if it is something separate from black literature, black literature can't be studied without looking at the Caribbean links, the Caribbean can't be studied in isolation from Latin American, and so forth.

"There's just a marvelous vision for interdisciplinarity here," he said. (Clayton's current work looks at the intersection between literary studies and biotechnology.)

Gee stressed that Vanderbilt's hiring is by no means over. Asked which departments have him involved in recruiting now, he named history, economics, psychology, biomedical engineering, physics and chemistry.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top